Useful tools for writing a thesis

So you are at a point in time where you find yourself having to write a thesis on some technical topic. Let’s assume that you are well versed in the topic you have chosen and so the writing should be a breeze, right? Seeing that this is the first thesis you take on, it will most surely be a leap in size and breadth than your previous undertakings. And so, like any sane person would do, you go and search for tools that will be helpful in the writing process but get buried in noise…

In order to keep the writing organized and myself productive I found (to be read as colleagues told me) several tools to be highly useful when I wrote my master thesis. I hope the tools and services listed in this short article will be as helpful for you as they have been for me.

Just Learn LaTeX

There does not seem to be a nicer way to typeset a technical document than LaTeX. So the first obvious thing is to bite the bullet and get familiar with it. There are many tutorials and references on learning LaTeX online and ShareLaTeX has one of the best resources in my opinion.

You also need to learn about structuring your writing. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a thesis template for my university, which should be easy enough to adapt to your own institution.

Version Control

Since you will be writing and rewriting a lot of material I suggest that you get familiar with a version control system so that you can track your changes.

If you have written software before chances are that you are familiar with git, which is fairly nice if you already know it. Personally I chose to use the online collaborative tool Overleaf to write my thesis and am extremely happy with that decision. They offer a very nice IDE, automatic-preview and a collaborative feature that has been useful in the review process.

Managing your References/Bibliography

As you will be aggregating references into a bibliography before and during the writing process it is best to keep them organized somehow. There are multiple tools that help you do so. I tried using Mendeley and for a while it worked well, in particular to link together text references and local documents. However when it came to generating a .bib file, used to handle the bibliography in LaTeX, it failed miserably at generating a document that is usable with BibTeX.

Instead I went for JabRef which is a minimal cross-platform solution that edits a .bib file directly. I have found it to be stable and easy to use after adopting it.

Generating Beautiful Figures

Having nice looking figures can have a great impact on the reading experience. I suggest using vector graphics (for example .eps) whenever possible.

I used Matlab to generate figures and Inkscape to create and generate the additional vector graphics I needed.

Thanks for reading!

I hope this short article will be useful for you. If there are tools or resources that you feel are missing please feel free to leave a comment.