Graduate Student Academic Misconduct

Enrollment in graduate programs increased by 8 percent from 2009 to 2019. An already hyper-competitive graduate school landscape is becoming more crowded by the year.

Adding to the pressure is this: Graduate students may shoulder immense debt in exchange for their post-baccalaureate education. Two years of graduate school may cost more than $100,000, and graduate students account for 40% of all new federal student loans each year. The cost of failure or underperformance in graduate school is far more than a damaged ego—it's a five- or six-figure debt.

It is no wonder that academic misconduct occurs in graduate programs across the nation. Graduate students are generally given more freedom to self-monitor than undergrads, and this alone can increase the risk of violating academic honesty policies. The rigor of graduate school and the outsize pressures to succeed may further contribute to cases of misconduct.

In other cases, a university pursues allegations of misconduct that are unfounded. If you are falsely accused of cheating, plagiarizing, or another form of dishonesty, then you must fight for your name. If you have admittedly engaged in misconduct, you must seek mercy from those who will determine your sanctions.

Whether you are facing legitimate or baseless claims of misconduct, your enrollment in your graduate program may be at risk. An attorney-advisor can lead your defense. Joseph D. Lento may reach an acceptable resolution that allows you to proceed with your education and future goals.

Graduate Schools May Have Less Tolerance for Misconduct

Graduate students should take any allegations of academic misconduct seriously. Faculty and administrators in graduate programs may hold their students to a higher standard than undergraduate students—those seeking advanced degrees are supposed to be the best of the best, and sanctions for misconduct may reflect this high standard.

The same actions that result in probation for an undergraduate may be grounds for suspension or expulsion as a graduate student. A slap on the wrist is highly unlikely for a graduate student accused of and found responsible for academic misconduct.

You should be prepared for a rigorous adjudication process. Understand that if you are deemed responsible for the allegations against you, suspension or expulsion may be a likely sanction.

What Qualifies as Academic Misconduct in Graduate School?

Academic misconduct encompasses a wide range of behaviors, including:


The definition of plagiarism includes:

  • Presenting another person's words or ideas as your own
  • Using another person's words or ideas without adequate attribution
  • Stating that ideas or words are original when you know that they are not

25% of graduate students admit to at least one behavior that could qualify as plagiarism. Plagiarism is generally more intentional than an innocent mistake, though the line between the two is often difficult to recognize.

The disciplinary board at your school may need to prove intent to prove plagiarism.


You may face sanctions if you collude with others to gain an academic advantage. Collusive behaviors may include:

  • Using electronic communications to exchange answers during an exam
  • Collaborating on unmonitored coursework when doing so is prohibited
  • Providing or receiving a copy of an exam in advance of the test
  • Having another student complete coursework for you
  • Completing coursework for another student

Graduate students must succeed or fail on their own merits. When prohibited collusion occurs, your university may punish both you and the party with whom you colluded.

Unauthorized Use of Electronic and Non-Electronic Aids

The typical graduate student today is technologically sophisticated. You can likely use a wide array of devices, platforms, and programs that your professors may be unfamiliar with. You may violate your program's academic policies by:

  • Using the internet for assignments when you've been prohibited from doing so
  • Using a cell phone, iPod, or other electronic device during a testing period
  • Recording answers and listening to them via headphones during a test
  • Hiring a third party to complete your coursework through an online forum

A shift towards remote learning has sparked an innovative revolution in digital cheating. Your graduate program may view electronically assisted cheating as particularly premeditated and may show no leniency during adjudication.

You may also face sanctions for using non-electronic aids, including but not limited to written notes and cheat sheets.

Allowing Another Student to Copy Your Work

Graduate students may view giving unauthorized assistance as less egregious than receiving it. This is an inaccurate perception. Graduate programs generally view all parties to academic misconduct as having equal fault.

Whether you allow another student to copy a test or provide another form of prohibited assistance, expect to face the full range of consequences.

Many other forms of academic dishonesty can lead to sanctions. Your student handbook should dictate what behaviors do or do not qualify as academic violations at your school.

