A throwaway account for this issue I need advice in. I am in an engineering course and had an online exam (thanks to COVID-19) with no form of protection for cheating, just an "open now, turn in within 2 hours" exam. I spent way too much time perfecting one particular question (I blame my diagnosed test anxiety for that part of this situation), so I, quite moronically may I add, used a resource that I was not allowed to use. I got an email from the instructor saying that I was accused of cheating.

After fainting once and vomiting twice I read the message and learned that I had 2 options. First of which is to refute and provide evidence in contrary of the accusation, for which I had none. The second option was to accept a zero-marking on the heftily-weighted question, but keep the grade and accept it as the grade on the exam. This was quite a lenient punishment as it was outlined in the syllabus that any form of cheating on any exam will result in a 0 on said exam and a failure within the course. I can only attribute this to the fact that I always went to lecture, actively took notes, asked many questions, and sat in the front row (really like ALL students should do). Therefore, I accepted that option and still ended up with a passing average in the class, because I worked extremely hard to understand the material well (I am not an academically gifted person, may I add.).

Along with both options, a report of academic misconduct will be reported to the chair of the engineering department of my discipline. From there I am unsure where the situation will go. The university does not have any set-in-stone rules for a situation like this within the academic policy or student guideline book, which is where I turn to Academia. I have never done anything of this sort and I am unsure on where to turn or where to go next, depending on where this situation escalates to.

I also fear for my eligibility for security clearances once I graduate (United States). I only fear that this will be seen as a major, major red flag and may result in me unable to gain said clearance, even though I have nothing on my record (not even as minor as a traffic stop). I feel like that will most definitely ruin my career (rightfully so if so, may I add), as any form of my work will most likely require said clearance. But, having never gotten a clearance before, I am unsure about how it will be affected. To anyone who has experience in this realm, is this a major red flag? Should I switch majors now to something where I can get a job without one?

Regardless of any switching majors, if I lose my academic scholarship for the university (again, rightfully so), I will be forced to drop and/or go far into debt to complete my academic career. Most definitely worth it if so, but still upsetting. Again, this is not set in stone anywhere within the documentation I have access to, so would something like this be a possible/fitting punishment for my academic dishonesty?

I thoroughly understand that this shows that I have little experience in a particular realm of this class, and that in the workforce, if I make a mistake due to it, I may cost lives. If anything, that's the most sickening part of this whole situation. For that reason, I am currently re-studying all material within the class and making sure that I will keep the knowledge that I have been taught. But employers, would you even consider hiring someone like me if you found this out?

I really appreciate anyone reading this. Please leave any comments about my integrity to the comment section, and not the answer section.

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    I saw that post but I felt like my situation was different enough due to the circumstances of when/where mine was. – throwaway-89760 May 3 at 7:07
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    I cannot more strongly recommend speaking to a doctor or counsellor about your anxiety. Fainting and vomiting due to stress is a horrible place to be in (I have experienced similar myself). The good news is, it is possible to learn how to better handle your anxiety and your quality and enjoyment of life will immeasureably improve. Please heed this advice. Good luck with your studies. – astronat May 3 at 10:55
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment; additional answers or arguments in the comments will be deleted without notice. – cag51 May 4 at 0:09
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    Do you know the basis (evidence) for the accusation of cheating? Not sure on your jurisdiction but in most places you're innocent until proven guilty. Unless you did something like copying text from the unauthorized resource word-for-word, I wonder if the instructor/school was using some kind of surveillance malware on your computer without your consent, which is a serious crime in most jurisdictions. (Far, far more serious than any cheating you may have done, and which should be career-ending for whoever did it.) – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE May 5 at 21:45

10 Answers 10


What you are doing is called catastrophizing. This incident, unpleasant and mildly serious though it is, is simply not the life-destroying event you imagine it to be, and you are not the evil person you imagine yourself to be for having committed this act of dishonesty.

In fact, I think the worst aspect of the situation is the negative thoughts you are having about it, which sound like they have a much greater potential to derail your studies, mental health, and (if left unchecked) your future career, than the facts of the actual situation you described.

I can’t comment authoritatively about your specific hypothetical scenarios of losing your clearance, becoming a failure professionally etc, but they simply sound highly implausible based on my years of experience in academia in the US. My advice is, take a deep breath, and seek counseling and advice from knowledgeable people in your institution who can give you:

  1. useful practical information about the possible effects of the cheating on your career (which frankly my guess is will be essentially zero if it’s a one-off incident, although there may be a temporary punishment that could set you back a bit);

  2. separately from that, mental health advice to help you keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed with anxiety.

Good luck!

