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I’m looking to apply for my MCS at a well-known North-American university – the same university where I completed my BCS with honors. My grades are good, more than sufficient to get into an MCS program. My BCS GPA at completion was a 3.6.

However, I was young and especially dumb in university. I won’t go into details, but I’m lucky to not be in prison right now. My professors and instructors fought hard to keep the university from expelling me. I owe another group of staff who kept another entire department calm. There was no property damage, injuries, or anything like that. I was supposed to be on permanent disciplinary probation for it, with the understanding that any misstep would result in my permanent expulsion. However, my official transcript shows “in good disciplinary standing” after a year. I was never placed back on probation.

There is no avoiding that blemish (and nor should there). There isn’t a single instructor, professor, assistant dean, associate dean, or dean who doesn’t know what happened. I have an excellent relationship with my former instructors and professors. My relationship with the various levels of the deans would be best described as non-existent, save one assistant dean.

TLDR: I made a pretty large, well-known (at the university) mistake that should’ve seen me be expelled and jailed. Instead, I was officially placed on disciplinary probation for a year. It should’ve been permanent (by transcript records). Relationship with former instructors/professors is excellent. Relationship with former dean, assistant dean, and associate dean is non-existent.

Am I screwed?

Addressing comments

  • Absolutely it’s important to acknowledge my past, without dwelling on it too much. That balance will be for me and an admissions board to determine.

  • Any letter of recommendations I get would be from three respected professors, and two very reputable and trusted instructors. The professors haven’t been at the university as long as the instructors. The professors are important members of a research group. Additionally, I've done graduate-like work with two of them, with a couple articles published. Both instructors have the ear of the dean.

  • Legal office: I'm not sure how involved they were. I've only ever heard rumors that a federal agency was called. That's never been confirmed (to me). I know that the highest levels of the university administrative team (up to and including the president and chancellor) were read into what had happened.

  • Time Frame: within the last five years. It's recent enough that most faculty and staff who were involved remember the events and are still employed at the university. With the exception of “the other department” the only group who refused to speak to me would be my deans, with one exception.

  • I have made steps to make peace with everyone involved, over the years. Some of them have gone unanswered, some of them have been accepted with open arms. It varied heavily on who I’m talking to and their mood that day.

  • I'm not able to openly speak about what happened, that's partially why I haven't explained what actually happened here (as well as to maintain a little bit of privacy for all of those involved). In order to discuss it, I'd need multiple people to sign off on a full disclosure (partial would make it look like I'm hiding something), which given the sensitive nature is not likely to happen. Anyone in a position to make or break my application already knows the full story. They were involved from the beginning of it.

  • Financial support is not a concern of mine. I already have everything I need to do my research. I'm employed making a comfortable wage. My employers are in the loop of my desire to get an MCS. They're willing (but would prefer not to) to shift my schedule, as needed.

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  • 43
    Why not apply to a different university where it would be easier to make a fresh start?
    – Daniel K
    Oct 22 at 0:33
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    A question for you to consider (don't answer it here): How relevant is your mistake to your future studies? There's a world of difference between stealing university equipment to sell it on Craigslist vs assaulting a fellow student vs making meth in the organic chemistry lab. The latter won't be much of a concern anymore if you're now applying to a computer science program.
    – TooTea
    Oct 22 at 7:19
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    If the crime was victimless or the victim was someone's wallet it is generally more likely to pass over quicker. Is that something you can mention anything about? (without revealing information you want to keep private) Oct 22 at 7:43
  • 9
    Is there any chance you are still going to be prosecuted and convicted in the future? An unspent conviction is a risk in taking on students or employees, so may be treated differently from spent convictions.
    – gerrit
    Oct 22 at 8:07
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    "Criminal" covers a lot of ground - too much. It's understandable that you don't want to share the details, but at the same time you have to appreciate that we also can't help with a situation we have effectively no information about. The advice you get here could be good or it could be catastrophically wrong - because we don't know what we're talking about. You do. I'd suggest you seek advice from people whom you trust and who are fully acquainted with all of the circumstances.
    – J...
    Oct 24 at 11:00
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People who commit crimes need education too (some would say, even more so)

It's obviously extremely difficult to speculate on this, particularly without details of the offence, and the policies and culture at your university. In any case, since your department apparently fought for you to remain as a student at the time, logic would dictate that the same people would be happy to have you as a student as your offence becomes more remote (and given that you have not done anything wrong since then). Moreover, if your official status in the program is that you are now "in good standing", that suggests that the effect of the initial offence on your status has now lapsed. That also bodes well for any application you make.

