For the past year and a half, I've been working on a master's thesis — and now, a Ph.D. dissertation. I've stayed up into the wee hours writing tens of thousands of words and I've pored over dozens of books. But I won't get a degree for any of it. I will, however, get paid.
That's because I'm writing them for someone else — more specifically, a student from an oil-rich country in the Middle East who's studying in the U.K. He pays me by the hour and hands the work in to his instructors as though he did it himself. So far he's paid me about $11,000.
It's not a full-time job. When I wrote his master's thesis last year, I'd only work on it for three or four hours a week, although now I'm working on his Ph.D., I'm finding it takes up more of my time.
The story begins two years ago — kind of your typical recession-era tale. I had come back to the U.K. after living abroad, and I couldn't find a job, so I called up an old college roommate, Tony, to complain. It turned out that in the five years since we'd graduated, Tony had built his own tutoring business, helping college and high school kids who needed to up their grades.
A few of them had wanted help with coursework or essays, but one day one of his clients just outright asked him to write an essay for her. Tony said it would cost her, but she didn't seem bothered. So from then on, whenever he could tell a student was desperate, lazy, or rich, he'd subtly suggest that he could just do the work for them. A lot of them started to go for it.
When I gave Tony a call in early 2011, he'd just found a load more clients. He'd met a group of Libyan students studying in the U.K. while playing soccer, and when he told them he what he did for a living, they all quickly expressed interest. Soon enough, Tony had so much work he started sub-contracting some of it out to me.
At first, it was mainly writing short essays, reports, and presentations — never more than a couple thousand words. We could normally hammer out each project in three or four hours and charged around $300 a pop. After doing this for a while, one of our Libyan clients asked if we could write his entire MBA thesis, which was supposed to be something like 15,000 words. This guy was clearly wealthy — he lived in a nice apartment and just sat around playing video games on his massive wide-screen all day. I'm pretty sure he just wanted to live in the U.K., and studying was the easiest way to get a visa.
We tried highballing him on the price, figuring he wouldn't really care about the money. So we asked for $21,000 for the whole project and let him negotiate down to $15,000. But just as we were planning to take a vacation and write the thing, the guy and all his friends had to unexpectedly return to Libya. This was in March 2011 and the civil war was just starting to kick off. I figured that if these guys were rich enough to sit around in the U.K., they probably had something worth fighting for back in their homeland. But for us, it meant we lost thousands of dollars of potential work overnight.
Tony still had his other students, but without the group of Libyans, I needed cash. He suggested posting an advertisement on a tutoring website he'd used in the past. Officially, the site was supposed to hook up students with tutors, but in reality, it was crawling with illicit essay writers looking to connect with potential clients. You weren't allowed to advertise such services, but there were euphemisms everyone used. You just had to write stuff like, "provides excellent essay advice," or "can offer full support with coursework," and people knew what you meant.
It only took a few days until Sayed contacted me. His English wasn't very good. Actually, it was so bad that deciphering what he wanted was sometimes a real challenge. At first, he asked for help writing a report, but it soon became clear that by "help," he meant he wanted me to write the whole thing for him.
Sayed had moved over to the U.K. a few months earlier to pursue a postgraduate degree. He'd gotten an undergraduate degree in his home country in the Middle East and must have figured that further education in the U.K. would look good on his résumé. But he was struggling with the work and needed more than a little help.
We agreed on a price. I'd advertised a low rate on the tutoring website to try to undercut the competition — about $15 an hour, but I figured I could bill him for a few more hours than I actually spent on the work. I justified it by reminding myself how much longer it would have taken if he'd tried to do it himself. After I finished the first report, he seemed happy with the work and the price, and he quickly started asking me to do more and more of his work.
Sayed was studying for a master's degree, but as far I could tell, the program seemed to be designed especially for foreign students. He certainly wasn't fluent in English, and one time he forwarded some emails from classmates he was working with and their English was equally poor. There was no single area of study either. One week he'd want me to write something on economics, and the next week he'd need a presentation on Socrates.
Every couple of weeks I'd send Sayed a few pages of the thesis and he'd show his university tutors — the British version of a thesis advisor. He would meet the tutors to discuss the work, so he would sometimes have me explain parts he didn't understand. I asked him if he wanted me to deliberately put some errors into the thesis to make it look like an ESL student had written it, but he refused, and asked me to write as fluently as I would normally.
I don't really believe his tutors didn't realize what Sayed was doing. There's just no way a guy who struggles to write a coherent one-line email could produce 10,000 words of a perfectly fluent thesis. My suspicion is that they deliberately turned a blind eye. He wasn't exactly attending a renowned college, and with budget cuts, these schools need all the foreign students they can get. International students pay about three times as much as domestic and European students in the U.K. So Sayed's college fees were keeping his professor in a job. In many ways we were all winning from the situation. The professor and I both had work, the university was collecting high international fees to stay in business, and Sayed was getting his British degree without having to do any actual work. The only loser, I guess, was the integrity of the British education system.
Even though Sayed wasn't doing any of his own work, he was so disorganized, I'd sometimes receive emails at midnight saying he needed an essay finished by the following morning. I didn't really mind, though. I needed the work, and I could charge for these all-night sessions at a double rate. On one occasion he asked me to write an essay on the pros and cons of the United Nations. When I emailed it to him, he said it wasn't right, that he'd made a mistake and the essay was actually supposed to be on the pros and cons of NATO. I got paid for both.
About a year ago, he mentioned that he needed to start work on a 10,000-word thesis that was due in six months. I wasn't in a position to turn down thousands of dollars of work, so I said I'd do it. It meant reading a lot of background material on a topic I previously knew nothing about, but I was getting paid to learn about something new, which wasn't so bad. I was definitely more motivated than when I was at college myself.
I don't dislike Sayed. From the little I've gotten to know him, he seems like a nice and reasonable guy. That said, we've never met or even spoken on the phone. Everything is done by email. He added me on Facebook once, but unfriended me a few days later. I think he was just curious about who I was. The only thing I found out from his Facebook page was that he supported the Liverpool football club. Every so often he mentions meeting up for drinks some time, but I think deep down we both know that's never going to happen.
By the time the thesis was finished, he'd paid me about $5,000 for the work. He was always very prompt with payment, and we staggered it so he paid for every few pages I gave him. It was better that way — Tony once had a client who owed him $1,500 and wasn't paying up. He had to threaten to go to the college and report him before the guy handed over the money. Interestingly, Sayed has never mentioned the marks he received for the work. I don't ask either, but he keeps coming back, so I guess I must be doing OK.
A month after I finished his master's thesis, he started asking for my help with his Ph.D. dissertation. It should keep me busy for the next two years.
Names have been changed.