Recently, I got a mildly panicked email from a friend/collaborator who was preparing the final manuscript of his thesis. He had just noticed that page numbers were a fraction of an inch closer to the page edge than the regulations of his university specify, and he was concerned that the lady in charge of filing dissertations would notice and reject the manuscript. This concern wasn't unjustified: I personally know a couple of people who had to reprint their dissertations at the last minute because they had the type of formatting errors that you need a ruler to notice.

In the end, I was able to tell my friend how to modify his TeX markup to avoid disaster, but I was left wondering: why are (some) US universities so obsessed about aspects of a dissertation that nobody will ever care about, or even notice? I did my PhD in Europe (Netherlands), and nobody there cares much about the formatting of your dissertation, so long as it doesn't look silly.

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    I'm not sure it's a Europe vs. US thing, there is a great variability in format requirement between institutions within each European country. – Cape Code Dec 30 '14 at 16:47
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    While my university didn't care much at all about the formatting (Austria) I can attest to the fact that a good friend of mine at Paris 1 got quite a long list of formatting requirements (yes I wrote her the class file too). – Voo Dec 30 '14 at 20:18
  • Never heard of a "lady in charge of filing dissertations"... isn't the advisor the one that should sign your thesis? If the advisor signs something that doesn't respect the requirements then it's his fault. IMHO nobody would go against a professor for such a small detail. – Bakuriu Dec 30 '14 at 20:54
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    There are pretty strict formatting requirements in the UK as well. – Jeremy Miles Dec 31 '14 at 0:03
  • I guess some dissertation ladies are nicer than others. When I went to file mine, the woman in charge pointed out that I was missing the copyright page. My heart started pounding, I became short of breath, and my eyes went wide with fear. She smiled, put a piece of paper in her typewriter, and typed a copyright page for me. – Ben Crowell Dec 31 '14 at 1:23

I think this is a historical issue more than anything else. Until quite recently, dissertations were usually sent for microfilming, microfiching, or both, for later reproduction and distribution. As a result of this, they needed to be carefully formatted so that they would reproduce correctly when photographed. Thus the requirements for font size, margins, line thickness in graphics, positioning of page numbers, and so on.

In recent years, this has not been so important, but that doesn't mean universities have completely relaxed the rules regarding formatting. There is definitely an interest in having a consistent "look and feel" for theses from the same institution.

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    Traditionally some copies of the final thesis were bound and placed in the university library. For that purpose it's important to make sure that the margins are correct. – Brian Borchers Dec 30 '14 at 19:47
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    The margins and fonts are also very important for theses that were/are stored on microfilm. The microfilm process tends to reduce the quality significantly, as anyone who has had to look up microfilm can relate. So, if the original is not prepared with that expectation, the microfilm can end up unreadable. Similarly, text too close to the margins might be cut off during the microfilm process. – Oswald Veblen Dec 31 '14 at 0:29

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