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.

Best,

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

https://www.latex-tutorial.com/tutorials/

https://learnxinyminutes.com/docs/latex/

https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX

A Survival Guide for a PhD: http://karpathy.github.io/2016/09/07/phd/

https://www.quora.com/I-wrote-my-PhD-dissertation-in-LaTeX-but-my-advisor-told-me-it-needs-to-be-in-a-format-other-than-PDF-to-send-to-my-committee-members-He-says-it-is-too-difficult-to-make-comments-or-corrections-on-PDF-What-is-the-best-format-for-a-dissertation 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 😉

https://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/1756/why-should-i-use-latex

https://www.overleaf.com/project/5c42fa03a343e77a02003def (The Scientific Paper: A Template with Tips for Working with LaTeX)

 

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How do I get to do task XY for the first time at the job

Today I want to talk about how you convince others to let you do XY for the first time as an official job responsibility, even though you might not have experience or any formal training doing so. And also, why you have probably come across a situation where one of your colleagues has been chosen to do task XY and not you. Even though you are both equally qualification-less. Now you feel left out. New tasks are opportunities for growth you probably really need if you want to stay in academia. It is all the more detrimental that bosses often don’t take the personal/CV growth of their young colleagues into account and hardly ever give out those tasks strategically. You can end up the lucky one – or you end up left out.

 

Disclaimer: Again, as always, these are my personal opinions and they might not apply to your situation. Use your brain.

 

New skills are always needed in your institution

Especially in the Digital Humanities it can happen a lot that there suddenly is a demand for a certain skill at your institution that nobody has yet acquired. Then somebody gets chosen to do it, often basically by chance and after they have done so, they are the expert on the topic. Which is good if you were the lucky one chosen (teaching yourself probably was quite the struggle so you’d deserve it). But if you aren’t – congratulations, the possibility of you ever going to be able to do this same thing (like programming in a certain language, teaching, shouldering a certain responsbility) might have just shrunk to zero. Often, DH centres are not big enough to need more than one person for a  less-mainstream specialty skill. It will from now on be incredibly hard for you to prove yourself in that area although you might be just as qualified. You have officially become invisible and somebody else has officially become the guy who does XY. I have experience on both sides. I have both had a responsibility thrust upon me, not really freewillingly or because I would have wanted to. But because there was just a demand and nobody there who was actually qualified to do the task.

 

If you were chosen

You’ll have to teach yourself and might end up with patchy skills

Meaning you will probably end up with a pretty stiched together knowledge and might have to relearn the skill in a more systematic way after the project is done if you really want to go on doing what you were asked to do in a professional way. Projects are often time-sensitive and deadline-driven, so you won’t have the time to really learn the skill in a systematic way. Unlearning bad practices acquired like this can be really hard  afterwards.

You are now officially the default person for the task

You might not exactly be more qualified than your colleagues but you are still going to be the default option to do the task. If you want it or not. So be careful accepting these jobs if it’s a task you genuinely dislike or consider out of line with your own personal development goals. For me, personally, I want to become something of a ‘real programmer’ in the Digital Humanities. I am a girl, but I don’t want to end up being the web designer. Not that web design is bad, inferior to ‘real programming’ or anything. I just prefer ‘real programming’ but since I am a girl, people tend to hand me the ‘soft bits’ and give the ‘hardcore programming’ to a man. Which the man might not even want. Sadly, unconscious gender stereotypes are still very effective in workplaces. Woman often get discriminated againt by ‘non-events’, i.e. not being asked to take up a challenge while male colleagues are etc. which ends up harming their success in the long term. If you want the challenge, you might just have to take it up in your private life or compete hard with your male colleagues. If you accept a specialty you don’t really want, you might seriously harm your ability to start something else afterwards. You will end up with that label. So be careful which label you choose. Also, your time resources for personal development will go into this task completely. If you were planning on learning something else, that’ll have to wait for a long time. Choose wisely and turn it down if you have to and can.

You probably can’t say no

In many situations when you’re asked to do this daunting task nobody else has ever done before, it is probably because you are not be most important member of your organization. You are probably young or new and are deemed to be a hard worker and able to learn. These are good things. But it might still not be something you do freewillingly. But do accept the task. If you don’t you might come across as though you’re unwilling to take up new challenges or learn new skills. Not an impression you want to leave for further job openings and ending contracts – which are never very far away in academia. Also, this new skill your institution is trying to acquire through you might be a reason they hold onto you later or or the base for a new grant proposal, etc. So this might just be a golden ticket, even though you had always imagined those would look more glamorous. Also, it might just be that you are the only idiot they dared to hand this stupid task to. You never know.

 

If you were not chosen but would have been interested

This is really stupid and happens a lot because these informal decisions are not discussed with everyone on the team (which they probably should be and bosses should be aware of this once they have read this post.) But the sad truth is that this decision will probably be made by the bosses in a back room in a discussion you are not allowed to join.

So even if you knew it was about to happen, there isn’t much you can do except maybe inform people beforehand that you would be interested. This by no means guarantees your success but since these decisions can be very spontaneous, maybe it even will get you the job. Definitely try it if you get the chance or overhear a discusssion. Butting in on other people’s discussion is rude but it is also rude of bosses making seemingly inconsequential decisions in private which actually are very consequential to their young employees and can make or break a career in the long term. In this case I would say, better sore than sorry.

