This feels uncomfortable to ask, because I know my actions have undermined what I've worked toward.

A little background: I graduated with a bachelors degree, and then went on to get a masters degree in a different field from a different school. I did well in both programs, including a few years of research during my undergrad. That was a few years ago, and since then I have been working professionally outside of academia. My goal has been to eventually go back and earn a PhD.

That is still my goal, and although I didn't behave unethically during my masters, I am troubled by academically dishonest actions I took as an undergrad and I'm not sure how to reconcile them. There are two specific incidents that particularly bother me.

In the first incident, I gave a class presentation that kind of followed a secondary source while only citing the primary sources. I now understand that is also plagiarism. In the second incident, I was panicked because I was struggling in a class. Another student had evidently found the solutions manual to the homework. He approached me, and I ended up giving him a small sum of cash in exchange. This is especially bad.

I have a few questions. Although it could certainly never happen, If I faced sanctions from the undergraduate university, would they revoke my degree? Would sanctions prompt the other universities to revoke my other degrees, including my masters and a PhD if I had earned it? How should I move forward? Would it be wrong for me to enter a PhD program?


Sounds like you have had some insights to your past behavior, and understand what you did was wrong - that could serve you will in future situations where you might be tempted to game the system. That experience could be a positive rather than a negative.

You escaped any consequences, and I don't think it's productive to think about hypothetical situations where you didn't, especially for something that is at least a few years in the past.

There are lots of good reasons to not enter a PhD program. I don't think you've found one here, but you should think about what goals you would have as a PhD student since a PhD is unlikely to advance your career unless you want to enter academia. You'll need a lot of internal motivation to get it done. Focus on those things rather than dwelling on your past indiscretions.

  • 1
    "unlikely to advance your career unless you want to enter academia": There are many career options where a PhD is now preferred, including industrial R&D and finance.
    – aeismail
    Sep 14 '18 at 3:02
  • @aeismail That's true, and why I said unlikely rather than not going to. I am assuming that the OP is working in the field they want to work in, and in that case in most fields another 5-6 years of experience in the industrial world simply counts more than a PhD, which necessarily ends up quite narrowly focused. There are certainly exceptions where industry is looking for PhD credentials in certain positions, I just don't think for most people it's a good motivation for doing the degree.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 14 '18 at 3:34

First of all, the fact is that you have a conscience about your behavior is very respectable and you should appreciate (and guard) it.

Regarding your dilemma, rather than giving up your goal, you can check with your undergrad university to see what their policies are about your situation. It is better to do this anonymously, lest they take drastic measures against you. Maybe, they have a lenient or forgiving attitude (I am not aware of regulations in your country and rules may differ from my country. Sad to say, in my country, both of your incidents are rather common and there are no written rules against them). Or, maybe they just require you to retake the courses again. Or maybe, they do not have any laws against you now that you are graduated.

In the worst case scenario, it is possible that regulations may revoke your degree (which is, for your case, very extreme and unlikely in my opinion). This is something that depends entirely on you and your moral codes.

To be honest, unfortunately, unethical behavior is not uncommon in academia (just browse this website and you will find plenty of questions from victims and even from perpetrators!). In your case, IMHO, you have done an insignificant plagiarism in the first incident and in the second one, you have just bought a solution manual. Compared to many crooks that I have personally seen in the academia, you are pleasantly clean. Of course, this statement does not mean that I agree with this behavior. It just means that, considering all factors, sometimes one can be forgiving about it.


I do not think you ought to abandon. Quite the contrary: you seem to be a sensible person!

The truth spread out: there is an awful lot of misconduct in academia. There are many references, such as this one, or this discussion. The system in fact is claimed to be remarkably permissive towards cheaters and abusers. Therefore, to answer another part of your question: apparently, in most places nothing substantial would have happened to you had you been caught redhanded. Perhaps someone would have blackmailed you on your second "crime" forcing you to part from even more bribery money.

However, typically "bad apples" anywhere never admit to their own flaws. Most of them reportedly fool themselves (and close friends) into believing that (i) they are actually on the right; (ii) everyone else does it, so that in the end there's no wrong done. Many cheaters are psychopathic in nature, meaning they have no true sense of guilt nor empathy.

You are clearly not that kind of person: you question your (past) self and then you feel guilty. That means you feel the urge for self-improvement. That makes you a sensible man who should continue to grow for the benefit of others. Please stay in the academia.

Now, on a final remark, I do not think you have committed very serious misconduct. I have seen way worse, from people who wouldn't even blink when accused. Thus had I caught you I would not have pushed to revoking your degree, or anything to that effect. (And I am tough on cheaters; I have had some serial plagiarists fired.) Some exposure and public shaming would have been enough to "set an example" and apparently you would have been psychologically impacted enough to prevent you from repeating yourself.

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