Do Schools Have Unique Policies on Academic Misconduct?

Individual colleges and universities usually have specific policies covering academic misconduct. UPenn’s Wharton School states its expectation for each student:

“The Wharton student is expected to represent oneself honestly in all oral or written statements. The student will not misrepresent any material fact to other students, faculty, staff, prospective employer, or anyone else while representing oneself as a member of the Wharton community….”

Every graduate program has some version of this statement. Individual graduate schools may also have more detailed policies that:

  • Define academic integrity
  • Identify specific behaviors that qualify as academic misconduct
  • Explain the reporting process for academic misconduct
  • Explain your rights as a student accused of academic wrongdoing
  • Outline possible sanctions for academic misconduct

Behaviors that qualify as academic misconduct are generally similar from one graduate program to the next. The other details contained within your program-specific policies are important, though.

School- and program-specific policies may explain how your school will adjudicate your case. The adjudication process can vary significantly between universities. For this reason, our firm will acquire and learn your graduate program's specific academic misconduct policies

What Process Can You Expect When You're Accused of Academic Misconduct?

There may be significant overlap in how universities handle academic wrongdoing. Once you stand accused, you may expect to:

1. Meet with your professor and possibly the accuser

In some cases, your professor and accuser may be one and the same. Your university may empower the professor to determine your responsibility from wrongdoing and issue sanctions.

You do not have to admit wrongdoing or agree to a professor's proposed sanctions. We generally recommend that you not admit wrongdoing, especially if you have yet to speak with an attorney-advisor.

2. Meet with a Dean or other university faculty

A more powerful faculty member generally takes over the case when a professor cannot resolve an allegation of academic misconduct. This more powerful administrator may be the Dean of Academic Affairs, a Dean of a specific graduate program, or another faculty member. This person may review your case and determine if there are grounds for further disciplinary procedures.

Depending on your university's policies, this faculty member may offer you a resolution—generally some type of sanction. If you refuse once again to accept responsibility or sanctions, then your case may proceed to a formal review board.

Section L(10) of the Harvard Law Handbook of Academic Policies describes a process similar to the one you've just read about.

3. Participate in a hearing

Most graduate programs will initiate some type of academic misconduct hearing for students who contest allegations or specific sanctions. During such a hearing, your attorney-advisor may:

  • Present any evidence of your innocence
  • Question witnesses, including but not limited to your accuser
  • Present witnesses who support your character and/or innocence
  • Make an oral case for innocence or leniency

Johns Hopkins Medicine’s academic integrity policy describes its specific hearing procedures for students accused of academic dishonesty. Though each school may have unique procedures, you will generally have the chance to explain yourself in a court-like setting.

The group overseeing your hearing may take time—typically no longer than one week—to issue a decision.

4. Receive notice of a decision

You will generally receive written notice of the adjudication committee's decision. The standard of proof for an academic misconduct case may vary by school. In many cases, governing bodies will use the preponderance of evidence standard. This standard gauges whether you are most likely responsible or not responsible for the allegations against you.

If the adjudicating body determines that you are more likely guilty than not guilty, it may issue sanctions against you. If the body decides that you are most likely not responsible, it may dismiss your case without sanctions.

5. Appeal an unfavorable ruling

Appeals are an essential feature of due process. You may be able to appeal a finding of responsibility, or you may appeal specific sanctions as unduly punitive. Acceptable grounds for an appeal generally include:

  • That new evidence or facts have emerged
  • That the adjudication process was flawed in some way
  • That the adjudicating body misinterpreted the facts
  • That other specific circumstances led to an inaccurate or unfair ruling

Your attorney-advisor will know how to write an appeal of your sanctions. You must generally file an appeal within a specific period of time—generally a few days—to be eligible for consideration. Appeals are typically the last option you have for contesting an allegation of academic misconduct.

Can Your Attorney-Advisor Participate in These Stages of Your Case?

School-specific policies dictate how involved an attorney-advisor can be in your case. Some schools allow an advisor to handle every step of your case, representing you in your hearing and every other aspect of your case. Other schools place limits on an attorney-advisor's involvement.

