Computer Laboratory

PhD thesis formatting

There is no official pre-made departmental or University-wide style template for PhD theses. Some argue that learning (and advancing!) the art of beautifully typesetting a thesis is a crucial part of getting a PhD.

Here are some practical recommendations, examples, and useful starting points.

LaTeX

Most PhD authors in the Computer Laboratory prefer LaTeX as their typesetting system (under both Linux or Windows), mainly because of its

  • excellent and yet unmatched support for mathematical formulae;
  • good support for managing bibliographic references;
  • good support for high-quality typography;
  • easy integration with software-engineering tools (make, revision control, etc.);
  • very safe and robust handling of large documents;
  • long-term stability;
  • comprehensive free tool support.

A common approach is to use the report style, with a suitable title page added, margins changed to make good use of the A4 format, and various other changes to suit submission requirements and individual tastes (e.g., other fonts).

Diagrams

For preparing publication-quality diagrams, some of the most powerful and popular tools used include:

  • PGF/TikZ – the probably most sophisticated drawing package for LaTeX
  • matplotlib – Matlab-style function plotting in Python

Official requirements

There are several Student Registry PhD format requirements worth knowing about.

One of them still is that dissertations must be submitted in “one-and-a-half spaced type”. This is a remnant of the days when dissertations where written with typewriters. Today, it is nothing but an old source of anguish for any author with even the slightest taste for typographically appropriate page layout. In practice, fortunately, nobody knows really what “one-and-a-half spaced type” means exactly (in terms of millimetres baseline distance). The following LaTeX setting has routinely been considered perfectly acceptable:

\renewcommand\baselinestretch{1.2}

Recommendations

Margins

A widely used Cambridge thesis-binding company is J.S. Wilson & Son. They recommend on their web page to leave 30 mm margin on the spine and 20 mm on the other three sides of the A4 pages sent to them. About a centimetre of the left margin is lost when the binder stitches the pages together.

Title

Write your thesis title and section headings in “sentence case”, that is use the same capitalization that you would have used in normal sentences (capitalize only the first word, proper nouns and abbreviations). Avoid the US-style “title case” that some conference-proceedings publishers require.

Good:My favourite programming pearls in Perl
Bad: My Favourite Programming Pearls in Perl

Reasons:

  • Sentence case is normal typographic practice in the UK (see any UK-published newspaper, magazine, journals such as Nature, etc.).
  • The catalogues of both the University Library thesis collection and our departmental Technical Report series record titles this way, and you don't want the cataloguers mess with your title capitalization when your thesis finally reaches them.
  • It preserves useful information about the correct capitalization of any technical terms used.

Page numbers

Use a single page-number sequence for all pages in your thesis, i.e. do not use a separate sequence of Roman numerals for front-matter (title page, abstract, acknowledgements, table of contents, table of figure). In LaTeX that means using the report style, not the book style.

Reasons:

  • PDF viewers number pages continuously starting from 1, and using anything else as printed page numbers causes confusion.
  • This will save you some reformatting when submitting your thesis as a techreport.

Colour

Colour can sometimes help enormously to present data clearly. But keep in mind that the British Library archives theses on b/w microfilm, that not every reader will have access to a PDF and colour printer, and that some may be colour blind. Therefore, design your colourful diagrams to preserve as much information as possible in a black-and-white printout and perhaps add a warning where a diagram really becomes useless without colour.

Bibliographic references

If you use purely-numeric bibliographic references, do not forget to still mention authors’ surnames, as a courtesy to both the authors and your readers. Also, try to add the exact page number on which the quoted point is found in the reference; LaTeX supports this really well. (“suggested by Crowcroft and Kuhn [42,p107]”)

Technical Report submission

After a thesis has been approved by the examiners, the author normally submits it for publication as a Computer Laboratory Technical Report.

It is a good idea to read early on the submission guidelines for technical reports, as this may reduce the need to change the formatting later.

If you want to minimize any changes needed between your submitted thesis and the corresponding technical report version, then – in addition to applying all the above advice – you can

  • make page 1 the title page,
  • make page 2 the required declaration of originality,
  • make page 3 the summary, and
  • choose a layout suitable for double-sided printing (required for techreport, since 2010 also allowed for final PhD submission).

This way, there is a very high chance that turning your thesis into a techreport could be as simple as replacing pages 1 and 2 with the standard Technical Report title page (which the techreport editor can do for you).

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