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I am expected to start my first semester in college next spring as a math major. While preparing for undergraduate studies I heard from my peers that I should study this language/program called LaTeX which is basically the MS Word of natural sciences. I went through the math department's curriculum on the website and found zero instances of LaTeX mentioned anywhere. No courses on LaTeX, no LaTeX prerequisites, no requirements that assignments must be done in LaTeX.

I emailed some professors to ask whether I need to learn this before I begin my studies a few days ago but no response yet. Will I be taught how to harness LaTeX in class? Do I need to invest my free time to learn it myself? Can students be penalized for formatting their work in something other than LaTeX? I am worried because I have zero prior programming experience.

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    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 26, 2023 at 20:56

11 Answers 11

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This likely depends on individual school, but for what it is worth: I teach at a large research university with a sizable undergraduate program.

  1. None of the faculty in my department will expect undergraduate students in their class to be fluent in LaTeX. They will expect that students enrolled in the major can be taught how to use LaTeX.

    A number of courses in my university do contain modules on basic LaTeX usage; though to my knowledge this is generally not listed in the course description/catalog.

  2. Relatively few faculty members expect typed assignments. When I do, I always specify that the work be reasonably typeset, but I allow students to choose how to implement that (LaTeX, MarkDown+Pandoc, MS Word with EquatIO, etc.) The penalty when given would be for improperly typed work (use of wrong symbols/notation etc) and not for using "wrong systems". I would offer LaTeX templates for those students who use them.

  3. I would encourage students who intend on continuing into graduate studies in physics, mathematics, or computer science to learn LaTeX, as it is often how one prepares manuscripts for publication.

    In practice, most students in this category do end up learning the basics of LaTeX usage around the second/third year of their studies, if not earlier. (Often because of peer pressure.)

  4. I would train undergraduate research students of mine in how to use LaTeX.

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    On many levels, especially undergraduate level, you don't even have to know LaTeX syntax by heart, as you can get by using graphical editors, like LyX. Source: I composed my master thesis with LyX, and it was quite easy and fast to learn what little LaTeX knowledge was required to do it. The effort needed to learn to use it was almost negligible. Also, if you only need LaTeX to write a thesis or a publication, you'll be given a template most of the time, so you won't need to create an empty document completely from scratch (which is one of the hardest things to do as a beginner in LaTeX).
    – vsz
    Sep 27, 2023 at 4:27
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    @vsz why don't you write that in an answer? Comments are temporary post-it notes that often get deleted, and they are supposed to be for suggesting improvements or asking for clarification on posts.
    – Nik
    Sep 27, 2023 at 14:16
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    @user1271772 : because my field was not pure mathematics. It was computer science with heavy mathematical modeling, so there might still be slight differences.
    – vsz
    Sep 27, 2023 at 17:01
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    @vsz I think it would be an excellent answer regardless of that fact. Many of the answers here came from people that were not from pure mathematics.
    – Nik
    Sep 27, 2023 at 17:04
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    (1) is certainly my expectation and experience. I make document creation through LaTeX a requirement in my courses, and so I make instruction in LaTeX a part of my courses as well.
    – Randall
    Sep 27, 2023 at 18:33
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Willie Wong wrote a very informed answer.

I am not a math professor, and won't dispute any of his points. I'll just add that learning enough LaTeX to be able to use it in homework assignments and such is not really that hard and doesn't require programming experience. I think it's useful for lots of people and wrote an article about that: LaTeX for people who think they don't need it.

For math people, I think it would be really good to learn. Maybe it's not required, but it could well be impressive (and, if you have messy handwriting, it can be much easier to read).

There are, to be sure, advanced ways of using LaTeX that can get complicated.

I suggest More Math Into LaTeX by George Gratzer as a good guide (it is a bit dated; the author is writing a new edition, but I'm not sure when it is coming out).

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    “…is not really that hard and doesn't require programming experience…” I would emphasize that this is an opinion. Moreover, LaTeX is more of a markup language, which could take some getting used to.
    – mhdadk
    Sep 25, 2023 at 16:17
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    @mhdadk It's not an opinion that typing math in latex is much easier. Lots of people pick it up on markdown sites like SE without even realizing it's latex. It's all the rest of latex that's hard, like tweaking the typesetting. If you use the basic article template without any customization, there really is nothing to it. Sep 25, 2023 at 18:46
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    However, this answer is all about "is it worth learning latex for undergrad math". It's a great answer at that, but that's not the question. The question is whether it's required. IMO someone should ask a separate question (and link it from here) and put this answer under that. Self answered questions are allowed on this site. Sep 25, 2023 at 18:47
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    @gomennathan This a context where the pragmatic context of the question should override the words as written. This answer is fine. Sep 26, 2023 at 13:12
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As an undergrad in mathematics there is no requirement to know LaTeX at the beginning of your studies, however at some point in you may be expected to learn it. Specifically in my case there was a class where all homework was required to be submitted in LaTeX format. This was in a graduate-level class which was open to undergrads of which many more advanced undergrad students were encouraged to take.