Regardless of your school's policies, an attorney-advisor can create your case strategy, prepare you for any hearings and meetings, and serve an invaluable role in your defense.

What to Know About Graduate School Appeals

The appeals process for graduate students should be exhaustive. Administrators within graduate programs know how much time, effort, and money students invest in their post-undergraduate studies. You should have every right and opportunity to clear your name, and a robust appeals process may be available to you.

It's important to note that a graduate school appeal must generally present new information to be eligible for consideration. Rather than regurgitating your original defense, you may need to present:

  • A new argument (such as the contention that your original hearing was unfair)
  • New testimony (such as a witness's stating, for the first time, that your accuser has ulterior motives)
  • New evidence (such as cell phone records showing that you did not engage in electronic collaboration)

Without an original element, your university may not accept your appeal. However, a graduate school may be inclined to hear your appeal so long as you give it a reason to. An attorney-advisor will ensure that your appeal is technically sound, giving you the best possible chance to have your appeal heard.

Possible Defenses Against Allegations of Academic Misconduct

Your defense is arguably the most critical piece of your case—it may be the difference between exoneration and possible expulsion from your graduate program.

Your attorney-advisor will tailor your defense specifically to your case. Your advisor may even tailor your defense to you as a student and person. Possible defenses to allegations of academic misconduct include:

That the accuser misinterpreted something they saw or heard

A simple misunderstanding may lead to an allegation of misconduct. Someone may misconstrue an innocuous statement that you make about cheating as an admission of cheating. Someone could also misinterpret an action, such as checking your phone, as an act of cheating.

A simple clarification of case-related circumstances may be an effective defense.

That you did not intend to engage in dishonest behavior

Some cases of alleged academic misconduct may involve the question of intent. A graduate school may view intentional plagiarism, for example, far more seriously than someone accidentally deleting a citation before turning in a term paper. If your advisor creates reasonable doubt that you intended to engage in dishonesty, then you may see potential sanctions dismissed or reduced.

That you were coerced into committing academic misconduct

If you face threats or immense pressure to participate in an act of cheating, then a disciplinary body may be more lenient. Depending on the nature of any threat or pressure that you experienced, they may even dismiss your case.

That your accuser has ulterior motives

Some allegations of academic wrongdoing may be motivated by personal animus. If someone has accused you because they have ulterior motives, then your lawyer may expose those motives during your disciplinary hearing. Evidence of malicious intent could be enough to dismiss your case.

That mental health issues led you to act abnormally

Mental health issues can cause you to fall behind on studies. When you fall behind, you may be more tempted to cheat to catch up. There is precedent for students facing expulsion because poor mental health caused a downward academic spiral. Some schools may not accept poor mental health as a defense, but yours may.

When your graduate program accepted you, they did so based on your performance and potential. If you were suffering mentally, then you may have been unable to perform up to your potential. Your school may show leniency based on this fact.

That you are innocent but have no plausible explanation for the accuser's allegations

You may be completely innocent of allegations against you. If you are, then it may be unclear why someone has accused you of wrongdoing. Your attorney-advisor will do their best to prove your innocence, even if they have no rational explanation for the false allegations against you.

That you are responsible for committing academic misconduct but are remorseful and deserve leniency

Graduate school students do succumb to academic pressures. If you have made an error in judgment and committed academic misconduct, then admitting fault may be the best response. This may be especially true when there is overwhelming evidence of your wrongdoing.

Your case strategy may not be to deny wrongdoing. Instead, you may admit fault, show remorse, and request leniency from the disciplinary board. Your lawyer may present character witnesses and argue that you deserve mercy.

How Will Your Attorney-Advisor Support Your Defense?

Your attorney-advisor may augment their oral arguments in numerous ways. They may:

  • Present physical evidence, such as electronic records, video footage, and academic materials, that support your case
  • Present character statements that indicate you are not the type of person who knowingly engages in academic dishonesty
  • Present circumstantial evidence that supports your case
  • Present expert testimony that supplements your case

An advisor's job is to present the strongest possible case on your behalf. They may present this case in a number of different ways.

