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Ethics are defined as a set of morally defined behaviors or principals that determine the conduct for a specific group, field, or practice (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2010). All colleges and universities in the United States have policies delineating standards for ethical conduct. It is expected that students and faculty uphold these standards. Unfortunately, over the course of your graduate career, you may encounter at least one ethical issue that will give you pause. Many of these ethical issues range in severity, with some appearing more or less benign than others.
I am fortunate enough to report that my experience and observation of unethical conduct by others has been minimal. However, I have experienced numerous “gray areas,” where I questioned whether or not the individual conducted himself or herself in an unethical manner. I will address that particular issue later on. But first, I would like to devote my attention to ethical dilemmas—I say “dilemmas,” because you are faced with a tough decision to make—that are omnipresent in the graduate school community.
Academic Dishonesty and Academic Integrity
Let’s take a moment to examine academic dishonesty and/or academic integrity. All U.S. colleges and universities clearly define what constitutes academic dishonesty. For example, the University of Colorado, Denver defines academic dishonesty “as a student's use of unauthorized assistance with intent to deceive an instructor or other such person who may be assigned to evaluate the student’s work in meeting course and degree requirements” (2017). The Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, explains that “having integrity means doing the right thing, even when no one is looking” (n.d.). At Regis University, “Academic Integrity means that each student acknowledges that the work represented in all assignments and all examinations is his, her, or their own or is properly cited, and that he, she, or them has neither given nor received unauthorized information” (2018).
Now, that you’ve taken the time to read those definitions, I want you to imagine how you would handle the following scenarios where someone has acted dishonestly or has violated academic integrity:
It is midnight and you just realize that you forgot to write a paper for one of classes. You realize that you had written a paper on the same topic in a class that you had taken two years earlier. You decide to find that paper and submit it to your professor as if you had prepared it for this class.
Did the individual in the aforementioned scenario violate academic integrity? Interestingly enough, many students (and faculty) may not be aware that the practice of “recycling” papers does violate the tenets of academic integrity as it is considered self-plagiarism. Halupa (2014) notes that a fellow faculty member contacted her to report an act of plagiarism committed by a student. The faculty member indicated that his student “had used a paragraph from a paper she had done in a previous class as a part of a longer essay in his class” (p. 121). Initially, Halupa (2014) did not recognize the student’s act as plagiarism. In fact, she states that when she was obtaining her own doctoral degree, she tried to include as many previously written assignments to aid in the drafting of her dissertation proposal. Further, she was encouraged by many of her professors to do so as she would be using her time wisely (Halupa, 2014).
You and a group of students just completed a final exam for a course and are discussing the content of the exam amongst one another. Another student, who is enrolled in a different section of that same course, will be taking that very exam tomorrow. The student asks you what was on the exam and you excitedly share what questions were asked.
Again, this is another situation in which the issue of academic integrity or academic dishonesty may not seem clear to many. Would this be considered cheating? Well, no. What about plagiarism? Guess again. Regis University describes that scenario as collusion. In that regard, collusion is seen as “a form of dishonesty involving two or more persons acting in a manner intended to misrepresent individual effort, learning and/or contributions to course assignments” (2018).
Fraternizing with Professors
There does not appear to be much consensus in the academic community with regards to the engagement of amorous relationships between students and faculty. Although my search was not exhaustive, I noted that several colleges and universities have strict policies that prohibit faculty and staff from having romantic rendezvous with their students. For instance, Northeastern University “strongly discourages” romantic and sexual relationships between a faculty/staff member and a graduate or professional student, however those relationships are prohibited when that particular faculty/staff member is “responsible for teaching, grading, advising or otherwise supervising” that student. The University of Texas, Austin prohibits these relationships even when it is consensual because of the potential for “favoritism,” “exploitation,” and “actual and perceived conflicts of interest” (2017). With that in mind, I will leave you with some food for thought: How would you respond to your dissertation chair who invites you out to the bar for drinks?
