PhD Student Issues

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is one of the doctoral degrees, which are generally the terminal (highest) level degree in most fields. Roughly 1,500 of the 4,500 U.S. institutions of higher learning award doctoral degrees. For the 2019-2020 academic year, nearly 184,000 such degrees were obtained in fields such as psychology, mathematics, chemistry, history, and others. Those who pursue a PhD already have completed a bachelor's degree and typically a master's degree program.

Brown University is an example of a school that annually awards roughly 200 PhD degrees, which they consider as largely a “research” degree that is appropriate for students with some experience in teaching. The majority of candidates at Brown are eligible for financial support including a stipend for expenses and paid tuition and health-care for up to five years. The PhD program typically involves a roughly two-year period of coursework followed by creating a dissertation that is composed of personal research.

Standards of Academic Integrity for PhD

Looking at the policies related to academic misconduct for PhD students at Northwestern University, we see that high standards of academic integrity are required in the candidate's coursework, research, teaching assignments, and other professional responsibilities. Any student that is the subject of allegations will be notified in writing, have all evidence disclosed, and permitted to meet with the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Post-Doctoral Affairs.

Students at higher education institutions across the United States are held to high academic integrity standards.  This is, of course, the case for undergraduate students, but maintaining academic integrity is even more important once students reach the upper echelon of academia.  PhD students must not only hold themselves to the expected standards of their academic programs and respective fields of study, but they also must make certain that they take the necessary precautions if they find themselves accused of academic misconduct because everything is at stake. 

For PhD students, years of effort and significant financial investment are literally on the line when facing any kind of academic integrity issue at the PhD level.

Types of Academic Misconduct


Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct that can be committed with or without intent or resulting from negligence. It is often seen as a form of fraud that improperly uses text, images, ideas, or recordings from a source as if they were original. A common example is submitting information copied from a source without making any reference or citation that acknowledges the source. It could also be committed by gathering information from two sources, while only citing one of them.


Cheating is a form of deception that is intended to improperly influence a student's performance by creating a belief that the actor possesses greater knowledge than they do. A common example of cheating occurs when a student has unauthorized access to materials that allow them to discretely access information during an exam. It may occur when a student submits the same work (or similar) for credit in more than one course or attempts to copy answers from another student that is taking the same exam. 

Collusion or Collaborative Cheating

Collaborative cheating (or collusion) refers to acts of academic misconduct involving two students or more. Often these acts develop among student classwork groups that are intended to create a project, paper, or another assignment. For example, a group of four students is expected to create a report; however, only one student completes the majority of the assignment.

Educators, particularly in classroom settings, will divide students into multiple small work-groups that may encourage and develop skills such as team building, communications, and other cohesive exercises for achieving goals. Acts of collusion may involve one student aiding and abetting another. A student may conspire to discretely communicate during an examination. In more extreme cases, collaborative cheating may involve one student providing compensation to another in exchange for writing a paper or having another student take an exam on their behalf.

Falsification or Fabrication

Acts of academic misconduct may be committed by improperly altering or falsifying documents. A student may create false or nonexistent sources that support assertions or conclusions reached in a paper. It could be committed by altering documents related to performance such as grades or academic records.

A student could potentially resubmit a previously graded assignment after making improper changes. A student may create a forged document that serves as a letter of recommendation or use false information on a student application for entrance into a school, program, or access to benefits.

Potential Sanctions Imposed

In most cases, the severity of the penalties imposed will reflect the severity of the act of misconduct. As explained, PhD students are expected to demonstrate very high standards of honesty, integrity, and professionalism; therefore, either a suspension or expulsion will likely be imposed.

Potential Immediate Consequences

If the allegations are proven, the student will face penalties, which may include:

  • Probation: The student may be placed on an interim period of probation with the understanding that any subsequent violations will result in suspension or dismissal from the institution
  • Suspension: The student will be temporarily separated from the college or university for a specified period with the option to be reinstated
    • If a ruling occurs during an academic term, the student can expect to receive no credit for current coursework and to be relieved of any teaching assignment(s)
    • All tuition, fees, and housing that has been paid will likely be lost and any progress on dissertation indefinitely postponed
    • Suspensions generally require that students vacate campus housing and are ineligible for participation in student organizations
  • Expulsion (dismissal): The student is dismissed from the institution and not eligible for re-admittance

Potential Long-Term and Collateral Consequences

When disciplinary sanctions are imposed, the student's record or transcript will have information related to the violation added. This is likely to create difficulties in being admitted into another doctoral program, internships, post-graduate programs, and cause considerable problems for the individual professionally.

Appeals Process

Most institutional disciplinary provisions do allow a student to appeal an adverse ruling. Typically, written intent is required in a short time-frame. The grounds for appeal are also often very limited. Having knowledgeable advisory representation is critical when pursuing an appeal.

Importance of Retaining a Knowledgeable Academic Misconduct Lawyer

Allegations of academic misconduct against a PhD student can result in devastating consequences that can abruptly shatter your educational and professional goals. You have far too much at stake as a doctoral student to take these allegations lightly. Keep in mind that institutions of higher education today are operating in a highly competitive market and are often facing substantial financial challenges. Overworked faculty members and administrators designated to address disciplinary concerns may proceed hastily without properly acknowledging your procedural rights.

Representation for PhD Students Accused of Violating Academic Dishonesty

Having support and assistance from a knowledgeable attorney-adviser is the best course of action to protect your future. Joseph D. Lento is an attorney that is well-versed in student academic disciplinary matters and will ensure you are treated fairly and will pursue a positive o