But what if it’s already too late? It might even have happened to you that somebody else was chosen as a “new expert” for a job (in a backroom decision) which they are not qualified for – but for which you, in fact, are qualified for. Of course you can tell people that you think you would have been more qualified or at least wished you had been asked. But once the job is already given out, it’s unlikely they’ll take it back. Unless the other “chosen one” has expressed that they will only do it if nobody else is found but rather wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have to. Probably try and say something anyway.

Official responsibilities make you more trustworthy than actual skills

This is an especially stupid situation for you because it undermines your skill and legitimates the other person who actually didn’t have any legitimate skill up to now. If you already have some experience in these matters, you will probably know that often, experts are not made by skill. They are made by decisions of their superiors. In the end, your skill doesn’t count. What counts is solely the fact that your bosses trust you to do a job. This can lead to major unfairness, of course. And you are virtually powerless once it does. The only thing you really can do is show your experience and skill elsewhere. Join an expert society. You will need very bold action and extremely solid credentials if you ever want to make up for this misguided decision again. Also remember that bosses hardly think about this. They are probably completely unaware of the detrimental effect this will have on your career.

Boost your CV, exaggerate your skills a little bit and be over-confident of yourself (because, sadly, everybody else is and you will be left out otherwise)

So show off your skills as much as you can. Drop your knowledge whenever appropriate. Especially if you are a girl or shy, this is not like you. But you will notice how (even misguided) self-confidence goes a long way. Men tend to be much more bold in their statements in the workplace and also in what they write in their CV. If have seen a CV where someone said they were a C1 or C2 in English when they really were so bad that they made tons of typos in basic programing commands. And programming language English is hardly the real deal. If they already can’t spell ‘length’ properly, how can they have a C2 level? It was not a one time typo and by no means the only type of error I observed in the very short time span I paid attention to this either. In their defense, they probably didn’t even know what C2 meant. It is still a bold claim. What I have learned from this is that the impression you convey is all that counts. Be a bit more self-confident than you really are. Pretend you have some more skill than you do. By this, I don’t mean overly exaggerate. But ask yourself whether you could learn a certain skill (in basics) in a week or weekend. Then you probably are good to state it in your CV. (Then go on and actually learn the requested skill since people will probably test this by asking some general questions on the topic. And, of course, this only goes for minor skills but many DH skill requirements are actually quite basic).

 

You have to have done it once

If you actively seek to try it out new things or want to be challenged in your job but were not chosen, you are out of luck. Since somebody else is the default option now, you are going to have an incredibly hard time getting yourself seen or heard from now on. Even if you do everything you can to learn the skill along with your colleague, they are always going to be the one who has the practical experience. Even if you should also manage to get some practical experience, they are going to be the one who won your institution’s trust and showed results on a concrete job-related project. Unless there is a great need for the skill, you might never be able to do this at your job. Sorry, but it’s the truth. 😦 The only thing you can do now is to get real job experience with the task outside of your instituation or going freelance (if your job allows that at the side). Or create a truly mind-blowing hobby project and share it online.

This is partly one of the reasons why I have this blog. I don’t really like the idea of sharing my life with strangers but at the same time, I still want my private technology- and teaching-related activities to be visible. People will only trust you once you’ve “done it once” because it is seen as proof that you can do it. That’s why people often say that you should teach exactly one class in your PhD time – takes up the least possible amount of time and energy possible but from now on, once you apply for a position which includes teaching, you are credible when you say that you can do it. If you haven’t – well, good luck to you. It is highly unlikely someone who doesn’t know you will take the risk. Especially since they probably have 50 other applications from people who did get that chance. So you kind of depend on getting the experience from your own institution. If they have chosen to ask somebody else, all you can do is be annoying or follow that default person along. Tag along and offer to help as much as you can. Drop knowledge you have whenever appropriate. This is by no means guaranteed to help – you might just get ignored. But then you can say you have at least tried to get people’s attention. And maybe it will turn out for the better at some point. Maybe they will remember you the day they need a lab rat for a new task nobody is qualified to do.

 

Conclusion: On the importance of learning from new responsibilities for your CV

“So grow your own CV and decorate your own skills, instead of waiting for someone to bring you opportunities for personal growth.” – based on a quote by J. L. Borges

So, as we have seen, this informal way of giving out new tasks to people can be a great opportunity if you are chosen. But it can also be a way of preventing eager people from taking up new tasks. Once somebody did it, they are the default person and probably nobody else is needed. So nobody else will be given this opportunity of personal development. This can be a real problem in academia where you are expected to constantly grow your CV and tend to your skills. Some people even say that you should add one line to your CV every month if you want to be successful in Academia. What line have you added last month? What will you add next month? Plan this strategically!

I hope that maybe some bosses read this post and become aware of the problem. Maybe people get inspired to hand out these opportunities more strategically and more consciously. It also often happens that it’s always the same people who get the opportunities (because they have already proven their potential to rise to the challenge) and others continuously get left out. This is bad for the ones left out and can lead to overwork in the others. If you are responsible for early career scholars, please make conscious choices with anything which could affect their careers. If you are affected, my consolations. Try to prove your skills in a side project or join a society.

 

Hope this helps someone,

best,

the Ninja

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