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I was dismissed from a (Canadian) PhD program on the charge of plagiarism. I had muddled up sources, and the professor insisted I deliberately did it to get higher grades. My student advocate informed me that plagiarism is plagiarism, whether intentional or not, whether only on a single line or not, and regardless of the professor's motivation. So, I admitted to the charge, while looking for ways to avoid a repeat and rebuild my reputation. I did inform the tribunal that this was a single sentence in a 22-page document, and that I was traumatized during this period as the state had taken custody of my two children.

The tribunal upheld the charge but recommended that the provost should consider a minor punishment. My advocate suggested I should not contest the recommendation of the tribunal. However, four months later, the Provost decided to dismiss me because I did not appeal the decision, and because I had failed to inform the professor of my personal challenges when I took the course.

When I was dismissed, I completed a master's program at another university with a GPA of 4.0/4.0. I discussed the plagiarism incident with my master's supervisor.

Now I want to apply for a PhD Program in a separate, but related, area (my current supervisor does not work in this area and so could not supervise me), and I am wondering how to go about it since I am required to disclose all the post-secondary education attended. I would appreciate any suggestion on how I can navigate this muddy waters.

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    "whether only on a single line or not" Interesting, here we tend to follow a different definition for plagiarism. Mistakes are human and a single line cannot prove intentional behavior beyond doubt. An error to give credit in a single case therefore is a mistake, and not more. I doubt that anybody who is working in academia can claim to be free from such unintentional errors. – Snijderfrey Jan 7 at 19:28
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As mentioned in the comments, I do not think that you will be able to find a supervisor who does not know you well already if you have a record of dismissal for plagiarism.

You could try:

  • Telling the truth about your dismissal (lying or omitting that you were dismissed would likely be grounds for getting dismissed again).
  • Explaining, with evidence, why it will not happen again.
  • Do not mention the nature of the trauma you experienced. Academics are not likely to consider any kind of trauma to be an excuse for plagiarism. And they are likely to have strong opinions about how children are raised.
  • There is no need to give the details of the process leading to your dismissal.
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    "And they are likely to have strong opinions about how children are raised." How is that true or relevant? – user108403 Feb 8 at 8:42
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    @artificial_moonlet: Probably this is relevant to the OP's comment, "I was traumatized during this period as the state had taken custody of my two children", at the end of the OP's first paragraph. FYI, I didn't notice the OP's comment about children the first time I read the question, and I only noticed it after seeing your comment and being curious myself. – Dave L Renfro Feb 8 at 9:17
  • @DaveLRenfro I'm not sure that potential opinions about child-raising are relevant to the OP-- who cares if people judge them, they have to live their life. Furthermore, how is the statement even remotely true? – user108403 Feb 9 at 11:32
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You should concisely discuss this in your application. In the US, the Statement of Purpose would be the appropriate place for this (I do not know about the Canadian system). Since you have already completed a degree since being expelled (and are switching areas), there is no need for a lengthy post-mortem, and this shouldn't be a dis-qualifier.

More concretely, I recommend:

  • Briefly (i.e., no more than one paragraph) explaining what happened
  • Including (in that one paragraph) the mitigating factors. Namely, that this was a single plagiarized sentence, in a 22-page document, during a child custody investigation. I would not mention your theory that the professor was biased against you (if true, that should have been raised at your appeal).
  • Considering getting someone to corroborate your account in their letter of recommendation. In particular, that this was all about a single sentence -- that's the part that is hardest to believe (the odds of 'accidentally' plagiarizing a single sentence is pretty high, so it's hard to believe you could be convicted based just on that).
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