Filed under:

Cathy McPhalen

Editing Niches: Back to School With Thesis Editing

Copyright: ileezhun / 123RF Stock Photo

Editors may spurn thesis (or dissertation) work for graduate students, but that shuts off fascinating pathways. Students become academics who need editors for journal articles, monographs, textbooks and grant applications. Those who become non-academics need business reports, web pages, novels and [insert the types of documents you edit here ] edited. Catching them young can forge a long-term love-love relationship.

Is thesis editing ethical quicksand?


A thesis must be a student’s own intellectual product, so developmental or substantive editing (even stylistic editing, perhaps) is into the quicksand. Editors Canada’s guidelines for thesis editing supply our safety rope around the waist and structures to bypass traps.

Key ethical question: What abilities is this student being assessed on?

  • Synthesizing research into new knowledge?
  • Organizing a logical argument about that knowledge?
  • Expressing their arguments in clear language?
  • Applying a specific citation style correctly?

If the student is being assessed on it, we can’t edit for it. Having the student, their advisor and the editor sign off formally on editing tasks (see the checklist in Editors Canada’s guidelines) protects everyone from charges of unethical conduct.

Do I need an advanced degree in the field myself?


Thesis edits are often restricted to grammar, usage and proofreading. Strong editing skills and ability to distinguish appropriate types of edits (see above) are essential, but direct subject matter expertise is not. My academic training is in biochemistry, but I easily edited a thesis on dental health of seniors in nursing homes. French literature, however, would be over-reaching for me.

Can I make a decent rate of pay?


Graduate students are typically short on cash and not yet educated on the value of editing. A little creativity can tailor an edit so you both win.

  • Limit the scope. Can the student handle citation formatting? Can you edit just two chapters for the student to demonstrate what’s needed?
  • Coach the student. (Dear Editor, My advisor loathes passive voice, but I just can’t get the hang of phrasing things actively…). Teaching the student to recognize and change passive voice to active takes fewer of your hours and gives the student an essential life skill.
  • Work with students in professions. Teachers, lawyers or engineers, for example, may take graduate degrees after working for some years. They probably earn a decent salary and have cash set aside for thesis polishing.
  • Check whether the student’s department or advisor subsidizes thesis editing. This is rare, but worth asking about.

How can I connect with students?

  • Check university departments in your broad field (think social sciences, not just anthropology, for example).
  • Post notices on department bulletin boards (paper notices with tear-off strips for your phone number or email address are surprisingly effective).
  • Check whether the university writing centre recommends thesis editors.

Do you include thesis editing in your repertoire? If no, why not? If yes, what problems have you faced? Is it an interesting, financially viable editing niche?


The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.

Discover more from The Editors' Weekly

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

2 Comments on “Editing Niches: Back to School With Thesis Editing”

  • Quite the interesting post, Cathy. So far, I haven’t edited theses for students, but have edited major dissertations for university professors or teachers’ assistants. So far, I have enjoyed my experience with staff, since they appreciate the comments I make to improve overall flow and style.

    Perhaps a major problem I’ve encountered with editing for professors (and their contributors) is understanding the written word. Let me explain. I often deal with clients—not just professors—whose first language is not English. Because French is the main language in Quebec, I often have to work with substandard or passable written English. This can make editing frustrating and overwhelming, since I have to ensure I’ve fully understood the authors’ thought process in their second language. As you know, it’s easier to express oneself in a mother tongue than in a second or other language.

    Editing theses or dissertations: a viable financial niche? I think so. Because professors and students know that editing long texts takes time, they’re willing to pay editors decently.

    • Cathy McPhalen


      Agreed, working with academics whose first language is not English adds yet another level of complexity to already-complex material. That challenge can be interesting and satisfying, though, and certainly this is a large potential client group!

Comments are closed.

To top