Writing a Law PhD with Latex (1)

Fri 27 June 2014 | tags: Latex, Free Software, PhD, Social Sciences, Oscola, -- (permalink)


The most important part first: why should anyone bother to spend time learning the not too easy Latex syntax, why should anyone live without the comfort that the standard software provides and what is the problem with the standard approach (Microsoft Word)? There are a lot of reasons for that, and I listed some of them below:

  • Your thesis will be very, very pretty and will have a much more professional look than the standard document written in Times New Roman on MS Word.
  • All you need to focus on is writing the text of the thesis. Latex makes sure all the layouting is done nicely, and once you set it up the way you want it, you will never have to think about it anymore.
  • References will be done in accordance with the OSCOLA standard without you ever having to look up which part should be in italics and what characters to put around URLs.
  • No need to worry about moving chunks of text around anymore. Latex will make sure it uses things like "ibid" correctly, that crossreferences to both other references or chapters are done correctly and so on.
  • Your thesis will be quite long. Word is quite rubbish with very long files and tends to become very slow in dealing with those.
  • You can keep your chapters in different folders and different files within, and Latex puzzles them together quite easily. With Word, you will have to spend a lot of time copying and pasting your different documents into one towards the end.
  • The bibliography is done automatically with the right formatting without you having to invest into proprietary software like EndNote.
  • All the editing can be done in simple text editors. Those can be quite feature rich with spell checking, syntax highlighting and everything else you might need, while they are at the same time much faster and much less heavy on your computer's resources.
  • Contrary to MS Word documents, your formatting will not be ruined when editing your files on a different computer. Try opening the same Word document on different versions of Word or on Word for Mac, and you are in for a nasty surprise that can be quite catastrophic when your deadline is approaching. And I'm not even mentioning trying to use OpenOffice or LibreOffice
  • Latex is a very well tested software package. And it is completely free (as in beer and as in freedom).
  • Did I mention that your thesis will be very, very pretty?

There are, however, also some disadvantages:

  • It takes a little to get used to LaTeX's syntax. After a while, typing \footcite{} feels quite normal, in the beginning, clicking on "Insert" and "Reference" in Word is certainly easier to remember.
  • Dealing with error messages Latex generates can be a little challenging sometimes.
  • Latex generates beautiful PDF documents, but it is very difficult to generate other formats that have all your beautiful footnotes and so on. So it can be a challenge to work together with others or to get in-document-feedback from your supervisor, who almost certainly will not be able to deal with the sourcefiles.

So you will need to find out yourself whether you want to go this route or not.

What are these blog posts about?

The aim of these blog posts is not to teach you everything there is to know about Latex or the packages I am using. There are excellent tutorials online that will give you a much clearer insight into the depths of Latex than anything that I can provide here. Probably the most comprehensive one out there is the Wikibook on Latex, that helped me enormously. Once you read this, you can get started writing, but you will sooner or later have to look up more complex issues.

The aim of these blog posts is instead to give a broad overview of how I managed to optimise my workflows around my PhD thesis. It is supposed to be a series of recommendations, and I am sure there are better ways to deal with many of the problems I was facing. Please contact me if you have any comments or suggestions how to improve the approach that I am taking!

Hopefully, this will help you on the way to the PhD. Writing the PhD is hard enough without worrying how to compile your different files!