Part of the reason for this was specifically to force people to learn it, and there was guidance provided for those less computer literate to get started.

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I have taught math in the US at all levels (lower division and upper division undergraduate and graduate classes) for over 30 years. I never had implicit or explicit TeX requirements in any of my classes. I am also unaware of any of my colleagues (in math) requiring it in their classes. The thing is, I want students to focus on computational proficiency, understanding concepts and proofs (even my introductory calculus classes include some simple proofs), not on typesetting. All the handouts in my classes are typeset in LaTex and I briefly mention it as something that some of the students may find useful at some point. Also, if some students have really bad handwriting in their written homework, I mention LaTeX as an option for homework (but not for exams). As for PhD students who want to work with me, I tell them to learn LaTeX ASAP if they do not know how to use it already.

On the other hand, if you have free time before entering college, learning LaTeX would not be a waste of time. But there are other useful things you might be learning instead, like programming or some math. (I have learned some general topology in Summer before entering college.)

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    Although your experience from more than 30 years ago is not irrelevant, I recommend that you do not discourage an undergrad math student from learning LaTeX.
    – Nik
    Sep 25, 2023 at 19:41
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    @user1271772: my teaching experience is from 30 years ago and until now. And if you read my answer, you will find no place where I discourage undergraduate students from learning LaTex. Sep 25, 2023 at 20:13
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    I read your answer, but just because there is not place in which you explicitly said "I discourage you from learning LaTeX", the discouragement is still there.
    – Nik
    Sep 25, 2023 at 20:26
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    My two cents is that I didn’t see any implied discouragement etc in the answer so not sure what gave you that impression Sep 26, 2023 at 10:11
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"I am expected to start my first semester in college next spring as a math major. While preparing for undergraduate studies I heard from my peers that I should study this language/program called LaTeX which is basically the MS Word of natural sciences."

Your friends are correct that it would be a great idea for you to learn LaTeX if you want to pursue mathematics as your major.

"I went through the math department's curriculum on the website and found zero instances of LaTeX mentioned anywhere."

That means nothing. The department's website is not going to tell you every, single, thing about your upcoming experience.

"No courses on LaTeX, no LaTeX prerequisites, no requirements that assignments must be done in LaTeX."

This is not a wise way to determine whether or not your friends were giving you sound advice. The website also says nothing about you needing to know how to check emails, and doesn't mention any courses on how to check emails, but you will still need to know how to check emails if you want the best chance of performing well during your undergraduate studies.

In almost every university, at least one instructor will offer bonus marks for typing assignment solutions in LaTeX, and for the classes in which no bonus marks are given, LaTeX could be required or at the very least you'll get much higher grades anyway because it's so much easier to read your work when it's in LaTeX versus when it is not. I never required my MATH 135 students at University of Waterloo to type in LaTeX and I never offered bonus marks for it, but the two students that earned the highest grades in the end, just happened to be students that typed their assignment solutions in LaTeX (I wasn't even grading the assignments since the course coordinator decided that they would be graded by TAs, but their assignments were always the easiest to read). When I was teaching biophysical chemistry at Oxford University, I did require my students to type their assignment solutions (though I did not require them to use LaTeX). For upper-year courses in which research-like papers, review essays, end-of-term projects, or undergraduate thesis documents need to be prepared, I would not be surprised if LaTeX is a requirement.

"I emailed some professors to ask whether I need to learn this before I begin my studies a few days ago but no response yet."

By now, hopefully you can see that it is rarely a requirement, but it is indeed helpful for you to learn it and use it. I would not expect an answer from those professors, and if they reply, they will likely say that it's not required, but that does not mean that it would be wise not to learn it or use it as soon as possible.

"Will I be taught how to harness LaTeX in class? Do I need to invest my free time to learn it myself?"

You will not likely be taught how to use it in class, and yes you need to invest your free time to learn it yourself. I worry about your attitude towards education. Are you pursuing this degree because you have a passion for the subject, or because you "need" to do it?

