So you are thinking about writing your bachelor/master thesis in LaTeX because a lot of people told you how great LaTeX is compared to Word when it comes to thesis writing? – Indeed, they are right and and there are various points why!

In this post I will explain the advantages of LaTeX compared to Word, provide my master thesis “master file” and give you some help to get you smoothly started with LaTeX!

LaTeX vs. Word

As this post is in favor of using LaTeX, I will highlight the advantages of LaTeX first. However, I will also try to point out at which points LaTeX falls short compared to Word. Note that all these points are based on my own experience in working with LaTeX and Word during my studies – hence it may happen that even more efficient/simplified ways exist/come up to do so than the ones presented here!

Advantages:

  • Automatization: Everything you do in your document needs only to be done (defined) once! Whether this is inserting a figure or a reference. If you want to update a figure, you just need to modify the original file and compile your document again. No fiddling to realign the image in the same way as you had it before. All settings were set a priori and will be applied in the modified image. Also, every figure you insert or every (sub)section you add is automatically added to your “table of contents” or “list of figures”. This fact is one of the major time saving advantages compared to Word. And yes, everything is aligned perfectly and there are no problems with page breaks or indention mismatches. Another example: Imagine you want to color all references in your text – after you have written your thesis! If you would have to do this by hand, you might miss some references and it would take you a lot of time. In LaTeX, you would just need to change the color setting of the reference hyperlink. Update one word and every reference will change to the same color. This is just one example of the often appearing case: Change something for your whole document after you have written 100 pages – LaTeX is your friend!
  • Hyperlinks: Using the hyperref package, you can link all headers, figure/table captions, references to redirect the reader to their specific “list of figures/table”, “bibliography entry” or “start of a chapter/section”. This makes your document look highly professional and more convenient for any person reading your thesis as a PDF.
  • Alignment of (multiple) tables/figures: This is a huge problem in Word! How to align multiple figures in a horizontal and vertical way? Most often one figure is larger than the second one or you have troubles shrinking down your table size  because it does not fit into your page. LaTeX does all this for you automatically after you set it up once..
  • Automatic build and style of bibliography: While this can also be done in Word using various external softwares (such as Endnote or Citavi), LaTeX does not only build and style your Bibliography as you tell it to do but also takes care of different inline references (e.g. with or without parentheses) and multi-references entries. If you use a popular style file, LaTeX will build all bibliography entries the same (and only if you used them) so as long as your reference entries in your database are correct, you do not have to worry about any problems in your document output!
  • Professional look of formulas: When it comes to math formulas in your thesis (and in our field almost everyone has at least one in their thesis) LaTeX is the tool to use! Search for LaTeX formatted formulas compared to Word ones – you´ll see the difference immediately! Especially when it comes to nested fractions, special characters – most math related scientific fields use LaTeX as their every day “tool” when it comes to reports which include formulas.
  • File splitting: Let´s say you finished one part of your thesis (e.g. “Introduction” or “Methods”) and want to start with a free text document to not only start a new chapter on paper but also in your mind – and to preserve a good structure within your work. While splitting your thesis in multiple sub-documents is (as far as I know) not possible in Word, this can be done very easily in LaTeX. You just need to write your chapter content and use \include or \import within your preamble file. LaTeX will then include your text using the master file settings. If you want to just work on a specific chapter, just comment the “include/import” calls and your chapter is not imported when you compile your document the next time.
  • Teamwork: Have you ever been trying to integrate multiple Word documents from different people into one? In my opinion there are only few tasks which are more invidious than this. If everyone would write his/her part in LaTeX, you would just need to include their document and compile it using your master file – and your are finished! No weird movement of figures, no different fonts, no different margins etc. Give it a try! It saves you so much time when doing teamwork, believe me!

Where LaTeX falls short

  • Simplicity: Ok, LaTeX is very cool when it comes to automatization and correct figure/table placement etc. – but as every tool which provides a lot of possibilities it has one cost: simplicity! While you can adjust everything for tables, headers, footers, table of contents etc. you also need to specify a lot every time. This can be very annoying sometimes, especially because LaTeX is not the most user-friendly programming language. It is often unclear where to place a certain argument or how specific functions take their arguments – and LaTeX package docs are often quite messy and highly technical. Hint: Search for specific tasks on http://tex.stackexchange.com!
  • Adjusting small/single details: Sure, automatization is cool! But what if you want to change a margin on a single page only while preserving all others? Well yeah – thats quite complicated. In Word you just do what you want to do at this certain position in the text. Changing a certain settings in LaTeX will most often result in a change for all occurrences of a certain object. Sometimes you need to introduce “custom environments” for a single page only and restore the default afterwards – so the effect only takes places on this page.
  • Jungle of compilation: Yes, there are a lot of different ways to convert your code into text – i.e. compiling your code. If you take a look at all methods out there you will most likely be scared: “Should I use pdflatex, xelatex, biber, bibtex or one of the other “thousand” methods? Do I really look up all the differences between them? Oh dear… ” Indeed, this point is not very user friendly. Up to now, I also do not know all differences between those compilation methods – I just use them as I need to (depending on the document class/type).
  • Short documents/notes: Whenever you just want to take some notes, write an informal report or just need to be quick – Word is better. LaTeX has its power in long documents/theses or when it comes to beautiful formatting!

How to get this template running

If you download this template, you will need to do some things to get the master file template running with your docs:

  • Insert an existing bibliography file (.bst): This file contains all your references, either in biblatex or bibtex format. Common softwares to set up such a database file are “Jabref” or “Endnote”. Insert the name of the file without the extension in \bibliography{filename.here}
  • Create at least one content file (e.g. “Introduction.tex”) and “include” it in your master file (\include{Introduction.tex}). Remember that the master file is only for your document settings and all content should be placed in unique .tex files.
  • This template uses APA citation style. References are inserted using \cite{bib(lat)ex.key.here}. For more options see ftp://ftp.dante.de/pub/tex/biblio/bibtex/contrib/apacite/apacite.pdf
  • If you do not have the font “MinionPro” installed (you most likely do not), simply comment the respective codeline to avoid compiling errors.

 

General notes:

  • Some important prerequisites: You should have a TexLive distribution installed on your PC (e.g. MacTeX for Mac) and a LaTeX IDE (I recommend Texmaker if you are new to LaTeX) to compile your code.
  • Compilation: See this post for more information about compilation of .tex documents including arara automatization. 
  • See this post for a comparison of LaTeX IDEs and how to set them up.
  • Below are some example screenshot of my thesis where you can see the outcomes of this master file
Patrick Schratz

Patrick Schratz

PhD Student at University of Jena

I have experience in working with all kind of image analysis, GIS software and programming languages such as R and Python. Currently I use statistical and machine learning methods to improve the understanding of forest decline within tree plantations in northern Spain.