Different universities have different policies when it comes to relevance/irrelevance of criminal history in student applications. Some universities solicit information on criminal convictions and take this into account in applications, and some do not. (For more information on this you may want to read about the "ban the box" movement in academia.) It is unlikely that a university would solicit information on criminal offences that have not led to conviction, but in your case, where this is already known, it is possible it would be taken into account. A recent study by Stewart and Uggen (2019) involved a randomised-controlled-trial to estimate the effect of disclosure of a low-level felony conviction on a college application. They found that the rejection rate for applicants with felony convictions was nearly 2.5 times the rate of their control group. So, that gives you a rough idea of the estimated "average" effect of an actual felony convicion on an application.

You should also note that some universities specifically go out of their way to provide education to convicted criminals, in some cases including offering education-by-correspondence to people who are actually still in prison. (For an example of a post-prison program see e.g., St Francis College, NY). There is an ethos within certain parts of academia that encourages education for people who have committed criminal offences, as a means to give them pathways towards success in a law-abiding productive career. I happen to agree generally with that ethos (though with some limitations and caveats), so I would generally not hold a prior criminal offence against an applicant for a university education program, unless there were some serious ongoing risk in admitting them. More generally, I take the view that the criminal law system exists to punish crimes and the universities exist to provide education; not to act as an ancillary legal system. Of course, like any other major public institutions, universities want to discourage and penalise criminal offences committed by their present students, so that cuts the other way. There are also some ethical complications with service to criminals when university is funded or subsidised by taxpayers, but that is a can-of-worms for another time.

Ultimately, the prospects of your application may depend heavily on who ends up assessing it ---i.e., whether it is assessed by one of the university staff who wanted you to stay, or one of the staff that wanted to get rid of you. The best thing you can do is to be up-front about your offence in your application, make clear your contrition and subsequent good behaviour, and then hope that your undergraduate record subsequent to your offence (both good grades and good behaviour) gets you over the line.

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Unfortunately, I suspect the only answer we can give you is "maybe." The admissions committee will have to weigh the seriousness of what happened against the evidence that you've learned from your mistake and are otherwise a strong candidate. Some important factors:

  • Naturally, your application materials, when you address what happened: you will have to explain what happened without minimizing your culpability, but also without spending too many words on the past.
  • Your letters of recommendation will also carry great weight; if your professors are willing to state clearly that past mistakes are unlikely to be repeated, that should help you a lot.
  • The details about what you did. The legal office may be concerned about the university's liability if they admit you and you were to do it again. Similarly, if what you did is really horrible and is in the "public record," admitting you may raise concerns about the university's reputation.
  • How long ago this happened. You say you were "young" -- if this happened more than a few years ago, that should help a lot. If this happened 10+ years ago, then I wouldn't spend more than a sentence or two discussing this incident.

It sounds like your transcript shows that were put on probation; so, the analysis probably doesn't change much if you consider universities other than the one you are at now. Though if your current school still has several people who are personally upset about what happened, other schools may be more calm. I definitely recommend applying to more schools than just this one. I don't think your non-disclosure agreement makes this impossible, you can write something like:

"I do want to be transparent about one incident. During my 2nd year, I was put on academic probation. In short, I [did something really bad]. Due to an NDA, I cannot give all the details about what happened, but I freely admit that it was a major mistake and I am lucky not to have been expelled. [Another sentence or two presenting evidence (not just stating feelings) that you have put this incident behind you.]

