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I'm about to supervise my first bachelor student and I'm not quite sure what is acceptable and what is not.

The thesis will contain math formulas, illustrations, images, graphs and tables - like any other paper / thesis in physics. The question is, shall I force my student to use (and learn how to use) certain SW tools (LaTeX, Matlab,...) instead of commonly used office packages (Word, Excel, PowerPoint,...)?

Is it acceptable to provide source files of my thesis and/or Matlab functions/scripts to the student? Note that the field of research is not connected to typography nor data analysis.

Edit considering JeffE's answer:

Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to require students to use the software tools that are standard in your field when they begin working in your field, even as undergraduates.

There aren't defined standard, or mandatory, tools to use. Just only vague rules how the thesis shoud look like.

Tools for specialized work, say microhardness measurements and analysis, are set and there can't be any doubts and discussions.

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    You can introduce the said tools to your students. Like this, and only if they are interested, they will go deeper in learning how to use them. But forcing your students to use a specific tool is, IMHO, the best way to get the opposite results. – PatW Nov 7 '13 at 10:06
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    @PatW yes, this has been my experience also, to a degree. – user7130 Nov 7 '13 at 10:08
  • Say that "If you won't do it you can say good-bye to your thesis" is far too extreme. Right now, I've sent him several theses to show how accepted theses look like. – Crowley Nov 7 '13 at 10:36
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    @Crowley Correct me if I am wrong, but most of times, you can (almost) achieve with Word what LaTeX can produce, it will just take you a hell lot more time and patience to do so. Don't get me wrong however, I can't stand the Office suite either. – PatW Nov 7 '13 at 11:08
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    If you want to teach someone software tools, don't forget version control. – Faheem Mitha Nov 7 '13 at 16:41
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I would like to answer this question for the best interest of the student's, not yours.

You are supervising bachelor students. They may go to academia or industry after graduation.

If the student will pursue academic career after he graduates, then you should tell him to use the tools that are widely used in academia because it's for his best interest. I think force is a too strong word. To convince him is what you would do.

However, if he will go to industry, why waste his time to learn something he probably will never use for the rest of his life?

If the student doesn't know what he wants to do after he graduates, it's time for him to think about it now. Isn't it?

Here is my personal experience while I was in industry. I had to produce some document which contained math equations. I wanted to use LaTex. MS word was the tool I was told to use because of maintainability issue (no one else in my department knew how to use Latex). I had to follow the order. Matlab is another story. It's also used in industry.

  • with regard to LaTeX, I highly recommend LaTeXiT. it enables you to create mathematical formulas in latex without having to learn any other typesetting. and, you can copy and paste the formulas into word, powerpoint, etc. – Tom Nov 12 '13 at 21:50
  • @Tom I am already retired. It's not my problem anymore. Your suggestion probably won't work if the math formulas need to be updated after the document was produced. To the LaTex users like you and me, creating math stuff using LaTex is easy. It's hard to the non-users. I tried to train somebody to do it. It took him one week to fix two lines which had some errors. The management had to call for quit and we went back to MS Word. I am not sure it was because of LaTex or just that person, or the math was hard for him. As far as I know, industry still don't like use LaTex. – scaaahu Nov 13 '13 at 3:44
  • I think your answer is great. My advice was directed not to you specifically, but to anyone who needs to create mathematical formulas. I was not suggesting that it's easy, but it is much easier than learning to write a whole document in LaTeX. The formulas are copied as text, not pictures, so they are still editable after being pasted into MS Word. Still, as you suggest, I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. – Tom Nov 14 '13 at 18:16
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Clearly define what are your goals and constraints, and work from there. What are the things that they need to learn in order to progress further in the field (and someday find a job)? What are constraints imposed by the research project you will be working on?

  1. Goals — if learning a specific piece of software is required to become a professional in your field, then it is a de facto standard and they need to learn it. In this, a specific piece of software is just like a particular experimental or mathematical technique.

  2. Constraints — there are cases where you need to restrict the choice of software to interoperate with others. For example, the student might not be able to choose his favorite programming language for a specific project because he has to use a specific advanced library, which only exists in e.g. Python. Or the project actually is to implement a specific functionality in an existing C++ framework. Or one of the goals of the thesis might be to produce technical documentation to be published in a given format.

  3. Other than that, leave them free to choose whatever works for them. Be clear and upfront about what you advise them to use, and what you are willing to teach them (and what you cannot teach them). For example:

    The choice is yours, as long as your are able to efficiently produce and edit a professional-looking 200-page document with many figures, tables, references and subdivisions, and it adheres to the university guidelines. I myself use LaTeX for writing articles and theses, as many colleagues, and I advise you to do the same. I have little experience with word processors. I can help you if you run into problems with the first one, but will not be able to help if you choose a word processor.

