What’s in a thesis title?

I received a letter from the university today, containing a form which is ominously entitled 'Completion Report for PhD Candidates'. I guess they are expecting to receive a thesis from me in the not too distant future!

One of the things I have to finalise is the title of the thesis. According to the form, it's currently called 'The Impact of Airpower on the British People, 1908-1939'. That's the bland title I picked more than 4 years ago, when I only had the vaguest idea of what I wanted to do, and it's clearly influenced by -- or lifted from -- Alfred Gollin's classic The Impact of Airpower on the British People and their Government, 1909-14. I've had a better one -- or at least, more accurate one -- picked out for a while, but wasn't sure if it's what I'm going to go with. But I'm out of time, and haven't had any bright ideas, so I'm probably stuck with it now!

To my mind, a good title should be descriptive -- it should give some idea of what it's actually about. If it's intriguing and memorable, that's a bonus. With that in mind, here's my provisional title:

The Next War in the Air: Britain and the Bomber, 1908-1941

So straightaway, this tells you the period and geographical focus -- it's early twentieth century Britain. The words 'war', 'air' and 'bomber' show that it's about aerial warfare, specifically bombing. But the first clause as whole, 'the next war in the air', hopefully suggests that it's about anticipations of bombing more than the actual thing.

I think that's all fine. But I'm not sure about the next clause, 'Britain and the bomber'. Yes, the thesis can be described as a study of the relationship between Britain and the bomber. I also chose it because I like alittle alliteration, and because it's the title of an article I cite (as is 'the next war in the air'). And it's a nod to England and the Aeroplane, too. But is it promising too much? As a study of 'Britain and the bomber' it's missing many things, such as (for example) nearly everything the RAF did or said on the subject. Or the Air Ministry or the rest of the government. That's not a problem for the thesis (I hope!) because my subject is about popular, civilian, unofficial ideas about and responses to the threat of bombing, and there's plenty of excellent histories of British air policy and RAF doctrine already out there. But maybe it's a problem for the thesis title -- it doesn't get across the idea that I'm writing about the public sphere. I could tweak it a little, and say 'British society' instead of 'Britain', or something like that. I'm a sucker for a nice turn of phrase, though, and that would spoil the things I like about it ...

The other thing to remember is that nobody will read the damn thing anyway, so it doesn't really matter too much what I call it :)

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14 thoughts on “What’s in a thesis title?

  1. Chris Williams

    Hmm . . . it's a good title but I think that you're right to worry that doesn't narrow down your topic sufficiently. That title could also describe the work of Bialer or Powers. What about 'the British people and the bomber'? which alas knackers the EatA reference. 'Britons and the bomber'?

  2. Jakob

    Losing the full alliterative knockout blow, 'Britain and the fear of the bomber' would be perhaps more precise, but I think Chris's 'Britons and the Bomber' is a better suggestion.

  3. Erik Lund

    A semicolon.

    Thank you. I'll be here all week. The title I've always wanted to use (but won't) comes from a 1923 Jour. Roy. Aero. Soc. (which is before it became the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, if you're looking), discussing apprenticeship training in the RAF. The presenter concludes by saying "If I were young, I would run away to the air."
    Eh, seems more evocative after you've done a mass prosographic analysis and noted just how many of the British engineers who have obituaries in the Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. in 1930--55 "ran away to the sea" iin their youth.

  4. Chris Williams

    Erik, are you doing a massive database of engineers? I have a couple of friends who are working on a massive database of chemists who might be able to learn from you, and perhaps vice versa.

  5. JDK

    Hey, I'll read it, and I'll tell you what's wrong with it, too!

    And I'm also going to be here all week. Sorry.

    Intriguingly, I also thought adding 'fear' into the title would add the missing ingredient, just as Jacob suggests. So...

    'The Next War in the Air: Britain and the fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941'
    'The Next War in the Air: Britons fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941'

    Nearest I can get to a word for 'fear' beginning with 'b' is 'dread'. Sorry.

    It's a grear displacement game, isn't it? Works for me, too.

  6. '...: The Bomber in British Imagination, 1908-1941'
    Although that will get some pedantic examiner asking you if there can be such a thing as a national shared imagination, it reads more nicely than '... Britons' imaginations of the Bomber, 1908-1941'.
    I think it really is worth nailing down all this stuff. I spent a lot of my viva talking about whether it was possible to find historical 'reality' (rather than the research I'd done), because I didn't take enough care in how I'd expressed myself.

  7. Erik Lund


    No, I'm not working on my prosopography right now. The Unsolicited Manuscript of Doom has taken me in different directions, and basically it's a great folder of Proc.Inst.Mech.Eng. obituaries with lots of scratchmarks as I run through them eyeballing trends.

  8. Post author

    Thanks for all your suggestions! I'm persuaded that it is important to get it right (though at least we don't have vivas here!) and I will have to fix it. I think that if I have to change that exact phrase and hence most of the reasons why I like it, there's no need to replace it with something similar. I'm thinking something along the lines of:

    The Next War in the Air: British Fears of Strategic Bombardment, 1908-1941
    The Next War in the Air: British Popular Fears of Strategic Bombardment, 1908-1941
    The Next War in the Air: Civilian Fears of Strategic Bombardment in Britain, 1908-1941
    The Next War in the Air: Constructing the Fear of Bombing in Britain, 1908-1941

    Or maybe I could go for this after all:

    The Next War in the Air: The British People and the Bomber, 1908-1941

    In general I'd rather avoid using the word 'Britons', it never looks quite right to me. But if I can't think of anything better, I'm going to use the following!

    How Britons Learned to Start Worrying and Really Fear the Bomber

  9. Jakob

    I'd definitely go for your last one, but it depends on the sense of humour of your examiners...

    If you have no viva, do you just get written corrections from the panel?

  10. Post author

    I'm actually far too staid to pick that one :)

    Yes, just written corrections. It's a panel in name only, they'll never be in the one place. In fact they almost certainly won't even be from Australia (it's anonymous so I don't know who they'll be). I'm not sure why we don't have vivas here (I think some unis are introducing them) -- perhaps because we only have a small academic community and are so far from everywhere else, that it would be too difficult to assemble a panel of experts in a given topic here in person.

  11. I too think the last one is brilliant, and is definitely the short and sweet way of summing up the thesis. Of the 'sensible' ones, I'd go for 'The Next War in the Air: Civilian Fears of Strategic Bombardment in Britain, 1908-1941', since that gets you out of having to discuss the military planning, and avoids a semantic debate about what 'popular' means. How soon after that will you put the thesis online ;-)?

  12. George Shaner

    I dunno; I figure I'll read the sanitized-for-the-public version.

    I have no title suggestions, though the "How Britons..." would make a great subtitle for the book.

  13. Post author

    That's probably the one I am tending towards, Dan, although there's still a possible semantic confusion: civilian could just mean non-military and so include the government (Whitehall, Cabinet) ... which I don't!

    I suppose it will go online as soon as it's passed. (Touch wood.) The university has an e-publication thingy so it could go there for a start.

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