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    Thank you very much for your answer. Looking back a few hours later, I can see what you mean by "catastrophizing" and reading about it, that definitely matches. I should definitely look into getting a counselor, not just for this, but for other issues I have had in the past mentally. For the academic part, my school has academic counselors I can definitely check into once I get everything squared away mentally. I accept any temporary punishment because what I did was definitely wrong, but I am relieved to hear that both answers say that it isn't the end of a career that hasn't started. – throwaway-89760 May 3 at 7:05
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    @throwaway-89760: I completely agree with Dan's answer that you are not as bad as you think yourself to be, not only because you have already accepted the consequences of your past choices, but also because you acknowledged your ethical error. Thus you in fact have the moral right to move forward in your life (if you don't mind my opinion), and I sincerely wish you all the best in the future! =) – user21820 May 3 at 12:00
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    I discussed a similar situation with an OPM agent conducting a clearance investigation of one of my students. I was told that if the student told the truth about a cheating incident, it would be a "negative indication" but would not, in and of itself, result in the clearance being denied. However, said the agent, if the student lied about the incident, that would likely preclude a clearance. Note: one agent, about one student, and now perhaps ten years ago, so this is not a universal answer. – Bob Brown May 4 at 19:36
  • From what I understand, the clearance is about finding things in your past that can be used against you (among many other things), and coming clean and taking responsibility means that this can not be used as blackmail or other such means that might be likely to make you unclearable. – Quasi_Stomach May 4 at 19:44

Okay, this is just my opinion but I'm a professor with a lot of life experience.

Some, very few, but some, of my students have cheated on exams I have given them. They've gotten in trouble for it.

Maybe I should clarify that statement. Some of my students have been caught cheating and have gotten into trouble for it. I don't know what proportion actually cheated - probably more than have been caught. I myself never cheated in school. But I know it happened around me.

We are living in an unprecedented time of strangeness, pressure, weird opportunities to "perfect" online tests answers we shouldn't, long hours thinking about viruses and the future.

That said, you've been caught doing something on an online exam that you should not have been doing, you've been penalized, and it is over. It is not the end of the world. Yes, it's a mark on your otherwise good record. Yes, you shouldn't have done it. No, it won't ruin your chances at having a good job. It just won't - you'll be okay as long as you keep doing your best and don't be stupid again.

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    No, your opinion was very helpful, thank you for your response. It's sort of far from over depending on what the dept chair says, but I'm just going to hope for the best and expect the worst, but it's definitely reassuring to hear that it's not the end of a career that hasn't begun yet. "being stupid" is a very good way to describe this situation. – throwaway-89760 May 3 at 7:02

I think the others have given some helpful general advice. Let me respond to two specific concerns.

Along with both options, a report of academic misconduct will be reported to the chair of the engineering department of my discipline.

I think it's worth understanding this further. Is this just an e-mail to the chair, or is it something "on your record" that will be reported to employers, the Government, or other third parties? This will depend on your institution's policies and the nature of your sanction. I think it's reasonable to ask about this, so long as you are clear that you just want to understand the punishment and are not contesting that you deserve it.

I also fear for my eligibility for security clearances once I graduate (United States)....To anyone who has experience in this realm, is this a major red flag?

No. If you are asked about this, be honest (hopefully it only happened once, and you learned your lesson).

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    Thank you for your response to those parts. I did some more reading about these types of reports at my university, and they specifically used the word "sanction" as my professor did in the email. I assume the 0 on the question will be the punishment (sanction) for the action, and the report will be a mark on some sort of record of mine, most likely my academic transcript. Below that, it states that if you refuse to accept the sanction, the academic transcript will be withheld. I definitely did learn from this situation and I will be as honest as I possibly can be when describing it if asked. – throwaway-89760 May 3 at 19:51
  • Some universities (like mine) keep records of disciplinary actions against students, either academic or otherwise, but these are separate records from transcripts. Students or recent alumni looking for security clearances (or admission to law school) are sometimes asked to provide their disciplinary records, and explain any incidents that appear there. – JeffE May 3 at 21:22

I once had a visit from a government employee about a former student needing a security clearance. I'd previously caught him cheating on homework and written it up. The University's Academic Dishonesty department apparently still had the record (the student was probably a graduating senior).

The incident seemed to be no problem. The investigator asked me to describe it -- the student admitted to copying, got just a 0 on the assignment, and I never had any more trouble from him. The investigator seemed to relax, as if that was routine nothing stuff.

So, yes, it will be looked at for a security clearance, but only because they look at everything, probably won't be a problem, and will be fun for the instructor (he asked me a long series of standard Q's: if I knew the student had gambling debts, and so on. Some were things I'd never have thought of).

