LaTeX for PhD students

Today, I decided to finally publish some thoughts on why I think PhD students can profit from using LaTeX. In this post, I try to avoid common not-all-that-creative reasons and point you to some aspects you might not yet have thought about like the fact that your PhD thesis will yield two PDF outputs with (more or less) the same content but very distinct different formatting requirements. Enter LaTeX.

1 PhD = 2 (!) print outputs, i.e. thesis print and printed book publication

Typesetting your PhD in LaTeX is a good idea because of the citation management, for formulars and for images. You probably already know that. But another aspect a lot of people tend to forget while writing their PhD thesis is that a thesis will usually result in two different output PDFs with different typesetting needs: The thesis to be handed in at your university and the print publication which follows. But these two usually have some important differences in requirements. Like a thesis print will probably be a4 or letter paper, a font size of 12pt, etc. A print publication almost always has a smaller paper size and thus, a smaller font size. In my case, this was: paperwidth=170mm, paperheight=240mm and 11pt. Where as a4paper is 210:270, as far as I remember. If you take this into account beforehand, you can save yourself a lot of work and trouble. Also, it’s not like you will suddenly have tons of free time in the time after the PhD writing, probably the opposite. You don’t want to make that even harder by placing another unnecessary burden on yourself.

Already here, LaTeX really pays of. Just change two settings. That’s basically less than 10 characters (!) in your main.tex. If you don’t have to make other changes, that is. Well, you get what I mean. Whereas in MS Word, this can be a lot of effort since quotes probably have a different text size and unless you use the “Standard” predefined templates which you can then change, this can take you a while. Also, it probably often happens to people who don’t reflect on the typesetting while writing (which, after all, will occur long after the writing, so we don’t yet give it a lot of thought) that you don’t consistently use those templates and thus, will have to change or at least check everything manually. With LaTeX, you don’t. Isn’t this enough of a point for LaTeX already? But behold, we have more.


Typesetting concerns like orphans and widow lines

Another thing for producing nice typesetting: A (respectable) publisher will usually ask you to take care of orphans and widow lines. In a 300 page MS Word document, you will probably end up having to do this all manually which usually entails all sorts of horrible consequences you hadn’t even dreamt about this far. While this problem cannot be fully automated in LaTeX, you have the possibility of adding this simple statement to your preamble:

\setlength{\emergencystretch}{.25em} % avoid line overflow
\clubpenalty10000\widowpenalty10000\displaywidowpenalty=10000% avoid widow lines and orphans

This, supposing that you have included all the languages you use with \usepackage[ngerman,english]{babel} (for example, last one is the one active), will avoid most line overflows.

A problem that you, admittedly don’t have in MS Word but do have in LaTeX. But more important is the following line. There, we add to the internal ‘penalties’ which LaTeX has, thus preventing orphans and widow lines quite effectively. Maybe you’ll still have to correct one or two things. But one or two things in the whole document, speaking of a document wihch basically handles itself, is not that much of a big deal. In MS Word, calculate to sit down for a few hours. Thus, yet another plus for LaTeX: less grey hair and more time for work-life-balance. Isn’t it amazing?


Another plus: Relative and absolute positioning

It’s always better to use relative positioning and values and also, leave litterally everything up to LaTeX. Thank me later. For some info on relative and absolute sizing, consult the upcoming post LaTeX for Archaeologists: Typeset your PhD catalogue in LaTeX post.


The (lack of) comment function: A workaround

A possible down-side for LaTeX is that advisors often like to use the comment function in MS Word to correct and comment your work in progress. This, I personally have solved by converting it to MS Word using Pandoc and then uploading it to GoogleDocs for my advisor to make corrections. These have to be put back into the original by hand, of course. But you need to proof-read multiple times anyway, so I reckon it doesn’t make much of a difference. It’s a wee bit inconveniant, is all.

But… LaTeX is scary?! On common concerns

If the prospect of first “having to learn complicated LaTeX” sacres you, you might want to check my article on The power of simplicity, or: Why LaTeX needn’t be scarily complicated. If you think LaTeX will slow you down, you might want to check my post on typing fast in LaTeX. But then again, when writing highly qualitative work (like your dissertation should be), it might even be better if your writing slows you down a little. Pause to reflect!