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  • I'll edit my original post to answer this. Too long for a comment. Oct 21 at 23:22
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    OK, though to be clear, I wasn't really asking you for clarification. You did a good job making your question suitably broad that it could be useful to others in the future; this answer is intended to be equally broad.
    – cag51
    Oct 21 at 23:22
  • OP: if what happened would be in records, then I think you have better chances at the current university. Apparently many people seem to agree that was a past accident. The records should be seen as more scary in a place where nobody knows you.
    – Alchimista
    Oct 22 at 11:30
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If it was 5 years ago, you're overthinking the situation. You were probably not even old enough to legally drink by US standards. Young people often do dumb shit and 5 years is long enough for maturity.

e.g. My buddy once hacked into the network(he was really talented) of our CS department's main undergrad computer lab and wrote a script that remote-wiped every single machine in the lab, because he was really angry that we were playing games there instead of the planned cram session(with him) for a Linear Algebra exam later that day that he was otherwise utterly unprepared for.

He was in a hurry, did a sloppy job covering up his tracks(usually he wouldn't, it wasn't the first time he'd hacked the network) and so was caught. The lab guys had to work nights do a complete fresh re-install of every single machine, the lab was closed for several days and the Dean was pissed, but not heartless, so my buddy managed to get a "plea deal" where he had to single-handedly mop the floors in the computer labs, as "community service", in lieu of criminal charges, for the rest of the semester. He was in the shit-book for the rest of his undergrad and the butt of every professor's joke, since he had to admit the dumb reason he did it. Yet when we came back for a visit(about 5 years after the incident as it happens) the Dean(same guy), slapped him on the back and cracked a joke about them needing to watch out for the master hacker.

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    There's an old idiom "there's no such thing as bad publicity" that comes into play for stories like that. Becoming infamous can occasionally be a path to success. Being obscure never is.
    – CCTO
    Oct 22 at 21:04
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Might they admit me for grad school?

Yes, it sounds absolutely possible. Look at it this way: you say you are lucky not to be in prison. Well, if there’s a lesson there, it’s that sometimes you get lucky. If you got lucky once, it could happen again with your grad school application.

I suggest that you simply give it a shot. Your academic success clearly shows that you have mended your ways and are no longer engaging in dumb, criminal activities. Your professors seem to recognize this too. Given the political attitudes of the typical US academic, many of them probably believe in second chances and in the narrative of personal growth and redemption. This could make the idea of admitting you seem appealing, or at the very least, as reasonable as the idea of admitting anyone else with similar academic credentials.

The one piece of practical advice I’d offer is, apply to many schools, not just one. This is good advice for any prospective graduate student, so it applies equally to you. Any single student generally cannot count on getting admitted to any single program they apply to.

Good luck!

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    People from both ends of the political spectrum agree on personal growth and redemption, although the ideological systems supporting these convictions differ.
    – Deipatrous
    Oct 24 at 14:21
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Teachers support students who learn

If they didn't indict you and they let you graduate, they probably want your path to continue. They also made mistakes. Teachers don't want students who don't need to learn, but they love students who learn and progress the most. To many teachers, you are the ideal student.

It looks like you learned and took responsibility. If your tone and attitude at school and in applying are the same as you have here, those professors may likely send good words for you as they rub shoulders with the admissions committee. They probably already have.

The work culture is in your favor

The way it often works with a student in your shoes having graduated is faculty dropping lines randomly in the lounge and cafeterias about you with words like "attitude" and "improvement" and "potential" and "learns". Someone might make a call, calm tone, "I've met with him, and he gets it. We should be good here." At any meetings, a few would make a few similar statements, then most would just nod, smile, and vote in your favor.

While a carpenter stands back to admire freshly finished remodeling, teachers admire students they helped make a comeback. They get off on it. Teachers love to be part of stories like Lean on Me (based on a true story). They get angry about different things, like office space in the latest building project. Helping you progress restores good vibes at their meetings like an afternoon dessert at the beach.

It's one big fish tank. All the fish know each other and this "school" of fish seems to like you.

Normal risk, best to try

Faculty, heads, and deans can trip on power. Institutions always have that some. But, don't fear it because it's an "expected/acceptable risk" wherever you go. You may be surprised by who turns out to be your opponents and proponents—the dean who comes down toughest goes to bat for you later, the department head who smiled the most may have been undercutting you. But, that seems not the case here. You probably mostly made friends if you graduated.