As for other immediate consequences, at my US State School, the policy was that being caught cheating once was a warning -- nothing extra happened. It only went on the record in case the student was written up again, when I assume suspensions and whatnot began. The horribly uncomfortable meeting with them (yes, there will be a meeting after the one with the instructor) was mainly a chance to make sure the student couldn't say "but I didn't know doing X was cheating".

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    Oh wow, that applies quite well. I'm relieved to hear that one incident will not derail anything, but it'll definitely be an interesting conversation once that day comes. I hope my school's policy is similar to yours, as I will never do this again, along with a warning being a lenient punishment. I'm not sure if I will be able to have a face-to-face meeting any time soon due to the pandemic, but I will not say anything upon those lines if so; I cheated, plain and simple and should not cover it up. Thank you very much for your help with this. – throwaway-89760 May 3 at 21:13
  • I can't imagine an employer would ever ask about this. If you get the clearance, the details are pointless -- it's not like you can get a C- clearance and they need an explanation. For the school, I'd assume Zoom or whatever they use; the academic dishonesty coordinator would need to hear from you directly. Terrible analogy, but imagine the instructor is a DA working out a plea bargain, and the next person is the judge (but they're not a judge -- the first I met was a sweet grandmotherly type, near retirement. I think she genuinely enjoyed helping young people learn from the experience). – Owen Reynolds May 4 at 16:01

Academic dishonesty (and, really, dishonesty in general) is bad. You shouldn't have done it and should not repeat it. And I take from your question that you already know all of that and you seem to be sorry you did it and quite unlikely to make that mistake again.

That being said, if the above seems as obvious to your department as it seems to us from your question, then I don't think you have too much to worry about.

In particular, I wouldn't be worried about the security clearance issue. I have a U.S. security clearance and have been through the vetting process. Yes, they will absolutely talk to your university (and your local law enforcement departments, etc.) when doing your background checks and there's a decent chance they'll find out about this incident, but it seems extremely unlikely that it would derail your security clearance as long as it never happens again and you don't lie about it.

Lots of people make stupid mistakes, especially during their high school and college years. The people doing the background checks know that and they see it all the time. Is what you did serious? Yes. Is it serious enough that they'll reject your security clearance out-of-hand for a one-off incident that you apparently learned from? Almost certainly not.

Hopefully this part goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: If they do ask you about this (either about whether you've cheated in general or about this specific incident,) tell the truth. While it's unlikely that this incident by itself will disqualify you from a clearance, lying to them absolutely will. Be completely honest with them about whatever they may ask.

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    You would be right to say that; I am well aware of the gravity of this issue and I am very sorry that I committed this academic dishonesty. I have not said more than I need to, to the professor or department; I would not want to "put my foot in my mouth" and say something on accident I cannot get out of, so I will wait until asked to show my sorriness. I will be upfront about the dishonesty in the appropriate time when applying for said clearance. This was seriously as you describe it, a situation caused by "being stupid" as mentioned by another answer. Thank you very much for the response. – throwaway-89760 May 3 at 21:22

Not really a full answer but not a comment either.

I'd suggest you ask your professor if you could retake the test for a better mark. Study very hard for it if you're allowed! This calms you down, restores your conscience, and shows your professor you can achieve this without cheating. Maybe record on video or something. Might be a good point for security clearance as well.

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    I have a feeling that this may not be the best course of action. I would love to do so and ask, and it would definitely be a good resolution, but I am in no position to ask for anything, from the school or professor at this point in time. I have reviewed the topic that I cheated on and have plans to keep reviewing it. Thank you for your answer/comment! – throwaway-89760 May 3 at 21:24

I also fear for my eligibility for security clearances once I graduate

If you are considering a career that will require you to hold a security clearance, then you undoubtedly will at some point be subjected to a "lie detector" (polygraph) test. Your memories of the trauma this incident has caused you, unless properly handled, will cause you to fail that test. You should do at least three things to avoid such a disaster.

One, do the opposite of catastrophizing. Make the incident a normal part of your history, which does not stand out in any bizarre way. Discuss it with your academic counselor. Imagine conversations with your peers in which the subject of cheating comes up, and you relate the incident as an unexceptional anecdote. Think of yourself as a person who did that, but not a person who does that.

Two, when you apply for a clearance, include the incident on your application disclosure. It's actually barely important enough to mention, but it is significant to you emotionally. The polygraph test works on emotion, not facts. Polygraph examiners are exceptionally skilled at getting you to reveal anything that is emotionally important to you. If you conceal the incident on your application but then reveal it to the polygraph examiner, you will be indelibly marked a liar.

