Why PhDs Should Consider Academic Editing by Dennis Wesley

Pro Editing
Why PhDs Should Consider Academic Editing by Dennis Wesley uncovers the world of professional editing jobs for people with real subject matter expertise. While these people usually have PhD’s, it’s not always necessary. If this sounds interesting to you or someone you know, check out the valuable resources and information in this excellent guest post.


  • The transition from academia to the larger world can be quite difficult. After all, not all PhDs prefer teaching roles. If, however, one craves to remain in the academic ecosystem without wanting to pursue teaching roles, academic editing may be a very good option. Academic editors are also known as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), but these designations are not always interchangeable. Much like any other editing role, academic editing inevitably involves copyediting, proofreading, fact-checking, and offering constructive criticism. SMEs may also perform the same tasks, but they mainly examine manuscripts for soundness of argument, the relevance of materials cited, consistency, and the overall value of a manuscript in relation to the state of research in the given field. In addition, SMEs typically offer substantive editing services.
  • This post offers a good account of the differences between standard copy editing and substantive editing. Academic editors may also offer or be required to offer substantive editing services. What one may do as an academic editor or SME, however, depends mostly on job description. In both cases, having a PhD is a significant advantage, and editors or SMEs with a PhD are typically in demand. To a certain extent, clients and companies prefer PhDs to other seemingly less qualified academic editors (say, those with “only” a Master’s degree) for substantive editing assignments, which is more lucrative than copy editing.

Judging an Editor’s Worth

  • This is certainly not to say that editors without a PhD are incompetent. This may or may not be the case, but it certainly cannot be considered a fact. Having a PhD is a significant advantage because editing companies and publishing houses tend to place PhDs in higher regard. This is because the worth of academic editors is mainly based on the following factors:
  • (i) whether an editor can do more than copy editing (here is where knowledge in an academic field comes in handy, and PhDs are considered experts in their respective fields)
  • (ii) whether an editor has published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals (more often than not, PhDs tick this box)
  • (iii) whether a candidate is a certified editing professional (this levels the playing field for those without a PhD, as professional editing courses are rigorous and certified editors are often very good)

Some Caveats

  • Academic editing can be lucrative. There are plenty of options for remote work, and there is a good degree of flexibility. However, academic editors also tend to face the following difficulties.
  • When Editing Becomes Rewriting: Most manuscripts, whether they are authored by native English speakers or non-native English speakers, require a very high degree of editorial intervention. That is, even if the author of a poorly written paper requests copy editing services only, editors typically end up providing substantive editing services for the price of copy editing. Most companies or publishing houses that offer work-from-home or freelance editing roles have rigorous standards. In-house reviewers often employ rigid standards to evaluate edited manuscripts. Therefore, if as a copy editor you rightly refrain from making drastic overhauls to segments, paragraphs, and even sentences of a poorly written manuscript, you will hear back from the reviewers. They will want you to do a comprehensive job with the manuscript. If you decline, you may either be forfeiting pay altogether or will be paid a reduced fee for the assignment. In all fairness, a copy editor must only be required to point out segments of a manuscript that require conceptual overhauls. The changes ideally must be made by the author.
  • Academic editing, however, is a competitive industry. Companies routinely make copy editors perform substantive edits on manuscripts for copy editing rates. Therefore, you will occasionally find yourself rewriting manuscripts to ensure grammatical and conceptual accuracy. This undoubtedly raises ethical concerns. You can avoid these situations, however, by looking closely at manuscripts before accepting them. Else, you can let your client or the Project Management team know if a text submitted for copy editing requires substantive editing and rewriting. This must be done before you accept the assignment.

Native Editors Versus Non-Native Editors

  • Almost all editing companies and publishing houses prefer native English editors. These editors have more bargaining power and are generally paid more than non-native editors. This distinction does not matter much when it comes to judging the suitability of editorial candidates with PhDs. Should you find yourself a little low in the pecking order as a non-native editor, you can become a certified editor.
  • The most popular—and the most rewarding accreditation comes from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), which especially trains aspiring academic editors. Upon successfully completing training, one can also get featured as an editor on their website. This makes it easier to find work, as you won’t have to rely on middlemen. Additionally, this allows you to communicate directly with your clients, which makes it easier to understand project requirements and manage expectations and deadlines. Another advantage of the SfEP certification is that hiring companies will have to pay you the standard industry rate per 1000 words. That is, you can’t be paid less than this standard rate. Uncertified non-native editors, even if they are exceptional and possess the coveted PhD, sometimes get paid less than this standard. The SfEP membership is not free, however, and you will be required to upgrade your membership from time to time to reflect your experience and expertise.

Check Out the Queen

  • On the other hand, one can also check out Queen’s University Canada’s Professional Editing Standards Certificate. One must complete all five of its online editing courses to earn the certificate, which is recognized by the SfEP for membership upgrades. Getting certified may be a tad expensive, but it is a great option for non-native editors. Work-from-home freelance roles do offer flexibility, but they also require a great deal of accountability. Additionally, payment schedules vary from place to place, so plan and choose accordingly.

Where You Can Get Started

  • Below is a list of places that are almost always looking for academic editors and SMEs. This list is not an endorsement; it is merely a small collection of places that offer remote working and in-house opportunities for PhDs.
  • Scribendi is a Canadian company, and their editors possess at least a Master’s degree. As an editor, one can expect to work on term papers, essays, thesis and dissertation documents, legal documents, and academic presentations.
  • Bartleby SMEs: As an SME at Bartleby, you wouldn’t be editing academic documents authored by students or researchers; instead, you’d be authoring explanatory solutions to assessment material featured in textbooks commonly prescribed in North American schools and colleges. SMEs at Bartleby typically hold at least a Master’s degree.
  • At Enago, editors typically work on manuscripts authored by non-native writers—in particular, students and researchers affiliated with South Asian universities. In addition to thesis and dissertation documents, essays, and term papers, editors also get to work on curriculum vitae and conference-related documents.
  • Cactus Global is an Indian company that mainly focuses on scientific publications, especially in relation to the Life Sciences. Cactus also hires editors for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Dennis Wesley

  • Dennis is an independent educational researcher and blogger, who lives in the US. His interests include STEM and Humanities education, especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. He has worked as an academic editor, and still freelances from time to time. You can check his personal bloghere
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