Lastly, I’d like to spend some time discussing those unpleasant “gray areas.” In graduate school, gray areas can present themselves when you are unsure if the situation has truly violated the college or university’s ethical code of conduct. If it has violated the ethical code of conduct, you may question how problematic the situation is (e.g., is it that big of a deal?) or you may lack clarity about how to solve the problem. For instance, some graduate students may come across professors who are unable to teach their classes effectively. These professors may explain concepts poorly; rush through lectures; falling asleep during class; and provide inadequate time for questions. Some professors may not respond to emails in a timely manner or, they may not respond to emails at all. Are those behaviors unethical or, are they “gray”?
For professors, these predicaments can become even more nebulously gray. Let’s say that you are a professor and you notice that one of your advisees has dropped a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. Aside from the weight loss, there are other drastic changes in her physical appearance; the student’s hair has begun to fall out, the student has developed noticeable body odor, the student comes to class in unclean clothes. Despite these changes, the student continues to excel in the program. Would it be ethical or unethical for the professor to decide to intervene? Would it be ethical or unethical for the professor to decide not to intervene?
Asking for Help
Fortunately, you do not have to go through these situations alone as there are resources to help you. If you find yourself facing an ethical issue, you may wish to consider the following options:
Friend or colleague. When you are facing challenging situations, speaking to a trusted friend or colleague can be quite enlightening. You can speak about the issue candidly without fear of judgment. It can be used as a constructive venting session, where you are able to reflect upon the situation at hand. Your friend or colleague may be able to offer you critical feedback and you two can work together to generate proactive solutions to address the situation.
Program handbook. Refer to your program handbook for procedures on how to address conflicts. For instance, if you disagree with a final grade that was given, you should refer to your program handbook to learn about the appeals process. In cases where you have been impacted by someone’s unethical conduct, you should refer to your program handbook to learn how to file a grievance.
Ombudsman. An ombudsman is a trusted, unbiased, and neutral party who has been elected to support individuals address challenges and conflicts that they encounter at the university. The University of Arizona (where I attended graduate school), “the Ombuds Program advances consciousness in communication, collaboration, and conflict management through preventive support, proactive solutions, and positive response to conflict and other challenges” (Mission and Approach, 2018). The Ombuds program provides the following services: consultation and coaching; mediation and facilitation; educational and professional development; organization development and change; program library; and evaluation/assessment.
Legal counseling. Several colleges and universities offer students legal counsel that is free of charge or at a reduced rate. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). All students registered and enrolled at UCLA are able to seek confidential legal counseling regarding a wide range of issues. Many students solicit legal counseling regarding internal issues at UCLA, while others seek counseling regarding other issues outside of UCLA. Students must pay a $10.00 fee for the initial one-hour consultation (UCLA Student Legal Services, 2014).
In sum, ethical issues and ethical dilemmas are present in the graduate school community. As graduate students, it is our responsibility to vigorously uphold these ethical standards as we are examples to others. I will leave you with this quote by Oprah Winfrey: “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”
Academic integrity. (2018). Policies and Procedures. Regis University. Retrieved from
Consensual relationships. (2017). Handbook for Operating Procedures. University of Texas,
Austin. Retrieved from https://policies.utexas.edu/policies/consensual-relationships
Definition of academic dishonesty. (2017). Policies and Procedures. University of Colorado,
Denver. Retrieved from https://clas.ucdenver.edu/faculty-staff/policies-
Ethics. (2010). In New Oxford American Dictionary. (3rd edition). Oxford, England: Oxford
Halupa, C.M. (2014). Exploring student self-plagiarism. International Journal of Higher
Education, 3, 121-126. doi: 0.5430/ijhe.v3n1p121
Mission and approach (2018). Ombuds Program. University of Arizona. Retrieved from
Overview. (2014). UCLA Student Legal Services. Retrieved from