For committing a crime considered very severe in the U.S. and in some countries (hence the 5-year minimum sentence), but not as severe (but may still lead to imprisonment) in many other countries? He does not have any record of academic dishonesty or anything like that; in fact, he had a solid record of publications and was still building on it before he got arrested. Can he still publish papers that are taken seriously, and obtain academic positions, in the U.S. or in some other countries, once out of jail?

UPDATE: I only know what he pleaded guilty to according to news. It is not something noble like an "honest crime". I have confused conviction with indictment, so now I think the crime is most likely real and hardly disputable. I want to add that he is a first-time offender, so I don't know if his prison sentence can be converted to probation, and if that matters to whom may hire him in the future.

@xLeitix's comment:

I cannot think of one crime which results in a five year sentence where I would hire that person.

Maybe the crime of failing to notify the town of L'Aquila of a 2009 earthquake that killed at least 309 people? Fortunately for those scientists, the initial court ruling was overturned about 2 years later.

  • 26
    It also depends a lot on the specific kind of crime committed. If, for instance, he has been convicted for sleeping with one of his students, this would be a totally different matter than another felony unrelated to academic life (e.g., tax fraud or a hit-and-run driving accident). Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 12:53
  • 8
    Also, I want to point out that starting afresh somewhere else may not be as easy as he thinks. Most countries close their immigration door if the applicant has a criminal record. Better discuss with an immigration lawyer before rushing to leave. Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 15:38
  • 49
    I cannot think of one crime which results in a five year sentence where I would hire that person. — Flying to the United Arab Emirates with a poppyseed muffin in your carry-on bag?
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 20:24
  • 16
    @PlasmaHH: Sharing a Kanye West MP3. Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 0:54
  • 7
    This isn't answerable in it's current form given that it's entirely dependent on context: the particular crime, the particular field of study we're talking about, and likely the particular school, the particular university, and a whole bunch of other specifics.
    – DA.
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 5:29

7 Answers 7


A five year prison sentence would damage an academic career in at least two major ways. The obvious way it would damage it is from the possible stain on a person's record. In the U.S., at least, being a convicted felon can be very difficult to recover from, no matter what the crime, due to general societal prejudice. Add to that the fact that most crimes indicate either dishonesty or being a threat to others, and you've got a serious problem. It does, however, strongly depend on the crime. For example, if the crime is an "honest crime" that derives from ones intellectual inclinations (e.g., the notorious example of Timothy Leary, the sad case of Aaron Swartz, or the youthful recklessness of Robert Morris) then it may be "forgiven" from an academic point of view.

The other, perhaps less obvious, source of career damage is from the interruption in ongoing work. Typically, any working scientist has a number of simultaneous multi-year projects at different stages: preliminary work, proposal, execution, publication. Each of these fuels the others, e.g., papers from more mature projects help support proposals for new projects, pieces of ongoing work in project execution include preliminary work that leads to new proposals, etc. With any major career gap, this "pipeline" can empty, and there is often difficulty in restarting it. This can be a significant problem even for academics who take family leave; a multi-year gap for prison would be much bigger to overcome. Either, however, can be overcome with time and help from supportive colleagues.

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    I think that Andre Weil spend few months in jail for refusing to join the army and he did research in that time...
    – Nick S
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 15:27
  • 2
    BTW, I find this part about Weil's time in prison interesting: www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Extras/Weil_prison.html
    – Nick S
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 15:47
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    Galileo Galilei was put under house arrest for more than 8 years (when he died) for telling the truth when the world wouldn't believe him...
    – Magoo
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 0:14
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    @Magoo - Galileo wasn't imprisoned for "telling the truth". He was mostly imprisoned for antagonizing the wrong people (including putting a sitting Pope - who was till then his supporter - into a book under a name "Simplicio"). History is a lot more complicated than the soundbites you hear.
    – DVK
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 0:41
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    @NickS At least today Northern European prison systems put a much bigger focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. No idea about the 40s and the given crime in particular, but I'd wager there's a tradition of weighing reintegration higher than punishment. Considering the current US prison system I doubt the situation is in any shape or form comparable.
    – Voo
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 16:28

I would think having a felony on your record is poison for any career. In academia, it may be even worse because, in addition to the general stigma of being a convicted criminal, you will need to fight through the following issues:

  • You have a career gap that is very hard to overlook or paint in a positive light.
  • Job searches in academia are always competitive, so that even smallish taints on your resume can become major issues. Having a major taint such as a felony will make it very hard to succeed on the professorial job market.
  • Some jobs may be unavailable to you anyway, for instance those that require security clearance.
  • You may even objectively be less qualified after coming out of prison. 5 years of (presumably) low intellectual stimulation are a long time, and many technology fields move quickly.

So, yes, to be honest, I think that the career of this person would be pretty much "totally ruined". And, no, I don't think it matters much why he was convicted - I do not think that there are crimes that can lead to 5-year sentences that would not be considered a big deal by any search committee.

