Ph.D. Student Issues

Pursuing a Ph.D. degree can be very challenging (not to mention costly), but if you want to position yourself at the top of your profession, the benefits greatly outweigh the cost. Earning the degree will require years of hard work and perseverance, but your efforts will be rewarded with access to better employment opportunities and being in high demand, both in academic and professional circles.

That being said, colleges and universities hold Ph.D. students to exceptionally high standards of academic excellence, integrity, and professionalism. Allegations of academic or professional misconduct can jeopardize your degree. So can slowness of academic progression or failing to maintain minimum grade levels. Schools tend to administer swift discipline when necessary to uphold their standards and protect the public trust--often resulting in students being unfairly disciplined based on a minimum burden of proof. Disciplinary actions may include reprimands, probation, suspension, or even dismissal from the Ph.D. program.

The bottom line: If you're accused of any type of misconduct or poor academic standards, all your hard work and tuition dollars could be at risk.

Don't underestimate the seriousness of disciplinary issues raised by the school when it comes to your Ph.D. studies. Hiring a skilled attorney-advisor to help deal with these obstacles can make the difference between whether or not you graduate with your degree. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has nationwide experience helping Ph.D. candidates and other students who are grappling with academic or disciplinary issues with their school.

Unexpected Challenges to Obtaining a Ph.D. Degree

Everyone knows earning a Ph.D. isn't easy. Students (and their parents) are well aware of the long hours of study and research involved, as well as the tens of thousands of dollars required to pay for it. Ph.D. students often struggle to balance the responsibilities of work, family, and managing tight budgets with meeting the staunch academic requirements involved with earning a Ph.D.

But these are not the only challenges Ph.D. students face; a number of other issues can arise that can prevent students from obtaining their hard-earned degree, from charges of academic misconduct to slower-than-expected academic progress. Examples may include:

  • Allegations of academic misconduct, including plagiarism, cheating, unauthorized collaboration, forging documents, tainted research, etc.
  • Allegations of Title IX violations, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, discrimination, etc.
  • Alleged violations of the Student Conduct Code--this may encompass a wide range of charges ranging from alcohol/drug use and assault to trespassing and unauthorized computer use.
  • Alleged violations of professionalism or honor code standards, such as disrupting classes or professional work environments, disrespecting clinician supervisors, mistreatment of clients/patients, violating confidentiality standards, etc.
  • Academic progression issues, such as failing to meet due dates, turning in subpar work, poor grades, or failing to complete degree requirements within a specified time frame.

Academic Misconduct Issues for Ph.D. Students

Students in Ph.D. programs typically face the same temptations, pressures to perform, and misunderstandings faced by students in all other college or university programs. In fact, the standards and pressures are generally higher for grad and post-grad students because they are often older students who are now balancing advanced studies with the need to earn a living, provide for a family, etc. Given the pressures, a student might succumb to the temptation to "cut corners" academically in an effort to stay current with their program or to maintain good grades. At other times, a student may be in violation of academic integrity standards without even realizing it (many acts of plagiarism are committed unintentionally, for instance).

Common Academic Issues that May Lead to Disciplinary Action Include:

  • Turning in late or incomplete academic assignments
  • Copying and drawing from the work of others without crediting them (i.e., plagiarism)
  • Unauthorized collaboration with students on assignments or research
  • Using unauthorized resources to complete assignments (e.g., Chegg, Slader, other students' notes)
  • Misrepresenting oneself on an application (e.g., exaggerating your accomplishments when applying for a Ph.D. program)

Professionalism Issues with Ph.D. Students

Most Ph.D. programs have honor codes or other professionalism standards in place—rules that govern how their students are expected to act toward faculty, other students, and in some cases, the public. The reason for these standards is to encourage a culture of respect in the learning environment where students can function safely while learning to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of their degree. A violation of these rules may result in disciplinary action that includes school sanctions, suspension, termination from the program.

Common Professionalism Issues that May Lead to Disciplinary Action Include:

  • Absenteeism, tardiness, or other failures to attend and perform on time (especially when others are depending on you)
  • Showing disrespect to colleagues, faculty, or the public
  • Emotional outbursts or behavioral issues
  • Inability or unwillingness to work amicably with peers on certain academic projects
  • Sabotaging the work of others for your own gain
  • Egregious breaches of confidentiality

Academic Progression Issues

Academic progression is a huge concern for Ph.D. students—and one of the primary reasons why they could ultimately be denied a degree. Ph.D. programs are established in such a way that students are required to meet certain requirements within a certaintime frame while maintaining minimally acceptable grades. If a student falls short in any of these factors (i.e., meeting requirements, maintaining grades, completing the degree on time), the school may opt to dismiss them and deny them the degree. Let's look at some of the primary academic progression issues some students face.

Slow Progress

One of the biggest issues with Ph.D. programs is that they have a certain allotment of time during which students must complete their degree requirements. When students fail to meet certain benchmarks on time or fail to complete their dissertation within the allowable time frame, they may be disqualified for the degree or dismissed from the program. The problem is that because most Ph.D. programs revolve around researching and preparing a doctoral dissertation, much of the study is self-paced, unmonitored, and unsupervised--and sometimes issues surface that are beyond the student's control. Some "life" events and issues that may cause a student to fall behind in a Ph.D. program include:

  • Family emergencies
  • Financial difficulties (forcing the student to spend more time at work and less time in study)
  • Childcare issues
  • Mental health issues/stress and anxiety
  • Unfairly required remediation (adding extra work to an already strained workload)

Any of these or other personal issues may cause a student to lose pace with their Ph.D. program—often without a support system in place to help them get back on track. Falling too far behind or missing key deadlines could cause the academic progress committee to review the student's progress and possibly recommend dismissal.