Three, research the polygraph before subjecting yourself to it. Read The Lie Behind the Lie Detector by George W. Maschke, and How To Sting The Polygraph by Doug Williams. Of course you must recognize that these authors have agendas of their own, but the facts in their books, especially Dr. Maschke's, are true and accurate.

Getting caught cheating in school will not stop you obtaining a security clearance, unless you allow it to drive you crazy.

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    "If you are considering a career that will require you to hold a security clearance, then you undoubtedly will at some point be subjected to a "lie detector" (polygraph) test." It's certainly possible, depending on the exact job in question, but "undoubtedly" is way too strong here. I have a Secret clearance and worked as an engineer at a base with a lot of highly-secretive designs. I was never subjected to any such test. – reirab May 3 at 18:18
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 May 6 at 16:55
  • @reirab: Well, perhaps undoubtedly is a bit strong. OP may be lucky and never find a polygraph exam in his path. - But I don't want him to just bar himself from any career path that might have a poly in it. – A. I. Breveleri May 6 at 18:08

Just to add what everyone else has said... Just be honest. Write a letter to your prof. Say that you sincerely regret what you did and that you've learned your lesson. Don't try to bargain with him; just fall on your sword - admit you were stupid.

Thank the prof. Tell him that you had never done this before, and that having had this experience, you will never do it again. Really, thank him for helping you learn your lesson and for for putting your life straight. Tell him a little about your anxiety and that his actions have become the catalyst for you getting help. Don't try to elicit compassion, just add this as part of your "thank you".

And, like everything else has said, seek out some counselling. Once you get out of school, and you get that job working for that defense contractor, you will have an interesting story to tell your peers (OK, maybe not).

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  • This is a great idea. I will definitely send them a professional email outlining this once the punishment and record has been finalized to avoid digging my hole any deeper than it may be as of now. I will also use my dishonest act as a way to better myself and others in case I am attempting to tell someone not to do the dishonest thing. Thank you for your answer! – throwaway-89760 May 5 at 16:24

Cheating on academic work is so heavily frowned upon and has negative consequences if caught for two reasons, and it's important to understand these two reasons. The one most people conjure up is that for the act of cheating, you are being dishonest.

As most everyone will point out, if it's an isolated event, the best thing to do to combat dishonesty is honesty in turn. If ever this situation comes up during a background check for a position, answer as honestly as possible. It is far more important to demonstrate that you've made a mistake and you've learned from it. Your integrity may come into question, but there are also ways to prove that the incident itself taught you not just that you shouldn't cheat, but also made you a better person somehow.

The second, and more important reason, I think, is that people don't learn from cheating. That is, if you're not properly learning the material you should know, your work will be of low quality. In some situations, this can, down the line, have very serious consequences. If, for example, you cheat and go uncaught in, say, medicine school, down the line you may cause a serious malpractice error, and cost someone's life, because you didn't learn all that you needed to know. There, the important thing to do is go back and properly learn the material you felt you needed to cheat for. Not only does this aid in your case in proving that you have learned your lesson on honesty, but you'll prevent actual, "real-world" mistakes when you undertake your career.

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I've held top secret clearance without a polygraph for ten years. The closest related question to this was whether I was ever on any probation or not, during my first investigation. I explained that I was on academic probation multiple semesters for low gpa. Investigator replied by asking how many courses I failed. I honestly answered 'a lot' and it never came up again and I was approved for my clearance.

Different agencies have different requirements. They never sent me for a poly, but later on, a new agency I supported required one. For The counterintelligence poly, the questions are discussed beforehand. During the actual question session, the investigator surprised me to catch me off guard. He asked if I ever cheated at school. I answered yes, which is true, and it also never came up again. That's not really the typical scope of questioning for this poly.

For a full lifestyle poly your personal life such as this question may be asked or looked at more in depth. I havent taken one yet, but I've had colleagues tell me they had admitted to more serious lapses of judgement without a problem. (Anecdotal, but one had a couple DUIs and kept his non-poly clearance).

Dont drink and drive, but this incident should not affect getting any level clearance, especially if it's a one off incident you are honest about.

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  • FWIW, I'm guessing the question about DUI was just to see if they would tell the truth or not. There's an almost 100% chance that they already knew about the DUIs before the clearance was ever granted in the first place. Even for lower-level clearances, the background checks do include criminal record checks. As I recall, the application form also asks if you've ever even been arrested, let alone convicted, of a crime. Granted, it's been a long time since I've had to fill it out, since my current job doesn't require a clearance, so my memory of it is a bit rusty. – reirab May 5 at 23:35

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