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I have recently interviewed for a position with a project with a major university. It is funded by federal grant (mainly NSF). It is not an academic position per se, but is led by a few principal investigators who are full professors. This is my first encounter with academia since completing my undergrad degree (I have worked entirely in private sector since then) so it's fair to say I'm pretty ignorant of many of academia's inner workings.

I think the interview went fairly well, and I like what I know of the job very much, but I have a concern: I was convicted of selling drugs (a felony) about 4 years ago. The position I interviewed for is software related and has absolutely nothing to do with pharmaceuticals.

While my layman's impression is that universities are fairly tolerant of such background in general (Bill Ayers and Timothy Leary come to mind. I'm sure there are better examples) I know that charges like this have bearing on eligibility for FAFSA student loans. Therefore I am concerned that there may be similar restrictions for projects that are the recipient of federal funding. The team may have liked me for the position, but they certainly don't like me several million dollars worth!

For what its worth, it is a private school. This is in the United States.

Any insights into any potential for conflict with federal rules? Any other potential roadblocks, or comments on the culture/conventions concerning these kind of issues?

My apologies for an anonymous question, but I think you can see why. If this question indicates lack of research I apologize as well, but I am outside of my realm of knowledge here and had little success with googling the topic.

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  • Any help with the tags would be appreciated. I was pretty clueless about what to put, and I lack the rep to name new tags that may have been more fitting. – user9853 Dec 6 '13 at 17:48
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    In a cursory look, I didn't see anything in NSF grant documentation. I think you'll have to check if the university has any restrictions. – mkennedy Dec 6 '13 at 21:49
  • OK thank you. My normal approach here is to only raise the issue if/when asked. My intention was to do the same here unless there was a firm consensus that this just couldn't possibly work (in which case I guess I'd politely decline just to not screw them around). Looks like I'll just wait and see how it plays out. Of course, this is all optimistic to begin with - it is quite possible I am not offered the position simply due to another candidate they prefer. – user9853 Dec 6 '13 at 23:13
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    My recollection is that there's a law that's specific to drug convictions and students, which I seem to recall applied to NSF graduate fellowships. (The relevant parts of the NSF website seem to be down at the moment.) But that law wouldn't apply to non-students. – Noah Snyder Dec 8 '13 at 4:49
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I was not able to find any documentation directly related to the NSF, however, I would find it unlikely that it would be a problem.

If nothing relevant is mentioned in your employment agreement/contract, then you are probably fine from a legal/regulatory perspective.

As for the ethical question of whether you should volunteer the information to your employer, I can say that if your performance on the NSF grant were contingent on criteria like your criminal history, the professors would have likely asked you directly during your interview. If they did not feel that it was important enough to interrogate you about it, it probably does not matter either way.

Where it might be a problem is if the grant requires you get a security clearance, as felonies usually invalidate candidacy for a clearance. It is very unlikely that a clearance would be required for NSF grants; it's more likely from funding agencies like DARPA and ONR. With that said, grants don't last forever, and the professors might eventually get one that requires you to get a clearance. If the professors thought that might be a possibility or concern, though, they would have likely brought it up during your interview. Also, the government often makes exceptions for software engineers/computer scientists since there is a shortage of ones who are otherwise eligible for a clearance.

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  • [T]he government often makes exceptions for software engineers/computer scientists...citation needed. – J. Zimmerman Dec 7 '13 at 20:24
  • @J.Zimmerman personal experience. It does vary case to case, and sometimes one benefits from legal representation, but I do know a few people who, anecdotally, had expedited and "smoother" clearance processing, and the reason they were given was that it was because they were computer scientists. Their specific skillsets and specializations may have also played a role. – ESultanik Dec 7 '13 at 21:01
  • Fantastic - thanks for the response. Looks like a "Don't lie, but don't volunteer" situation. Looks pretty solid that there are no legal barriers here (this is not defense-ish at all), but of course internal policy and/or subjective personal impressions can be a factor just like any other employer. Thanks! – user9853 Dec 10 '13 at 14:06

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