It’s that time: you’re finally thinking about writing your thesis. Well you’ve probably been thinking about it since the second you began your thesis, but now you’re actually thinking about the physical action of writing it. How will it look? What chapters will I need? How the heck am I going to write all those words?!

One thing that you may not be considering is what software to use to write it in. It’s a just a long document – so I’ll use Microsoft Word, right? The standard word processor for pretty much everyone. Wrong! In this post I am going to give you the pros and cons of an alternative – LaTeX (pronounced “lay-tech”).

I’m going to start off by being very honest. I hate Microsoft Word. I am a Mac user, but it’s not that. I’ve always struggled with Word. It’s always taken me a huge amount of fiddling to get anything near what I wanted, and I’ve never been totally happy with what I end up with. The thought of writing my entire thesis in Word made me almost vomit a little. (See? Brutally honest).

Luckily, I was working in a lab that had a ton of engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians. And they do things differently to us squishy biologist types. Someone casually mentioned this thing called “lay-tech” and then showed me a document they’d produced with it. It made my legs go a bit quivery. It was beautiful. The typesetting, the neatness, the simplicity. It even had equations in that looked NICE. Unheard of for Word. “How do I create such a thing?” I asked in awe.

Turns out, LaTeX is not like your average WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processor, like Word or Apple’s Pages. No. You write everything in plain text, and all the formatting comes from commands that you embed within that plain text. No more highlighting the bits you want in bold, no; just a simple \textbf{bold} is all you need. Italics? \textit{italics}. Job done.

Ok so admittedly that was not the best example to use… doing that for everything you want in bold or italics is actually a bit of a faff, and that is one of the easiest things to do in Word. But – images. This is where LaTeX excels.

You know when you’ve got everything sorted in Word just the way you like it, and then you drop an image in… and everything shifts. Your image decides to align itself to the very end of the page, or stick to the edge of some text, and all those lovely words that you put in the right places have just jumped around. So you fiddle about with it, many hours pass. You get it how you like it. You realise you need a second image – no problem! So you drop that in, and bang – it’s like someone literally shook up your computer and jumbled up all the text and images. The images are stuck on top of one another and won’t separate; or, they’re at the very top and very bottom of a page; or, the second image has completely replaced the first.

This scenario does not happen with LaTeX, which is fantastic for writing a thesis, or any academic document with plenty of figures. LaTeX has some magical typesetting and design algorithms which place the image in the location that it looks best on the page, closest to the actual place where you’ve inserted it. I’d say 95% of the time this works brilliantly – and in the other 5% of times where you really *need* the image to be in a certain place, there are workarounds to get past it.

And finding out about these workarounds is relatively easy. As with various coding languages, there is a fantastic online community of people ready to help out with LaTeX issues. The chances are that the solutions you’re looking for or the problem you’re facing has already been solved by someone – so just Google it and find out! And this is the kind of procrastination that is genuinely benefitting your thesis.

One of my favourite things about writing a thesis in LaTeX is the way the document is structured. You have a main file, which generates things like the title page, abstract, contents page… all that ‘extra’ stuff. And then each chapter is contained in a separate .tex file which links into that main file, which means that everything is separate and you don’t risk ruining everything by accidentally deleting everything in one document. I think there are fancy ways of linking files in Microsoft Word but I heard so many horror stories of them not working properly, I never wanted to find out…

In this main file you also set some of the overarching characteristics of the document – for example line spacing, the margin size, font size, what colour URLs should be, whether your work should be hyphenated or not, what your section and chapter titles should look like – all in this main document. So you want to know what your thesis would look like if all your chapter titles were in bright blue? You simply change one word in one command, and regenerate the document – it’s so easy. Don’t like it? Simply change it back. No need to go through each chapter and change it manually. This means that when you’re in the mood to and when time allows, you can tinker with the look of your thesis really easily.

That’s the whole philosophy of LaTeX – you focus on the content, and it handles the presentation. Yeah, it requires a bit of work beforehand to learn the commands, but really it is very simple and quite self explanatory, and really easy to pick up. If you’re a Word whizz and are comfortable using that, then absolutely knock yourself out – but if you’ve always found it less than perfect and a bit frustrating, I’d seriously recommend giving LaTeX a go. I tried it first on some shorter documents in the very early stages of PhD, so I was learning it ahead of the all-important thesis production, which worked well for me.

There are plenty of LaTeX thesis templates and tips out there: here and here and here. And the LaTeX Wiki is invaluable. Yes, it has its own foibles – depending on what software you use to run it there’s no spellcheck, for example, and you can become super distracted playing with the layout and presentation because it’s so easy to do – but for me, the benefits seriously outweighed the negatives.

Writing my thesis was a really fun and rewarding experience because of LaTeX – and that’s something I never thought possible!

Categories: Clutter


Jeremy · 26 June 2019 at 17:16

I began writing with LaTeX during my undergraduate degree, and it’s basically a must if you are in physics or mathematics. It really is great once you get past the learning curve.

One tip I would give is if you are not sure what the command for a certain symbol is (happens a lot in physics), I use the tool Detexify, which is a little online application that lets you draw the symbol, and it will give you the command. Very handy when I was first starting out!

Dan · 26 June 2019 at 21:47

I wrote my undergrad final year project in LaTeX back in 2003/04, and there are some WYSIWYG(ish) editors for it out there, though the actual code they produce can be a bit barmy so it becomes more awkward to get the 5% edge cases working the way you want when you have to manually poke stuff. It was great for image positioning and inserting mathematical functions though, and made for an easier start before I just moved on to writing it by hand.

However I will say that several of your examples are absolutely possible in Word. Changing the colour, font, etc of every chapter heading? That’s what the style options are for. You don’t change a specific chapter heading’s attributes, one at a time. You change the attributes of the ‘heading’ (or title, or paragraph, or whatever) style that you (should) have used for every chapter heading. It’ll also auto generate things like Table of Contents and such for you. I always thought that even basic LaTeX documents looked more ‘professional’, but once Word introduced the option to save as PDF I found that somehow (as long as I had chosen the same font etc) they looked just as good. It was very odd, as the document *should* have looked the same, and did when printed… But on screen the PDF version somehow seemed better.

Mathematical functions and image positioning though, that Word has always sucked at…

    Michelle Reeve · 1 July 2019 at 18:47

    You are quite right – I am sure that Word can do a ton more than I allowed myself to find out, I just got so annoyed with it to begin with that I didn’t have the patience to figure it out!

Stefanie · 27 June 2019 at 20:57

I wrote my entire PhD dissertation in LaTeX! I loved it. My committee was less than thrilled, but they coped, and mainly gave me comments on the pdf.

One particular part I found useful: I used Overleaf, an online LaTeX writing tool that can auto compile as you write. It has many other cool features, including sharing options. To me, it was incredibly helpful that I could work on my thesis anywhere, as long as I had an internet connection, and it was always the latest version.

Kristina · 28 June 2019 at 15:48

Thanks for the article and idea!
What did you use to manage your citations? I use Mendeley’s Write and Cite, which manages your references as you drop them in and organizes them when you generate the bibliography. Is there a feature or add on that can do something similar with LeTex?

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