• Christopher Marcatili

Why Should A PhD Student Get Their Work Professionally Edited?

When we mention to people that most of our clients are PhD students, the most common question we get asked is ‘Is that allowed?’ The answer is yes, PhD students can and, we believe, should consider getting their thesis professionally edited.

There are many reasons why, and every student will approach this with different priorities. Here’s a few reasons we find pretty convincing.

Finalising a PhD thesis is a lot like other publication processes 

When a student finalises a PhD thesis, it goes through a process similar to many other publication processes. A thesis might never hit the bookshelves and reach a broad audience (although some are adapted into books), but it nevertheless has an important audience: the review panel.

The review panel is a highly engaged, and sometimes highly critical audience. Their job is to read and critique a thesis. Some doctoral candidates will be fortunate, with reviewers who have nothing but nice things to say. Others may feel overwhelmed by the details picked up and critiqued by reviewers.

Even the best authors have their work edited before publication to avoid the embarrassment of having a finished product full of small errors. This leads to a second reason.

Small errors make for a big distraction

A misplaced comma here or there might only ever bother an editor, so long as the writer’s intended meaning is clear enough. But a thesis is a very complex document. The language is highly nuanced, made all the more complicated by factors like correct referencing and the sheer size of the document.

One of the most common issues we see, for example, is figure, table and image references with incorrect numbers. If the writer doesn’t know how to use captioning and cross-referencing tools in their word processor, manually keeping track of these numbers can be a nightmare. Miss one number in the text or in a caption and the reviewer ends up linking a passage with the incorrect image or figure. This leads to real confusion, and that’s the last thing you want to cause in a reviewer.

A thorough editing process doesn’t just fix commas and spelling. It ensures your references are correct, that you’ve consistently spelled words throughout the whole thesis, that headings are formatted so the reader can easily tell which is a sub-heading or a sub-sub-heading, not to mention dozens of other tiny details that can all lead to confusion if they’re mismanaged.

Little details are only little until they’re noticed and then they can cause confusion. Or, perhaps worse, they can lead the reader to conclude that poor grammar, formatting, or spelling reflect a poor thesis all round.

Try spotting your own mistakes

We’ve all done it: written an email, checked the details before clicking send, only to have someone point out that something was wrong or someone’s name misspelled. Seeing errors in your own work is difficult—even editors find it challenging.

By the time a student has published a thesis they’ve spent countless hours over several years staring at the words, moving passages from one paragraph to another, and copying and pasting entire paragraphs into different chapters. Repetitions are common, as is switching tone, style, and even tense.

Many of these issues seem like they should be obvious. But after so long staring at the same words, it’s practically impossible for anyone to thoroughly edit their own work.

The solution? Getting a well-read friend to edit the thesis is a good first step, especially for someone on a budget. Fresh eyes and an understanding of clear, correct use of English will go a long way to patching up any major issues. But you do get what you pay for.

A professional editor will have years of experience and will know exactly what to look out for when reviewing a thesis.

Pride in the work

I was recently speaking with a client about their long road toward submitting their thesis, which had been prolonged due to a serious medical condition. The client expressed frustration that their medical condition had delayed submission of the thesis by more than a year.

Yet at the same time, they had decided to get multiple reviews done in the finalisation of a draft, getting feedback not only from multiple editors but also colleagues and friends. Why, I asked, go through so many edits if they were so eager to finish the thesis and move on?

“I’ve spent so long on it, it has to be good.”

This is a tricky point because, on the one hand, it’s totally natural to want to polish to perfection something that has taken so much time and effort. A PhD thesis is a big chunk of time spent researching, writing, and overcoming many unforeseen challenges—like a medical condition that emerges halfway through writing a thesis. It only makes sense to want to get it as good as possible.

On the other hand, perfectionism can be paralysing. The urge to continue to write, re-write, edit and polish can keep the writer from ever finishing. Sooner or later, it has to be good enough.

A good benchmark here is pride. Is it something you can be proud of? Is it something that reflects the work, the energy, and sometimes the pain that has gone into writing a thesis? It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it’s something you can be proud of you’re on the right track.

For this client, getting a professional review was an important final step in making sure it was a thesis to be proud of. It was also an important way of stepping outside the cycle of write, edit, re-write, edit, re-write and so on.

Academic English is not easy

In their lifetimes, most people won’t write anything approaching the length and complexity of a doctoral thesis. Anyone who has achieved this, whether they went on to pursue a career in academia or not, or whether they ever published anything else or not, should be proud of the accomplishment.

Many of our clients have the added challenge of working with English as their second or even third language. It’s amazing that someone can not only learn another language but can master it to such a level they can produce something as complex as a thesis in their non-native tongue.

Which is not to say that writing a thesis is especially easy for a native speaker. Even for someone who has spoken English their entire lives, academic writing can seem unusual, unclear and convoluted. Understanding it is a trained skill, one that can become rusty without practice.

A professional editor can be the difference between a thesis that has solid ideas but struggles to communicate them clearly, and one that powerfully articulates the breadth of research that has gone into it.

Whether a student is completing a PhD to further their career or because they’re passionate about the subject, the thesis is likely to be a major milestone for years to come. The language is complex, it’s nuanced, and it’s essential that it’s right. Don’t try and do it alone.