11

After three years in the workforce, I am planning on returning to school to get my PhD. I currently have a master's degree. Recently, however, there has arisen a complication: my thesis advisor for my master's degree was just discovered to have been embezzling from grant money (double dipping using a fake employee) that was shared between him and two other professors (one at his own institution, one at another institution). His fraud occurred after I was gone from the university.

Because he was caught embezzling grant money, the entire grant was revoked and the other two professors lost their portions of the money. This represents at least two more years of planned funding that they have now lost through no fault of their own. The professor at the other university (call it University X) was one of my strongest choices for potential advisors if I was accepted to the program at U of X. She likely would recognize my name if I applied to the program at U of X. Because I do not know how she would react to an application from a former student of the professor that just caused her to lose a large grant, I am now hesitant to apply to U of X.

Even if I decide not to apply to U of X, I worry that admissions committees will see my former advisor's name and will black list me. My advisor was at least somewhat well known in the field (22 years of work in the field) and the number of people that are aware of him may be somewhat large.

I would just avoid mentioning my advisor's name if it was not for the fact that I published two papers with him. If I want to entirely cleanse my application of my advisor, I will also have to avoid any mention of these two publications. Not being able to include these publications in my application would obviously weaken my application. My advisor has a rather unique name (not just John Jones or something) and anyone who knows of the situation would immediately be able to connect him to what happened.

Will I still be able to get into PhD programs? Should I attempt to address my advisor's actions in my application? If so, how should I go about doing so?

  • 6
    Omitting your advisor's name from your application would be conspicuous and look very strange - a committee would likely either try to find out who your advisor was, or else just reject your application if they don't want to take the trouble. Omitting papers from your CV is borderline fraud in itself. I don't think that trying to scrub your record is a good idea. – Nate Eldredge Nov 5 '18 at 17:58
  • I would just apply to U of X. If the professor there does have a judge against your advisors' students, the worst she could possibly do is not take you on. But if I was in her position my default assumption would be that as a masters student you were unlikely to be involved in the misconduct, and I would be aware that his students are in a rather difficult position now. So I would go out of my way to make sure your application is assessed on its merits and not on your association with your former advisor. – Nathaniel Nov 6 '18 at 6:31
20

From what I can deduce, your advisor was involved in financial misconduct, not academic misconduct such as plagarism or using falsified data. This means that the actual integrity of your research has not been compromised (from what I can tell). If this is the case, the papers you have written still stand and offer valid insight into your abilities as a researcher.

Applying to Univeristy of X

Personally, I would just avoid applying to University X altogether. If you would still like to apply to U of X and you personally know the affected professor, I would actually consider writing an email directly to her. Tell her of your intentions to apply to the graduate program at her school. Ask her what her thoughts would be on you applying. Tell her that you are considering her as an advisor and then ask her if she has openings for students. This should allow you to gauge her feelings. And the worst that could happen I guess is that University of X rejects you and you are out an application fee.

Applying to programs in general

As for the field in general knowing of your advisor's misdeeds, it is indeed feasible that other programs will be aware of some portion of the story. This will depend on how large your field is and how well known the university you got your master's degree from is. If you feel that a significant portion of the field would be aware of you advisor's misdeeds, it may not actually be an awful idea to include a short statement in your application acknowledging that, yes, he was your advisor, but that you were in no way involved:

Because my former advisor was recently implicated in fraudulent use of grant money, I feel that it is important that I provide full disclosure as to my association with him. [Dr. Fraud] misused grant money after he was my advisor and I have no knowledge of any misuse of funds while I was a student of his. I believe that the integrity of my work with him still stands and is a positive reflection of my work in research-level [basket-weaving]. If the admissions committee would like to speak to me further about the situation, I would be happy to do so.

This acknowledges the issue head-on and does not leave them speculating as to your involvement. It also opens up the possibility of them contacting you directly and allowing you to explain the situation at further length. Admissions committees always prefer full disclosure. They want to know as much as they can about an applicant's situation and portfolio.

Because most universities will not have any professors who were personally affected by the fraud, I do not think they would really hold against you the fact that your advisor cheated on his use of grant money. If I had an application like yours come across my desk, I would personally hope I would be reasonable enough to understand that you were in no way complicit with your advisor's scheme. This is all you need to say about the matter. Focus on your credentials and potential, not your advisor's misdeeds. Trying to explain too much will actually make you look guilty. Just be short and up front about what happened, then focus on how you will be an excellent choice for their PhD program because of your research and capabilities.

One option I would certainly look at for sure is applying to the same university that you got your master's degree from. They will be fully aware of the situation and they will know that you were not involved in any way. It's sort of their mess to clean up.

Whatever you do, do not have your former advisor write you a letter of recommendation.

  • 2
    +1. Perhaps the prof at U of X would feel a special affinity with you and take you under her wing, since you were abused by the same person. – Buffy Nov 5 '18 at 17:44
  • 16
    Another good idea would be to get a letter of recommendation from someone else at your former university; e.g., a department chair, or someone else familiar with your work there. Ask them to discuss your work, but also to confirm that you were not implicated in any wrongdoing. I think that will carry more weight than your own (self-serving) denial. – Nate Eldredge Nov 5 '18 at 17:54
  • I agree with @cag51 that the phrasing should be more direct and not longer than 2 sentences. – Dawn Nov 5 '18 at 18:09
  • What on earth is an application fee? – DonQuiKong Nov 6 '18 at 13:40
  • 1
    @DonQuiKong most US graduate programs require a fee of around $50 to even look at your application. – Vladhagen Nov 6 '18 at 14:48
8

I basically agree with @Vladhagen's answer, but maybe enough differences that I will write my own answer.

I would address this very clearly and succinctly in your application. I would write simply:

"[description of research]. Note, my graduate advisor, Dr. Fraud, was recently implicated in financial misconduct. This allegedly occurred only after I had already graduated; I have no knowledge of any misconduct while I was his student."

Think carefully about who will write your letters of recommendation.

  • Dr. Fraud is obviously a bad choice
  • But, it's essential you have a professor-level person who is intimately familiar with your research experience to write you a letter

Hopefully you're on good terms with a professor who can write such a letter, or maybe the department chair would be willing to get inputs from Dr. Fraud and transmit them as part of his own letter, along with a description of the situation. If nothing like this works out, you have a very difficult choice to make between getting a letter from Dr. Fraud or applying without a strong research letter.

Other than that, I would apply "as usual"; you did nothing wrong and don't need to adjust your plans.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.