LaTeX and LyX for (thesis) writing
One of the first things I did after passing my PhD confirmation exercise (like a qualifying exam in the USA) was to research the best way to write my thesis. As a side note, I use the word 'thesis' to refer to any large written work, including a PhD, while other English speakers might use the word 'dissertation' to refer specifically to the work that a PhD student produces. In any case, the relevant information here is the term "large", since I knew I was going to be writing a lot. I now consider the tools I'm writing about here to be essential for a productive workflow, and so this post continues the theme of an earlier post on linguistic tools.
In researching how to write my thesis, I asked friends and fellow linguists who had written grammatical descriptions. Most of them had used MS Word, and told me horror stories of lost work, un-editable documents due to the sheer size of their files, difficulties formatting and printing the thing, etc.. So that was out of the question for me, at least at the time (2011; I think more recent versions of MS Office may have fixed some of these issues). But one of them mentioned a program called LaTeX (the funny capitalization is actually part of the name), and that it made typesetting and organization a breeze. And it's free! Which is pretty important to students (if not everyone).
So I checked it out, and ended up spending the next few months learning how to set it up on my computer and how to use it (I use MacTeX as the backend). I am fortunate that I have a little background in coding, because LaTeX is essentially a markup language. You write the text of what you want, formatting parts of it by using special combinations of characters and commands (or 'tags') that tell a program how to format them. Then you run a 'compiler' that outputs everything in the correct layout in a PDF. This is pretty brilliant, because it lets you (the writer) worry mostly about the content rather than the format. But learning how to fiddle with the code is rather time-consuming, so if you're not a hardcore programmer (and I still don't really consider myself one of the hardcore types) there is quite a learning curve. Worth it, but steep.
This is where a visual editor like LyX comes in. LyX is, pretty much out of the box, a simple way of interacting with your LaTeX code. It hides most of the code and offers formatting options, similar to MS Word or other word processors. Unlike them, however, you choose the general formatting parameters and let the backend handle the layout. You can also fiddle directly with the code if you need to, or add code to the front of the document for particular use cases, like a PhD cover page, interlinearized glossed text (IGT) examples, and more. Basically anything you need to add has probably been coded or figured out by someone, and if you're a troubleshooter like me you can run a Google search and find forums (and contribute to some yourself) that deal with your particular problem or at least something similar. And the assistance you get can be pretty phenomenal.
LyX does take a bit of configuration, and I might write another post that explains how I set it up for my use case(s). But for now, I’ll just say that using LaTeX/LyX was one of the best decisions I made as a PhD student. It really simplified my writing process and allowed me to do so much more. Rather than spending the final month on formatting my thesis, I was writing and making final changes all the way up to the deadline. I probably wrote more, and re-organized the structure more, in the last month than I had in the previous three. And the text file that contains my 700+ pages of analysis, examples, and appendices is only ~6 MB. Possibly the greatest benefit was that LyX kept track of all my linked example sentences, and formatted them all properly. Once I got it set up this saved me days and weeks of man-hours. The learning curve was totally worth it.
In closing, if you are seriously considering using LaTeX/LyX, there’s lots of good articles about this online. Here’s one, and here’s a discussion on the topic, to get you started.
Recently I've been thinking about what I wish I knew about PhD study before I began. When you start out to do a PhD, there are many things you have to learn that are not necessarily directly related to your proposed topic. This blog post isn’t intended to highlight all of them, since everyone who pursues a PhD has a slightly different situation: the location, institution, department, course of study, expected thesis format (and page length) are going to drastically affect the individual’s experience. There may be many other blog posts that target your particular context (some are linked below), but here are some practical considerations that I think apply to everyone.
1) Research your (potential) supervisor before starting a PhD.
I was personally very fortunate to find a good supervisor. I didn’t do much research on my primary supervisor beforehand, but things really worked out. His teaching/mentoring style really matched my learning style, and I was able to get enough support from him that I learned a ton and became aware of how much more there was/is to learn. I was also fortunate to find a co-supervisor that I worked well with and learned a lot from, which meant I wasn't stuck when my primary supervisor was unavailable. I also received quite a bit of practical support and can say that both my supervisor and co-supervisor are still important friends and mentors. But I know of other people that received much less support, and in some cases it meant they were unable to finish their PhD. If you’re going to pursue a PhD, make sure that your potential supervisor isn’t someone who is likely to be a cause of difficulty along the way, either causing you to drop out of the program or give you a bad reference later. Of course some things cannot be predicted, and sometimes bad things happen, but do your best to research the person and their track record, or at least their character and interpersonal relationships with (former) students.
2) Learn/develop organizational skills.
By the time I started my PhD I had learned organizational skills for keeping track of bills and projects as an independent musician. But in my first year of PhD study I had to learn how to keep drafts in folders, organize papers, and otherwise have a filing system that helped me find stuff. Even so, I occasionally find duplicate files in random folders on my hard drive. The digital organizational tools you use are only as good as the systems you have in place to help you manage your work. After my PhD I discovered that there was a much better way to organize my files, data, and workflow (more on that in another post), but I would have been even more productive if I had learned these things early on.
3) Get practical advice on finding a job after your PhD, and learn some skills/abilities outside of your main subject area.
Fortunately I had mentors who had their own life experience and had done things in between academic jobs. In some cases they had worked odd jobs after their PhD while applying for everything and anything in their subject area. I learned that the basic post-PhD pattern is: complete PhD, apply for lots of jobs (postdocs, lectureships, professorships), get a few interviews, get a lot of rejections, keep applying, work odd jobs in the meantime, write/submit lots of papers (and receive lots of rejections), finally get a job. It’s a pretty rough deal, but if you’re willing to travel for jobs you have a decent chance. And secondary skills (like how to program or be a barista) can tide you over until you can get back to doing what you REALLY want.
4) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Doing a PhD is hard. Sometimes you’ll wonder if it’s worth it. For some people it’s probably not. But if you pursue it, realize that there are some things you should get really pissed off about, and there are some things that you’re better off letting go. Having people steal your work is worth getting pissed off about, but most other things aren't. For example:
a) Let go of thinking that you’re better than the next guy. Accept instruction from your mentor(s) who really DO know better/more than you. Even the cleaner in your hall might have specialized knowledge that can help you out.
b) Let go of thinking your thesis must be perfect. Your knowledge will never be perfect, and your thesis is only a snapshot of what you know at the beginning of your journey. Don't let this fact stop you from submitting it to your supervisor - let them be the final arbiters of whether it's acceptable or not.
These are just a few of the things I've learned in pursuing and completing a PhD. If you're interested in learning more, and you're actively thinking about graduate school, you might find this UK blog post helpful, or this Australian one. Some other practical advice, as this post notes, is to publish early and publish often, even during grad school. You should also consider searching more specific criteria related to your area of interest, but hopefully these four suggestions will get you started.
I'm a linguist and singer-songwriter. I write about life, travel, language and technology.