How to get started writing your thesis in LaTeX

Friends don’t let friends write dissertations in MS Word. There are a lot of reasons to use LaTeX, whether you want beautiful typography or want to save years formatting documents.

I have a reputation in my department as “the LaTeX guy.” It’s no surprise, then, that I often have people asking me how to set up their thesis in LaTeX. Here are the steps I always suggest to get up and running:

Download LaTeX (free)

If you are on OSX, you want MacTeX. If you are on Windows, you want MiKTeX. If you are on Linux, I have no idea—you probably don’t need my guide.

Download your university thesis template

Most schools offer a thesis template in MS Word and LaTeX formats. As an example, here is the Georgia Tech thesis template site. If your school doesn’t have a specific template, start searching the websites of major technical universities until you find one with formatting similar to your university’s thesis style guide. If your university has very lax style requirements, choose a template incorporating serious typographic principles, such as the Classic Thesis package.

The template you download will probably have a build file with all commands necessary to compile to pdf (the Georgia Tech thesis template above illustrates this for anyone interested).

You can edit the LaTeX source in any text editor.

Get a good reference book

When I set out to learn LaTeX, I didn’t know anyone else personally who used it—I had to figure everything out on my own. While there are some great resources available online, I benefited greatly from buying a book. Since LaTeX was free, $40 spent on a book was worthwhile.

I bought Kopka and Daly’s Guide to LaTeX, 4th Edition (affiliate link). Pound for pound, I don’t think you will find a better reference out there. It’s very rare that I can’t find the precise answer to any question in Kopka and Daly.

The other two resources I make regular use of include the TeX Stack Exchange Q&A; site and the LaTeX Wikibooks project.

Use a reference manager

I have maintained a thesis BibTeX file manually before, and I can tell you: this is doing it wrong. There are amazing tools to manage your BibTeX file and pdf library.

I use Bibdesk, an open source tool for the Mac specifically geared toward BibTeX. To identify the best one for your workflow, you might like to review the Wikipedia’s overwhelming comparison of reference management software. Some of the more popular ones that support BibTeX include Papers, Mendeley, Zotero, and Jabref.

Welcome to your new life—now start tinkering

That’s it. Change the title. Change the author name. Look through the template source to get a feel for how things are set up. Play with how to insert equations and figures. Change the structure and watch the table of contents automatically update.

In my case, not knowing anyone else to ask questions of, the learning curve lasted about a week or two before I was productively moving forward in my master’s thesis writing. If you know someone, or take advantage of the plethora of online resources, you will become productive much faster.