You never know until you try. In your application, don't belabor your faults, just make one, single statement that you are "very undeserving... but maybe the world needs [you] having overcome personal flaws..." Be only positive in the rest of your application.

I hope you succeed. But somehow, I think your teachers hope you succeed more than I do. By all means, try!

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    Teachers definitely love seeing students succeed. I know some of the faculty outside of school. They're always happy to hear from me. I will certainly try. It won't hurt anyone - and the worst that happens is they reject my application. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! Cheers! Oct 21 at 23:33
  • I think you may mean dictionary.com/browse/indict .
    – shoover
    Oct 22 at 6:28
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I think you need to ask a different question. The answer to both 'might they admit me to grad school' and to 'am I screwed' is 'maybe, you'll only find out if you try'. The fact that you're asking these questions indicates to me that you're wrestling with the guilt that you feel over your actions. I think the more you can meet this guilt and let it go, the more clearly you will be able to look at your situation and see what your actions were, and what the potential consequences may be. This could then help you to rephrase your question as something like 'how can I handle this matter in my job applications and potential interviews to minimise the impact it has on my chances of getting a position'. Do you feel like you deserve to ask this question instead?

I think the straightforward approach you've taken in writing your question is commendable and you'll need it to move forward. Good luck.

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This question is virtually impossible to answer by the good ol' generalization of life experiences, and yet...

It is common to give people second and third chances in academic culture. When missteps happen, normally the way out is proving you've reformed to someone and have them vouch for you: regaining credibility and re-socialization are closely coupled here. Since you've retained good relationships with some of the profs, it's already a huge plus.

When making amends, one would likely need to sacrifice comfort and a measure of privacy: expect some kind of probation in spirit, if not in letter. It is also tied to the nature of the offense: if you've committed fraud, be able to come with the way to handle related affairs transparently enough; if you were drug dealing on the campus, maybe some check-ups with an addictionist would be in order. Probably the least troublesome to deal with would be a prank went wrong kind of scenario.

It might be that while you're allowed to perform research duties, the bar for teaching duties is higher (at least this is the case here). MSc programs don't generally require to perform those but otherwise it could cause issues, too.

They do some good will towards you, so the issue might be of capacity. Either they would take delight in seeing you overcome your past or they are overspent already and dread of seeing you again. And there is only one way of finding that out.

Be humble but direct. Apparent doubt might be a complete deal-breaker here: if you're not sure about yourself today, why would they be? While you definitely can't just walk in and pretend nothing happened, a certain clarity and assertiveness would be good. "I want to apply" instead of "I was wondering if you maybe could admit me into your MSc program", if you will.

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To my question "Why not apply to a different university where it would be easier to make a fresh start?" you said

Any application to another University would require sending transcripts. It's more than a little strange to see honor marks (with no history of cheating), followed by a student being put on Academic probation. I'd be back at the same square I'm currently in.

So yes, it would look a little strange. But compare one little strange thing on a transcript to:

There isn’t a single instructor, professor, assistant dean, associate dean, or dean who doesn’t know what happened

You are in a much better spot applying to a new university (assuming of course that this incident did not make national news and that faculty/deans at other schools would not recognize your name). Yes there will be something a little strange on the transcript. You should acknowledge this in your application (but without going into too many details), say that you've learned from it, and then move on. If you have good letters of recommendation and an otherwise good academic record, I think you'd have a decent shot at another university.

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  • I don't know where OP is located, but in many countries suspects in criminal trials may not be fully named by news sources.
    – gerrit
    Oct 22 at 12:33
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My professors and instructors fought hard to keep the university from expelling me. I owe another group of staff who kept another entire department calm.

This isn't a guarantee, but it's a good sign - if they fought hard so that you could stay at the university, then they may fight hard to allow you to stay for a postgraduate course too, given that you meet the academic requirements for it. You also have nothing to lose by applying (except an application fee if there is one in your country, but that should be small in the grand scheme of things).

That said, if there are people at the university who you harmed, and they would be uncomfortable with you continuing to be at the university, then you might consider whether staying there is the right thing to do. There are some kinds of crimes where the continued presence of the perpetrator can cause more harm after the fact. I don't know if this might apply to you, but if it does then it's something you may not want on your conscience.

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