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    One exception could be political crimes. If the academic is, for instance, a dissident imprisoned for protesting Country A's political system, this would not be so likely to be a barrier for them getting a job in Country B, especially if B views A's regime as oppressive. It might even be an advantage. Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 16:49
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    @NateEldredge Note that the OP was specifically asking about a crime that was considered severe in the US. I guess somebody like Snowden would not be hampered too much by his past in other countries, but this would be a rare case. Edit: in fact, some universities would probably offer Snowden a position for publicity reasons alone.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 17:15
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    xLeitix: Edward Snowden is currently rector of Glasgow university. It's an elected post.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 20:28
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    @AE And you can tell how important the post of Rector is, from the fact that they voted to appoint somebody who cannot even enter the country during his term and therefore cannot perform his duties. It's simply a political statement and a fairly weak one, given that he received about 3,000 votes from about 24,000 students. Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 11:28
  • 5
    Yes, it's absolutely a political statement and an honorary post. Of course it is. I wouldn't characterise a position of support for Snowden as "uber-liberal" though, e.g. "[poll] finds Republicans and Democrats almost identically divided over whether leaker Edward Snowden is a “traitor” or a “hero”", "Seventy percent of Republicans called mass electronic surveillance unacceptable, a view shared with just 46 percent of Democrats." (cnsnews.com/news/article/patrick-goodenough/…)
    – A E
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 14:34

In short, no.

And if you have time...

When I was young I was charged with number of crimes in US. I took plea bargain and ended up serving few years in California state prison. Although now I think I made mistakes back then, I do not feel ashamed at all of what I have done because I believe the cause was just. It took me about six years after release from prison to be able to do research in another country. I feel pretty content with my current position. What I would recommend to your friend is not to think about the distinct future but rather get himself mentally-and physically-ready for what's to come during incarceration. I was in level-4 yard for 1 year and the rest in level-3, and the magnitude of violence one must face is probably nothing like you have ever encountered. Be polite, social, observant, and extremely violent when the appropriate moment comes. Most likely your friend will do time in much more comfortable places. I heard it's pretty peaceful in other places such as Federal prisons, other state prisons, or lower level prisons in California, but I don't think I can speak for what I have not experienced. There will be plenty of time to think and even read if someone send in books, however, so it could be a great opportunity depends on how you see it. I actually had pretty descent time in there(although I wouldn't purposely get incarcerated again). I had physics background so I never really had a chance to extensively study philosophy even though I had always wanted to. Prison gave me time to thoroughly study most of the classical works I was interested in, and I believe such experience gave me quite a boost when moving onto other field later on.

Everything must perish eventually. Isn't it already amazing to be able to entertain intellectual matters even for a short moment such as human lifespan?

  • 4
    "Be polite, social, observant, and extremely violent when the appropriate moment comes." The question was certainly not "What kind of behavior is necessary to survive in prison?" I don't feel that any answer on an academic Q&A webpage that advocates violence is appropriate. Please consider removing this from your answer. Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 6:31
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    Answer seemed relevant to me. Physical self-defence seems like an obvious necessity for prisoners (IMO).
    – A E
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 14:36
  • 6
    @AE: I am not debating the merits of the prison survival tip, but saying that this is not prison.stackexchange.com. How to survive in prison was not the question asked, nor could it have been, on this site. That said, although the remark in question seems clearly irrelevant, I certainly like your wording of it better! Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 20:56
  • 7
    @Pete L Clark: the answer's author was trying to make his answer helpful, rather than likeable (by you).
    – Jeffiekins
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 18:00

I know a case where someone spent several months in jail (mostly awaiting trial) after college, but was convicted only of misdemeanors (not felonies) after plea bargains, and subsequently moved to another state and got a doctorate. (AFAIK, grad schools, unlike employers, do not have background checks, or they didn't back then.) The person garnered a decent publication record during the PhD, and then moved to another country for an academic career (which, last I heard, is going reasonably well).


One thing that there was no mention of here is that society does change, and some things which were considered totally "wrong" before can be easily overlooked today, and it also goes the other way around. So it is very possible, that although today this particular crime seems to be rather destructive to a person's career, it may be less important by the time one regains the freedom.

Of course, this doesn't help with the simple fact of not being engaged in the field for some period of time.

  • 1
    Hoping for that seems like a stretch. Times change, but usually not so fast. Barring exceptional circumstances, a felony that brings you 5 years into prison right now will not be considered an ok thing to do in 5 years.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 7:07
  • Think about having weed in your car on the interstate. Right now it's highly illegal with the mandatory minimum sentence. But it's highly likely that in 5 years or so it may change.
    – v010dya
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 20:49

I'm studying Philosophy and literature and in this field it's not rare to find people who has been to prison or has been condemned for some reason (the first and more famous case is Socrates). Dostoyevsky has been to prison, even G. Pascoli, has been convicted for taking part to a socialist demonstration (and he was quite a quiet person).. But I guess that if someone enacts behaviours that damage the academic society or harass other members of the society then his life will not be that easy. However I presume that if the research has a strong content then it still has its possibilities. Although I know about some researchers who didn't had at all an academic career till someone else discovered their papers. So I would suggest that if that person has something to say, then he should try saying it, and writing it (intellectual connections are important but the content is available if you know how to search for it and do a complete research). That person should even try fixing it's problems with the law. We all do what we can and we all do mistakes.

  • Of course, in the example of Socrates, he was certainly not able to "publish papers that are taken seriously, and obtain academic positions" after his offense. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 18:05

If the he/she can come back stronger from it more disciplined it could be a blessing in disguise, wisdom comes at different stages for different people.

  • 2
    I think it is an attempted answer rather than a comment, although it is (unfortunately) incorrect. People are just too bigoted. So although a person can come back stronger, the society may work hard attempting to break that individual.
    – v010dya
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 23:19

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