Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 6: Cheating, Betrayal, Denial, and Lies


The soap opera that is my graduate school life continues. I really I wish I was making this up, but the drama keeps coming like you wouldn't believe.

As Thanksgiving approached, I was miserable. After years of working in laboratories on campuses and interacting with graduate students, I thought I had an idea of what graduate school would be like. My department and the school just were not living up to the ideal. I gave myself until the end of the spring semester to make myself happy with graduate school.

Slowly, life got better. I was still finishing classes and preparing for yet another qualifier. My research started puttering along, although not at the pace that I thought it should go. My interest in my research project was growing. Jeff [my principal investigator (PI)] was relatively pleased with my progress and ability to work in the lab, although not ecstatic. (I'm not sure he's ever ecstatic about anything but actual results.)

I had submitted a fellowship application to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and in doing so made headway on writing my prospectus. I've made enough friends to have potlucks and just get together with other grad students for no other reason but to eat and enjoy one another's company. I found a church community that I adored. And my mother came to visit me. Life was relatively OK.

And then--of course it's always when you think you've gotten things moving in the right direction--everything hit the fan.

Can anyone tell me how stupid you must be to cheat on not one, but two, take-home exams? The second exam even included an honor pledge requiring us to sign our names indicating we had not collaborated with anyone or asked anyone for help with the exam. Well, in my class there are some idiots. And, for their sins, we were all punished.

In a nutshell, several people cheated on one professor's take-home exam and proceeded to cheat on another professor's exam as well. Some of the more upstanding people in the class learned of these breaches of academic honesty and prepared to take the matter to the professors. Unfortunately, we were beaten to the punch. The professors involved decided to give us all a new 2-hour, closed-book final exam--1 hour after our next qualifier. They felt that the exams turned in earlier did not adequately evaluate the students in the course (well, DUH!). Thus, all of us would receive an "incomplete" for the class. And that master's degree I said I had earned last month? Well, they took it back until we receive grades for this course.

Never mind the simple fact that if you cheat, a fair evaluation is the least of what you deserve. I simply do not understand the faculty, which, by punishing us all, shows so little regard for the honest and forthright students. I also do not understand why those who committed this infraction go unpunished. Simply, I feel betrayed. My undergraduate institution would not tolerate something like this. There, the individuals in question would be able to show their innocence or guilt. This blanket action offends my sensibilities. I was enraged.

I'm still disgruntled. I am seriously questioning whether I want to stay in this department. I simply cannot believe the faculty punished me for the infractions of others. It baffles me that the faculty was unable or unwilling to root out and deal with the alleged cheaters.

When we spoke with one of the professors involved, Dr. Moore, he was extremely kind and apologetic. He told us that the new final exam was not a punishment. The faculty, he said, just wanted to make sure everyone was "evaluated fairly," and there was simply no other time to give the exam. Another of the involved profs, Dr. Obviot, then told us that Dr. Moore had demanded that the exam be given and that it be given after the qualifier.

Lies and betrayal.

I expected more from my faculty. I thought there was justice in the world. But we live in a time when Kenneth Lay and the Enron executives can run away with millions, leaving their employees and stockholders with nothing but lies. Why did I continue to expect ethical behavior in science?

Integrity and honesty are the foundations upon which scientific inquiry and discovery are built. Trust must be cultivated between graduate students and advisers, between faculty members and funding agents, and within the scientific community. Trust allows us to believe what others have done and to use the results of others to drive our own research. Research in science does not exist in a vacuum. After our scandal broke, Jeff shared with me a New York Times article about an incident under investigation at Bell Labs, where scientists appear to have used the same data tables in several different journals. We discussed the importance of honesty in science... things that make you go "Hmm."

Playing the Game: Where to Go When Trouble Strikes

If anything this insane ever happens to you, don't go at it alone. That is the worst way to deal with such conflicts and the fastest way to ulcers. Family, friends, and mentors are the best people in the world when times get tough, but when you need someone more official there is a chain of command to follow:

Graduate program directors and department heads are the people to see if you feel that faculty members are treating you unfairly. If you don't feel comfortable talking to these individuals (for various reasons), ombudspersons are on almost every campus and available to speak to you confidentially. Don't suffer in silence; graduate students still have rights. Some profs might not want us to remember that we (students) are the force that drives the work. Yes, they might get the money, but we are the worker bees.

Speak openly and honestly with the professors. Some might be on your side. Dr. Obviot, although he was one of the professors involved with the exam, knew that I didn't cheat. Although he couldn't excuse me from the exam, he took the time to listen to me express my disappointment at the action the faculty had taken. It might not have changed anything directly, but it helped ease my mind. I also talked to Jeff, my own PI, and told him I wasn't involved. He was as supportive as a first-year prof could be, but he didn't try to accuse or preach or anything else. Dr. Patricia Locklear gave the most interesting quote, though. She told me that as a child, her teachers told her: "Patricia should be concerned with Patricia." This advice, she said, applies to me. Those who cheated would get their due. So, let's hear it for karma!

In addition, gather your support system around you. Although not everyone might empathize, talking to supportive friends eases the mind. Get away from the situation from time to time--do a movie or dinner with a friend. Constantly dwelling on a bad situation when you can't act to resolve it isn't the greatest thing to do with your time or your sanity.

So, what can I do? I didn't cheat!

I called the ombudsperson on my campus as well as one who I knew from my undergraduate school. They both suggested I write letters requesting a review of the original exams and that I be exempted from the repeat exam.

Then I reread the letter we all received from the professors. The letter never actually accused anyone of cheating. It did say that we had a choice: Either we retake the exam, or 50% of our grade for the course would be a zero, regardless of whether we were a part of the breach or not. And of course this was all beautifully timed, so either you study for the qualifier and the extra exam, or you fight. There was so little time that doing both was not really an option.

Anyone who says that graduate school is not political in this litigious society is full of it.

I talked to a lot of people as I tried to ease my mind. My biggest problem was that I felt demeaned. But I wasn't feeling as passionate as I thought I should about the work (more on that later). I just didn't need this added irritation. One of my mentors, Dr. Malford, asked me why I thought that people in grad school would be any different from those on the outside. She is right. I am holding my classmates and faculty to a very high standard. It's like realizing what someone else is capable of and not expecting anything more from them than that. She also told me that if I quit and go to another program (not in science and engineering) that it will be harder to advance in my area of interest (policy) because I won't have the clout that comes with a science Ph.D. Besides, she said, think of this as a deposit: I'm putting in the time and effort now to make the withdrawal later.

Another mentor, Ms. Lenore, is glad that I've witnessed all of this early in my career. She hopes that I'll remember this and not become like my peers and my professors. She's pretty sure that I'll be more careful about my interactions later, because you can't trust everybody.

All that said, I'm still here, holding on and trying to maintain my sanity and deal with my frustrations. So, would anyone like to contribute to the "Micella Needs a Punching Bag" fund? And please wish me luck--I'm going to need it.

You can send e-mail to Micella at

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