"Can students be penalized for formatting their work in something other than LaTeX?"

Yes they can. Instructors can require you to use LaTeX and can penalize you for not using it. It is unlikely that they will do that, but I recommend that you learn LaTeX anyway and stop trying to get away with just doing the bare minimum that your instructors force you to do.

"I am worried because I have zero prior programming experience."

Typing math in LaTeX is not "programming". You will be typing characters just like you typed them when you asked your question here. I recommend using LyX which is almost exactly like Microsoft Word, except you can enter math equations using the TeX language by pressing CTRL+M to create a math box. You will find typing math much faster and easier once you start using TeX, for example whenever you want to type the symbol for the Greek letter "pi", you'll just have to type \pi in a math box.

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    Also, I recommend to learn Git (again, this recommendation is being made regardless of whether or not it is officially part of the "curriculum" for your degree).
    – Nik
    Sep 25, 2023 at 16:40
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    Hmm, I'd be kind of surprised if giving credit on an assignment for using LaTeX is really as common as this answer suggests it is - although of course I can't prove that.
    – David Z
    Sep 25, 2023 at 19:44
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    @DavidZ At least as far back as 2008, bonus marks were given at University of Waterloo for typesetting assignments or course projects in LaTeX in more than one of the undergraduate-level courses. Just now I searched on Google: "bonus marks" latex and see that UofT has "1 bonus mark available for using LaTeX" in CSC 190, and CPSC 531H at UBC says "LATEX BONUS! You get 2 bonus marks if the homework is typeset using Latex", VCU is giving "Total marks: 33 marks + 3 bonus marks for LaTeX" for CMSC 303, and the list goes on. Carson Graham Secondary School also encourages LaTeX for calculus class!
    – Nik
    Sep 25, 2023 at 20:39
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Not knowing LaTeX (specifically it's syntax for math) will waste you time. You might never need to be able to compose an article from-scratch in it as an undergraduate. And, you might be able to get through a bachelor's degree without it ever being required by random chance. But knowing it will allow you to do things more efficiently than if you did not.

LaTeX is one of the Ur-Languages of technical discourse and far-and-away the dominant way of composing an equation line with anything close to typed speed. It's one of those domain languages that pops up everywhere, like HTML, or Markdown, or regular expressions if you're unlucky. If there is an equation feature of a site chances are it uses, or borrows extensively from, LaTeX. Markdown extensions for equations usually use LaTeX math, and imitate the feature set (like having inline and display formats). Even operating in Word or Google docs equation editors many of the LaTeX symbols such as \sigma will automatically convert to symbols in the editor which can save selecting them from the menu. Google Docs will let even let you start a fraction in an equation with \frac.

And that's just as an undergrad. If you are going into academia in one of several math-intensive fields LaTeX is the expected system for composing articles and theses. There is a reason so many journal articles have the same font and cover page. You may never need to operate without an editor to help you (LaTeX is brutal about syntax errors if you try to write from scratch) but knowing how things are structured and how to do math is a very powerful tool.

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Is it a prerequisite? Probably not. It is also unlikely that the Department will require you to use a tablet, or ballpoint pen and pad, to take notes; they won't take points off if you use a quill pen and parchment. But would you want to?

I suggest that you download and install TexStudio and learn to drive it. Have a look as some of the books that others have suggested, plus How to Write a Thesis in LaTeX. Use Google, which will frequently take you to the Stack Exchange Tex forum.

Other tip: your prof probably wants a PDF, not a tex file.

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    BTW, I learned Latex a few years ago while I was taking Emil T. Akhmedov's Introduction into General Relativity. If you have to do lots of equation with multiple subscripts and superscripts, as I needed to do for the assignments, you may find it easier to keep track of things in Latex. Sep 26, 2023 at 3:23
  • There are also online/cloud "Latex as a Service" platforms like overleaf that allow you to typeset in latex without having to install it yourself. They're particularly useful for collaboration as they allow multiple users to work on the same document etc. Sep 27, 2023 at 5:30
  • As a texstudio user, I'd recommend against starting with it as a beginner with no programming experience. I've had to deal with configuration problems which weren't exactly obvious and could have been confused for syntax errors (mostly with bibliographies). Overleaf's a great way to learn the syntax without having to worry about configuration, then you can move on to texstudio if you're spiritually an old man like me who wants their files to be on THEIR computer.
    – llama
    Sep 28, 2023 at 13:14
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As a former instructor at the postgraduate level my answer is not 100% relevant but will provide another perspective.