Transition to LaTeX and get a life. A manifesto

“Well, at some point, LaTeX really had more features than Word but nowadays, I don’t see why you should bother using it anymore.” That’s a typical counter-argument, a justification why people don’t use LaTeX and don’t see why it’s worth the effort to learn it and finally make the transition. To this, I want to say: Well, can it do this? Hint: no. I rather suggest you don’t even try. Well at least, don’t hold me accountable if you should try and fail.

If you don’t see why using LaTeX would benefit you, maybe you just haven’t heard the facts yet? And well, probably you aren’t an archaeologist with 1 million images in a 500-page PhD thesis. If you are, don’t commit suicide just yet. There are other ways than Word. If your thesis document won’t even open anymore, don’t despair. Just convert it to LaTeX! And, thank me later.

Citation styles

LaTeX offers citation support. It’s basically a lot like Citavi or Zotero, only less complicated. Not that I have a lot experience with those, I do admit it. But the principle is the same. LaTeX and Bibtex seem complicated at first. But you’re most certainly just so conditioned and accustomed to MS Word workflows that you don’t remember anything else. And what we don’t know, we fear. But you need not fear, LaTeX is here for you.

A tutorial and more info on this will follow in a separate post.

Yes, LaTeX will throw warnings and errors. It’s not a big deal, really.

People are put off by the fact that you can get warnings or fatal compilation errors. Well yeah, it’s inconvienent to have to debug your own bullshit but well, sorry to have to break it to you, that’s life. Would you rather have a program that doesn’t complain there is a mistake, subsequently hide the problem from you entirely but just stop working for inexplicable reasons and you have no way of escaping? Wait, yes, maybe you do. It’s called MS Word.

You’re not a qualified typesetter

LaTeX is an art. It’s supposed to be an art. Typesetting is an art. And if you haven’t learned to be a typesetter, you probably are not and thus, should not act as a professional typesetter. But MS Word, one hell of a program (and I mean this litterally), makes you believe that you are or you could. It even suggests you should. Hint: You shouldn’t. And in your heart, you really know that’s true.

How to transition from an existing MS Word document or LaTeX-ify your workflow

  1. Migrate your document. (Oxgarage, Pandoc, you name it. Read how to do this in my post on who to quit MS Word).
  2. Continue writing in Word and transform your stuff to LaTeX before adding the images and thus, killing Word for good. Why the hell would anyone want to continue using MS Word? But hey, my opinion isn’t the truth. It’s just my opinion. Do what works for you. If it contains LaTeX, all the better. The LaTeX Noob uses this workflow and it seeems to work for her. Kind of like a “the best of the two worlds” compromise. You get the parts where MS Word is conveniant (letting your advisor use the comment function, etc.), but the typesetting and image handeling is done in LaTeX.
  3.  Just write it in LaTeX. It’s just a question of getting used to it. Using it exclusively will give you just that. Even though I had been using LaTeX for years, transitioning completely made me quite a bit better still. I now also write quick notes in LaTeX without batting an eyelash. Sometimes I still use a GoogleDoc to write things down that are just meant for note-taking, not for creating PDF output.

I will follow up with a post on citation styles and how to import your Citavi to BibTeX, etc. Until then, consider looking up some of my already existing posts which might be of interest, like Jumpstarting: Learn LaTeX in 3 minutes  or A Humanities’ seminar paper with LaTeX – in 10 minutes or How to quit MS Word for good.


your Ninja

Further resources

The not-so-short intro, also available in German. Tobias Oetiker, Hubert Partl, Irene Hyna & Elisabeth Schlegl: The Not So Short Introduction to LATEX 2ε. Or LATEX 2ε in 139 minutes. Version 6.2, February 28, 2018

A Survival Guide for a PhD: Quote: “And I’ll even print out the occasional paper and use a red pen. ” yep, good idea. I thought that was actually very sensible advice 😉 (The Scientific Paper: A Template with Tips for Working with LaTeX)


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