Possible Sanctions for Graduate Student Academic Misconduct

Graduate programs may not hesitate to dismiss students who display academic dishonesty. If the school finds you responsible for academic misconduct—whether or not you're actually responsible—you may be expelled.


You should approach your case with the possibility of dismissal in mind. This outlook will ensure that you take your defense seriously.

Being dismissed from a graduate program can have long-ranging consequences, including:

  • Massive student debt that you are unable to pay back (certainly not in a timely manner)
  • Great difficulty gaining entry to another graduate program
  • Abandonment of professions that require a graduate degree
  • Loss of professional opportunities and potential earning power
  • Diminished quality of life

Dismissal from your graduate program may, perhaps most devastatingly, make you feel like a failure. You may suffer both short- and long-term mental health consequences because of expulsion.

In addition to possible dismissal, sanctions you may face include:


You may face a temporary or permanent suspension for academic misconduct. Even if you can return from your suspension, the absence can be very damaging. Your graduation date may be delayed, potentially causing additional fees and costs.

Accreditation boards and prospective employers may also ask about your suspension. You may face delays in accreditation and sacrifice job opportunities as a consequence.

Loss of Scholarships or Financial Aid

Your school may view academic misconduct as grounds to revoke financial aid or scholarships. The high cost of attending graduate school means that this lost financial support can be devastating. Losing financial aid or scholarships may cause you to go into debt. Depending on your circumstances, you may even have to leave your graduate program because of financial hardship.

Failure of an Assignment or Course

A failing grade may be among the mildest punishments that you face. And yet, a single failing grade can be a massive blow to your academic performance. Depending on the assignment, an “F” may cause you to fail the entire course.

Just like a suspension, you may have to explain a failing grade (or course withdrawal) to prospective employers and other influential parties.

Formal Reprimand

A reprimand in your academic file may be the most lenient sanction for a violation of academic integrity. This sanction may come in addition to other punishments or may stand on its own. The demerit may be visible to anyone who may vet you—for employment or other purposes.

Though a reprimand is less serious than other sanctions, it can be a recurring source of concern as you seek employment.

Standards and Issues for Specific Types of Graduate Programs

Your specific area of study may entail unique standards and challenges.

Law School

Law students are training for a field where rules are paramount. Your law school may treat academic integrity standards as seriously as the actual law.

As part of your studies, you may need to cite case law, legal principles, and legal arguments on a routine basis. Inadequate or improper citation may be a common hazard for law students.

The American Bar Association (ABA) notes that ‘Maintaining the Integrity of the Profession' is a requirement of all lawyers. Your law school may hold you to ethical standards like that of actual lawyers.

Academic integrity issues specific to law school include:

  • Citing someone else's legal idea or argument without proper attribution
  • Collaborating with other law students when you are not permitted to do so
  • Receiving test materials or test-related information in advance of the exam

Today's law students face unprecedented challenges to success. Remote learning may be an indefinite feature of law school, presenting its own pitfalls. With less hands-on guidance from professors and lax supervision, remote law students may feel immense pressure to cheat.

Medical School

Medical school is notoriously difficult. While your medical school may allow you to retake a failed course, it may have no tolerance for academic dishonesty.

You may face suspension or expulsion from your medical school if you're accused of:

  • Cheating on any written or oral examination
  • Fabricating or falsifying medical data
  • Presenting someone else's medical data as your own
  • Any other instance of alleged dishonesty

Prominent scandals have shone a light on cheating issues in medical school. Your medical school may send a message of no tolerance to anyone accused of academic wrongdoing. A strong defense could help you avoid life-changing consequences, including but not limited to expulsion.

Medical school appeals can be complicated, jargon-heavy, and highly consequential. We will lead your appeal from start to finish—though our initial defense may render an appeal unnecessary.

The Lento Law Firm can also help with any residency issues that you are facing.