Poor academic performance

Another factor that can jeopardize academic progression is poor academic performance in general, especially in the early stages of the Ph.D. program, which involve more coursework. If a student falls below minimum grade requirements (typically 3.0 or above) on their exams, assignments, research papers, etc., they may be put on probation or assigned to remediation programs in an effort to right the ship. If poor performance continues, the student may be considered for dismissal.

Remediation issues

While remediation is often offered as a way to help students get back on track academically, the remediation itself can sometimes make problems worse. In some cases, the remediation is not tailored to the student's specific shortcomings, and in others, it simply adds unnecessary work to the student's plate. In some cases, remediation is based on grades that were unfairly assessed and might be reversed by a successful grade appeal. In a few cases, the school may view remediation only as a compulsory step to justify dismissal, in which case the student may actually be set up to fail.

Issues Regarding Conduct

Colleges and universities maintain student conduct codes so they can provide a safe learning environment for all students. These documents detail what is expected of their students--what types of behaviors are considered acceptable and unacceptable, where the limits are drawn, and what sorts of sanctions might be imposed on those who violate these standards. Because schools don't adhere to the same burden of proof standards as one might find in a courtroom, sometimes the very allegation of wrongdoing can result in disciplinary action even if the student is innocent. Like all other students, Ph.D. students often find themselves the target of disciplinary investigations over alleged wrongdoing.

Most student conduct issues in colleges and universities fall into one of two categories: Title IX violations, i.e., sexual or discriminatory misconduct, which is processed through a separate Title IX department in compliance with federal rules and Code of Conduct Violations, such as breaking the school's own rules for conduct.

Examples of Title IX Issues May Include:

  • Acts of sexual harassment or sexual assault
  • Unwanted sexual contact or sexual advances
  • Making sexual jokes, innuendos, or asking for sexual favors
  • Sexual contact with minors
  • Voyeurism, invasion of privacy
  • Inappropriate sexual relationships between school faculty and staff or with subordinate supervised students

Examples of Student Conduct Code Issues May Include:

  • On-premises possession or consumption of alcohol or drugs
  • Intoxication in class or on campus
  • Disorderly behavior
  • Unauthorized use of school property
  • Computer misuse, social media abuse, and cyberbullying
  • Copyright violations and other violations of intellectual property

The True Cost of Student Discipline in Ph.D. Programs

If you are considering what could happen in the event of a misconduct case, don't make the mistake of assuming your penalty will be minor. At the doctoral level, the school expects more of the student, and the committee is more likely to recommend suspension or dismissal simply because it's easier for the school to remove the student than to help him/her succeed. Regardless of what the committee decides, any penalty could be both hurtful and costly to your career. Let's look at some of the most common sanctions and the cost they may inflict on the Ph.D. student.


In many cases, if not most, the default penalty will be suspension for a term or a school year. While you may be grateful for the time off in the short term, suspension brings your academic progress to an abrupt stop, possibly delaying your graduation and the start of your career by a year or more. Even worse, your suspension may still count against the overall time allotment for earning your Ph.D., meaning you have even less time to complete the requirements or risk forfeiting your degree entirely. Delaying graduation can also lead to delayed employment, lower earnings, accumulating debts, and more.


As we said earlier, many remediation programs are counterproductive and actually make it more difficult for the student to make progress. But even if remediation is designed to help the student, it may still show up as a negative mark on their academic record, something that could reflect badly on their future academic or career prospects.


While a formal reprimand may seem to be the most lenient type of sanction, don't underestimate its power to hurt your career. A reprimand may also show up on your academic record, which may affect employment opportunities, especially when it comes to positions in academia.


Dismissal from the Ph.D. program is the worst-case scenario--and the outcome that can do the most damage to your future. A dismissal can:

  • Derail your career aspirations and force you to rethink your career path
  • Limit your employment opportunities now and in the future
  • Make it more difficult to re-enroll in another educational program (most schools have competitive admission policies, and dismissed students are not considered high-priority candidates)
  • Erase your academic progress thus far
  • Leave you with excessive student debt and fewer job prospects for repaying that debt

How a Good Attorney-Advisor Can Help with Ph.D. Student Issues

Students facing disciplinary action from the school typically aren't allowed "official" legal representation--but they do have the right to have an attorney helping them in an advisory role. Hiring a good attorney-advisor can make a huge difference in the outcome of your case, and in many cases the involvement of an attorney-advisor like Joseph D. Lento can prevent dismissal and rescue your career prospects. A good attorney-advisor will:

  • Make sure you're aware of the significance of the complaint against you and what is at stake
  • Help you understand the investigation and hearing processes of the school and how to navigate them successfully
  • Help you strategize and prepare a compelling response to the complaint
  • Identify extenuating circumstances that may have prevented your academic progress so the school can take these into account
  • Assist you with preparing successful appeals of bad grades or ineffective remediation
  • Provide an additional layer of accountability to ensure the school abides by its own policies and treats you fairly

A majority of Ph.D. students don't have the advocacy skills required to defend themselves in student disciplinary cases, which is why many of them end up penalized unfairly. You've invested too much into your education to have it jeopardized by unfair accusations or even by a lapse in judgment or a mistake. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has helped countless students across the country who are facing disciplinary action by their respective schools. Protect your Ph.D. and your future by hiring a strong attorney-advisor today. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 to discuss your options.

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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