First of all, there was nothing in any of my course notes that mentioned LaTeX or even specified that it had to be used. Nor did I teach people how to use LaTeX.

However, I did expect that homeworks would be typed and not hand-written in pencil (it simply didn't look professional). Students were free to use any word processor they liked but LaTeX was by far the easiest to use. (I'd also typeset various homeworks in Troff, Word, and FrameMaker).

Bottom line, your instructor will look more kindly on legible, typed responses and likely not care what you use.

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    Beyond whether handwritten stuff looks professional or not, it's frequently illegible. I can't grade what I can't read.
    – pjs
    Sep 27, 2023 at 20:14
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On many levels, especially undergraduate level, you don't even have to know LaTeX syntax by heart, as you can get by using graphical editors, like LyX.

Using graphical editors, some slight knowledge of LaTeX can be useful, and you don't have to invest heavily into learning the most exotic and advanced syntaxes.

Source: I composed my master thesis with LyX, and it was quite easy and fast to learn what little LaTeX knowledge was required to do it. The effort needed to learn to use it was almost negligible. Also, if you only need LaTeX to write a thesis or a publication, you'll be given a template most of the time, so you won't need to create an empty document completely from scratch (which is one of the hardest things to do as a beginner in LaTeX).

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  • +1. I see that your comment didn't even make it into the chat. This is why it's important to write answers as answers rather than as comments!
    – Nik
    Sep 27, 2023 at 22:10
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It's not required, implicitly or explicitly.

You can, for example, probably get through it all with just MS Word equation editor, or you can simply do the assignments with pen and paper and then scan them in. Or photograph with your phone, or your library's document camera, or even buy your own document camera like this.

I can imagine only a very ornery graduate student taking points points off for not using Latex specifically, so long as the work shown is clear. If you do run into one, you can probably complain to the professor and get the points restored, because it's not really a big deal and it will be much easier for the prof to just concede the point rather than bicker over something so small as what typesetting software was used to prepare the undergrad assignment. I mean what's next, taking points off for using Arial instead of Helvetica? Sheesh..

The obvious exception of course is if learning Latex is part of the course. Then you should obviously expect to lose points if you don't learn it. But what if the instructor is terrible at teaching Latex? If you learn Latex ahead of time, you can simply ignore the poor instruction and pass the exams anyway. But that applies to every subject - you could work your way through all 4 years of undergrad math textbooks before starting college, just so you don't get burned by any bad instructors. And it would even work quite well, if you can summon up the motivation.

However, there is a reason people use Latex: Once you do learn it, it's easier to type math with it, and the result looks better. Of course, this is a stronger argument if you are planning to spend a career in math (PhD and beyond). If you are planning to finish your BS/BA and look for a job, the effort of learning Latex may or may not be worth the payoff.

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    Unless you know which university the OP is attending, and everything about that university, I suggest that you refrain from saying things like "It's not required, implicitly or explicitly".
    – Nik
    Sep 25, 2023 at 19:38
  • Even operating in Word or Google docs equation editors many of the LaTeX symbols such as \sigma will automatically convert to symbols in the editor which can save selecting them from the menu. I think Google Docs even lets you create a fraction with \frac
    – davolfman
    Sep 26, 2023 at 0:27
  • @davolfman The syntax is hardly the problem with math. What Word and GDocs saves you from is all the \begin{document} and \vspace{4em} and running pdflatex -out=./some/temp/dir 11 times over because of arcane holdovers from the 1970s. Sep 26, 2023 at 2:05
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Well no, LaTeX is by no means an implicit prerequisite for undergrad.

I am expected to start my first semester in college next spring as a math major. While preparing for undergraduate studies I heard from my peers that I should study this language/program called LaTeX which is basically the MS Word of natural sciences. I went through the math department's curriculum on the website

I completely agree with your peers. Mastering LaTeX as a note taking platform is blessed in my opinion, and is exactly what I would do

and found zero instances of LaTeX mentioned anywhere. No courses on LaTeX, no LaTeX prerequisites, no requirements that assignments must be done in LaTeX.

Academia is different. Unlike schools, they don't spoon feed.

On a personal note, I think mastering a tool like LaTeX important. Wether you have grad school intentions and you will have to write a thesis, or just have nicely formatted notes. Alongside that, I find making students use LaTeX wrong on the educational level. What you find easy to use might be literal hell for someone else. While some used LaTeX around me, other prefered an easier platform such as obsidian.

If you do however think about picking it up, I find the playlist by Dr. Trefor Bazett a great entry point.

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