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I was charged with possession of marijuana earlier this year. In my state, it's not a crime, just a violation with a fine. Technically, it's not even a conviction because there's a diversion program that results in the charge being dropped after a year. The problem is that it won't be dismissed and expunged until after I apply for graduate school. So right now the charge is listed as pending.

  1. Do applications for a PhD in math ask about petty charges like this? I know some ask about felonies and convictions, but that doesn't apply here. I know if I were applying for law school or medical school, my situation would be very different.

  2. How badly will this affect my application should this show up in a preliminary background check? Do math graduate programs even do background checks?

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    Question 3: what if you are applying in a state (or country) where marijuana use and possession is either legal or openly tolerated? – Moriarty Jul 19 '15 at 14:14
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    It's worth noting that some US universities, but not all, do background checks on faculty hire candidates. I agree that this probably won't come up at the graduate level, but keep in mind that if you stay in academia, you may have a similar question in a few years. – Nate Eldredge Jul 19 '15 at 18:37
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    I changed the questing to focus on math exclusivley. Minor offenses for STEM fields likely developmental psychology with at risk youths will be different. – StrongBad Jul 19 '15 at 23:30
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    There might be a concern with a background check if you wind up involved in research that requires a security clearance, but I'm guessing that doesn't come up very often in a mathematics graduate program. – Dan Bryant Jul 20 '15 at 14:28
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Do applications for a PhD in math ask about petty charges like this? I know some ask about felonies and convictions, but that doesn't apply here. I know if I were applying for law school or medical school, my situation would be very different.

No. The part of the application that faculty look at has nothing remotely like this. If you apply to a public university there may be a portion of the application which is run through the university itself, so there is some chance that you might be asked about felonies. But as you say, you have not even been charged with a crime. You would have to be asked something extremely specific in order to have divulge this: e.g. "Do you have any pending fines for possession of drugs?" I've never heard of such a question asked in any context.

How badly will this affect my application should this show up in a preliminary background check? Do math graduate programs even do background checks?

No, math (and other "arts and sciences") graduate programs do not do background checks, so far as I know [I was involved with graduate admissions at my program for several years]. Assuming that this information were disclosed to the faculty: well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but to me this sounds roughly comparable to a moving violation in terms of its legal and moral seriousness. In fact, some kinds of moving violations present a potential or actual danger to others; possessing marijuana really doesn't. I would put it squarely into the "Don't worry about it" category.

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We don't ask about misdemeanors and generally there's no reason to volunteer such information.

Some faculty on admissions committees do google prospective candidates and if that is the case, you may want to engage in some SEO to make sure your positive attributes are at the top and your drunken and doped debauchery information and mugs shots are located further down in the rankings.

Furthermore, if you engaged in petty larceny or animal abuse, some people on the admissions committee might care just from a moral perspective, but many faculty have themselves had experiences where they "inhaled" (quoting Bill Clinton) so they are the least likely to throw stones in that regard.

Disclaimer: I'm in the humanistic social sciences

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    I assume you mean "don't volunteer". If the university specifically asks (about charges), then there is a reason to tell. – user6726 Jul 19 '15 at 5:20
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    Generally, universities and search committees don't ask, so there's no reason to tell. I'm using the parallel construction of the DOD's former DADT policy: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_ask,_don%27t_tell – RoboKaren Jul 19 '15 at 5:23
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    The analogy to DADT is quite strong. If you tell us about a misdemeanor drug charge (when we haven't asked you), then we have to act on this information. – RoboKaren Jul 19 '15 at 5:26
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    @RoboKaren We do? What exactly would we do to act on this information? – Corvus Jul 20 '15 at 0:50
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    @RoboKaren Thanks. I guess it wouldn't have occurred to me to do so, even as grad program director, given that at my institution the applications come through the graduate school in the first place. If they want to screen for misdemeanor drug offenses, they can read the files themselves. Now if I we were interested in a candidate convicted of something serious that might be a threat to others on campus, I'd certainly seek advice from the grad school and/or risk management. – Corvus Jul 20 '15 at 8:04
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While you needn't worry, you should reveal facts that you are required to reveal. Graduate school application forms are not easy to obtain (most institutions require online application via an application-handling company), but I could determine something about a few institutions.

If you were applying to the universities of Arkansas, South Carolina State, Hawaii, Alaska, or Tennessee State, there is no applicable question on their graduate application form. Missouri State asks about charges pending, Virginia Tech asks if you are "you currently on court-ordered supervised or unsupervised probation or under the terms of a finding under advisement". North Georgia asks about criminal charges currently pending, and Florida asks about being charged with a violation which if pending could result in probation, community service, a jail sentence, or revocation or suspension of driver's license (explicitly noting that if your record has been expunged, you do not have to answer 'yes'). Indiana is very confusing: it asks "Have you been convicted of a felony or have you engaged in behavior that resulted in injury to person(s) or personal property", but this is immediately followed by their "Felony Statement" that "We require applicants who have been charged with or convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony, or who have engaged in behavior that resulted in mental or physical injury to person(s) or personal property, to disclose this information".

You should start from the premise that nobody actually cares if you get busted for pot, and if they ask any such questions, just say yes and explain (tell only if actually asked). Otherwise, you should discuss the legal arcana with your attorney, to see if you were charged with a felony (probably not), a misdemeanor (maybe not), or some other kind of violation / offense. I think in California, it is a "civil infraction" with no possible jail time. That might be a "violation" or a "charge", so talk to the attorney (or, simply say "yes"). It's vastly easier to just say "yes" and explain. The worst thing you could do is tell an untruth.

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  • Wow, so the moving violation is not just an analogy but actually something that one university asks about? I am very surprised by that. – Pete L. Clark Jul 20 '15 at 1:19
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    Also, "mental or physical injury to person(s) or personal property" is one of the loopiest phrases I've heard in a long time. Apparently the legal definition of injury can extend to property but...*mental injury to property*?? – Pete L. Clark Jul 20 '15 at 1:30
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    Didn't you ever watch Uri Geller? That was some severe mental injury to spoons. – RoboKaren Jul 20 '15 at 2:02

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