    I once had a student who mastered MS Word to a level that I had never seen, and did a superb job in an efficient matter. It wouldn't have been bright of me to require him to use LaTeX when he knew another tool.

  • It wouldn't have been bright of me to require him to use LaTeX when he knew another tool. — That's just, like, your opinion, man. – JeffE Nov 7 '13 at 22:58
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    @JeffE yeah, like most of the things I say, it is my opinion… I'm not quoting it as an International Standard on Word Processor Use in Academia :) To be clearer: I understand that there are some fields where LaTeX would be covered by my point #1 (i.e., it's a de facto standard), and not knowing how to use it would put you at a disadvantage. It happens not to be the case in my field (physical chemistry). – F'x Nov 8 '13 at 8:55
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I think it is useful to expose new students, even undergraduates, to the tools of the field. It's beneficial for them to know what some of this "looks like", it's easier for you to help them if they don't have to bring you up to speed on what they're using, etc.

You say there might not be "standard" tools, but are there some tools that are commonly used? Your two examples, LaTeX and Matlab, are both fairly ubiquitous in "applied math-y" fields, so why they might not have to use them in the future, there's a good chance they'll encounter it, or something like it.

The one caveat is that I would have a discussion with the student about their goals and objectives, and make sure the tools you're making them use are tools they will use in the future. As a somewhat personal example, despite the inclinations of some of my collaborators it would have been useless to make me learn how to lay out papers in LaTeX, as the standard for my field is not that, and all that would have accomplished was adding an extra step in before I converted everything to Word files.

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Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to require students to use the software tools that are standard in your field when they begin working in your field, even as undergraduates.

  • Unless there are no standard tools defined nor recomended. They are just accessible (student licences, public PC labs, etc.) but not emhasized at all. – Crowley Nov 7 '13 at 13:18
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    Nonsense. LaTeX is the standard tool for writing research papers in mathematics, in many branches of computer science, and in most branches of physics. Similarly, Matlab is the standard tool for certain types of visualization. The question is not whether the tools are standard to students, but rather if they are standard for researchers. – JeffE Nov 7 '13 at 22:54
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    I disagree. My colleague was submitting an article and was told to send it as MS Word document with strictly specified rules (font type, font sizes,...). – Crowley Feb 15 '14 at 20:40
  • @Crowley (shrug) Every field has its weirdos. – JeffE Feb 15 '14 at 22:23
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A certain amount of "tool agnosticism" is a healthy attitude to have, since many people will want to use tools with which they are already familiar. I would be loathe to interrupt someone's already-functional workflow without a strong reason.

However, among those reasons are interoperability and reproducibility. If a student is doing research in your group, then their tools should be compatible with the ones you're already using. More importantly, you should still be able to use the work that they've produced even after they've left the group. So something that would require you to purchase an external license, or may not be well-supported within your group, is probably a bad idea. An "alternate" tool that is public domain, open-source, or otherwise "standard" in your field is probably not such a big deal. (What this means in your field is, of course, for you to decide!)

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Without going into many details. I think of this as a chance for the student to learn not only Math, but things related to research and Academia. You as a supervisor should be able to prioritize. So start by asking him to work with fully professional tools such as Matlab and LaTeX for example, but if you find out that this holds him back from the main purpose of his thesis, then you should be lenient.

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Should I force my student to use certain tools such as LaTeX and Matlab?

I think it would be hard to force a student to do so anyway, so do not force them simply suggest it to them. The examples you gave of LaTeX and MATLAB are not particularly difficult to learn. As a Computer Science undergrad I learnt them in my 4th year and it only took a very short time to be productive with them. In fact I was eager to learn and use them, you may find this to be true with your student, so do not assume that your student will resist the idea.

You should also explain why you use such tools and hopefully they will realise and come to appreciate them. Explain that not using the same tools will create more work for the both the student and yourself. My final recommendation is to set them some small trivial tasks at first to build familiarity, which is what my supervisor did. It worked on me.

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I just recently graduated with my Bachelor's degree and for couple of my classes, I was required to use Latex and Matlab. I am glad the professor told me to use those because it helped me a lot in other classes too and helped me to gain a valuable skill.

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Fred Brooks says in The Mythical Man-Month

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"A good craftsman is known by his tools"

So if the student has the time, and skill you should force him to use the tools of the trade. You are his trainner, his teacher he doesn't know what he doesn't know, so if the tool is important then he should learn it.

Obviously use judgment the goal is for him to write the thesis not to master tools, so if the deadline is approaching then focus on the product not the tools.

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