Business School

Aspiring entrepreneurs and future executives may further their journey with an MBA. Academic sanctions can seriously disrupt your goals as a businessperson. You may face sanctions from your business school for:

  • Misrepresenting the facts of a degree-related project
  • Presenting someone else's business plan as your own
  • Engaging in any dishonest act to gain an academic advantage

Pursuing an MBA may tether you to a six-figure financial obligation. Any demerit on your academic record could make it difficult to pay that debt down—you may not even be eligible to graduate, depending on the sanctions you face.

The Lento Law Firm helps students in all kinds of graduate programs, including:

Your attorney-advisor should be familiar with misconduct issues specific to your area of study. The Lento Law Firm fits this billing.

How an Attorney Can Help With Your Graduate School Academic Misconduct Allegation

Retaining an attorney-advisor shows that you care about your academic standing and professional future. Attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento will take over your case as soon as you hire the Lento Law Firm. Expect Lento and his team to:

Shield you from distractions

We will handle your defense so that you can maintain normalcy in your life. You may focus on your studies and personal concerns while we resolve your case.

Gather relevant facts and information

Our team will quickly learn every relevant fact about your case. We will then pursue any evidence that may affect your case outcome. We may also speak with any witnesses and experts who can help clear your name.

Research your graduate program's adjudication protocols

As soon as we learn of your school's adjudication process, we will inform you of what to expect.

Create a defense strategy

Our defense strategy will depend on the facts of your case. Whether you are responsible for the allegations against you is a critical consideration as we craft your defense.

Engage with the disciplinary bodies that will rule on your case

We may negotiate a resolution to your case without having to complete a hearing or appeal.

Accompany you to hearings and meetings

Joseph D. Lento will participate in your hearing if your school permits. Lento may make oral arguments, question witnesses, present evidence, and be your agent in all aspects of the hearing. If your school does not permit an attorney-advisor in your hearing, then Lento can prepare you to lead your own defense.

Handle any necessary appeals

Appeals can be complicated and time-sensitive but necessary. Having an attorney-advisor lead your appeal may be necessary for an accurate, timely filing. Your appeal may also require the best, last argument that you have.

Remember: School administrators generally view graduate students as adults who may face adult consequences for their actions. You must not assume that your school will be understanding or forgiving, even if you have never been in trouble before. By hiring an attorney-advisor, you will defend your rights and ensure a proper defense.

What Should You Do Now If You're Facing Allegations of Misconduct?

1. Contact the Lento Law Firm

Your school may adjudicate your case quickly. The window to prepare for upcoming hearings and deadlines may be closing. The sooner you retain an attorney-advisor, the more time they will have to work on your case.

2. Continue to focus on your academics and mental health

You should not make your situation worse by neglecting your studies or personal well-being. We will take point on your academic misconduct issue so that you can focus on your existing responsibilities.

3. Cooperate with your attorney-advisor

We may need your participation in parts of your defense. Your cooperation may make for a stronger case.

4. Do not contact those involved in your case unless your attorney-advisor tells you to

Every word you say and action you take may be used against you. Our team will deal with parties involved in your case—professors, administrators, other students, witnesses, and perhaps even your accuser. We will protect you from yourself.

5. Maintain a positive outlook

Once you hire our firm, there is little more you can do to influence your case outcome. Maintain a positive outlook knowing that your defense is in our hands.

Call the Lento Law Firm for Qualified Legal Assistance

Graduate programs generally have high expectations of students. Even more so than undergraduate institutions, graduate schools may be hyper-concerned with their reputations. If administrators see you as someone who is prone to ethical lapses, they may just as soon dismiss you and cut their losses.

You should never accept sanctions without a vigorours defense, even if you admit to an academic infraction. Attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento will protect your rights and seek dismissal of the allegations against you—or leniency for an offense that you have admitted to.

The Lento Law Firm specializes in graduate student defense issues and has helped hundreds of graduate students across the United States overcome allegations of academic misconduct. Call us today at 888-535-3686 to speak about your case. You can also contact us online.

Contact Us Today!


If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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