Edit a PhD science thesis?

October 20, 2011

A fellow tech writer/editor asked for my advice a few weeks ago. Someone she knows had asked her about editing his PhD thesis, and she wanted some idea from me as to what she should charge.

The brief was:

Review of a PhD science student thesis (approximately 200 pages) where English is a second language


  • Review thesis, right use of vocabulary, grammar and sentence structures
  • Review overall chapters, re-arrange paragraphs for easy understanding, contents continuation
  • Format and style of the thesis is not important at this stage

How much and how long?

As my colleague had never tackled this sort of quote before, she wanted my advice on how to respond. I’ve only ever worked on one PhD thesis (and that was really just sorting out crazy Word formatting and cross-referencing), so I didn’t feel that I could help her very much, but I did have this to say…

My response

Personally I wouldn’t touch a thesis, especially a PhD thesis in science! But that’s just me.

I don’t think you can charge by the page for this sort of thing; you’d need to charge by the hour, and NOT as a total job. He (she?) wants more than just proofing — he wants a substantial edit where it’s up to you to rearrange his ideas. And English is his 2nd language, so there’s a good chance the thesis will need a LOT of work just to get the sentences sorted out.

Before you think about quoting, see these resources:

I’d also STRONGLY suggest you ask to see some sample pages before you commit to anything. Then perhaps time yourself on editing say two pages to see how long it takes for XXX words. For the ease of the maths, let’s say it takes 1 hour to do a page, and there are 200 pages. Let’s say you charge $100 per hour — that means that 200 pages will be $20,000 (and 200 hours commitment for you — that’s five weeks full-time at 40 hours a weeks), plus a ‘fudge factor’ for unseen contingencies. He’s a PhD student — I doubt he can come up with $20K. Hell, I doubt he’s thinking more than $1000, which for 200 pages is $5 per hour — I bet you won’t work for that! I also expect he wants it done within 2 weeks…

And that’s just for the proofing side of it. Substantive editing where you have to sort out his ideas and arrange them to suit the supervisor, the academic institution’s requirements/style guides/referencing standards etc. will add more hours on top of that. His ideas may already be in good shape, but there’s a chance that they aren’t, especially as English is not his first language. Then there’s getting the formatting in order…

As I said, I wouldn’t touch it, but I suggest you get a small sample from him (from the middle of the document, not the overview or abstract) and time yourself to get an idea of the workload before committing yourself (200 hours is more than a month’s FULL TIME and you already have a full-time job). The sample will also tell you if the science he’s writing about is something you understand enough to be able to craft intelligible sentences, or if it requires a PhD in the subject yourself.

[Links last checked October 2011]

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