This is why I blog: gratitude from stellar student, recovering addict seeking grad school advice

[This 23rd July entry is being reposted today under the ScienceBlogs “Education” channel as its original categorization there fell victim to gremlins in the upgraded Movable Type script.]
At the outset, let me say that I have immense respect and admiration for a special commenter.
In last week’s Friday Fermentable post, we took the 40th anniversary of the Apollo XI mission as an opportunity to draw attention to Buzz Aldrin’s newly-released autobiography, Magnificent Desolation. In it, Aldrin describes his lifelong battle with depression and alcoholism and how he has managed both challenges.
Recently, several of my colleagues within and outside the ScienceBlogs network have had extensive discussions of mental illness in the context of academic training and performance (here is an example of a 60+ comment post by DrugMonkey). However, I hadn’t really thought about our relative lack of discussion of substance abuse and chemical dependence in the context of scientific training and academia.
So, it is with gratitude that I reprint this comment and ask this learned gathering for advice on her behalf:

Thank you so much for this post.
I am a recovering drug addict and am in the process of applying to graduate programs. I have a stellar GPA, have assisted as an undergraduate TA, and have been engaged in research for over a year.
I also have felony and was homeless for 3 years.
I don’t hide my recovery from people once I know them, but I sometimes, especially at school, am privy to what people think of addicts when they don’t know one is sitting next to them. It scares me to think of how to discuss my past if asked at an admissions interview. Or whether it will keep me from someday working at a university.
I’ve seen a fair amount of posts on ScienceBlogs concerning mental health issues and academia, but this is the first I’ve seen concerning humanizing addiction and reminding us that addiction strikes a certain amount of the population regardless of status, family background or intelligence.
I really appreciate this post. Thank you.

No. Thank *you*.
This is how I responded and she was kind enough to send an e-mail allowing me to bring this comment up to the level of a full blogpost:

Thank you so much for your appreciation. It is I who should be thanking you for coming by to share your story and let us know that very high-functioning and intelligent people can still get dragged down by their biology and situations.
I’ve served on PhD and PharmD admissions committees and can tell you that if you have come back from from addiction and homelessness to make the decision to go to graduate school, I am in awe and give your tremendous credit. You have far more fortitude and resourcefulness than many of us; if you can come back from those challenges, I anticipate you will do far better with the demands of graduate school than those who did it the “easy” way.
Yes, the felony will stay with you for a time depending on the state you are in and some applications will require that you disclose it, certainly if you are to be employed as a TA or RA during graduate school. However, this does not disqualify you from acceptance for stipend employment as you have seen from serving as an undergraduate TA.
If you don’t mind, I would like to repost your comment as a full blogpost here and solicit input from our readers who are involved with the administration of graduate programs. I assume from your spelling that you are in the US and not one of the commonwealth countries.
I equally appreciate you coming by to share your experience and concerns. You are most certainly not alone and I applaud you for having fought this cunning and baffling illness. Comments like yours remind me why I blog. Thank *you*!

So I have a few questions for this learned gathering regarding issues that our commenter has brought up.
1. My feeling is that no one has to answer for a 3-year absence of employment in a job interview or academic admissions interview. In fact, the US has federal laws on interview questions in this regard. She could’ve been doing covert operations for the CIA during that time that could not be disclosed or been in an ashram in India for three years. Those of you who’ve sat on graduate school admissions committees, how would you recommend that she be prepared to answer this question?
2. Is my assessment of her felony correct (in the US)? The record should not deny her admission and may or may not affect employment / research assistant stipend, right?
3. Does anyone have personal experience with recovering substance abusers in their academic or industrial research environments to provide her with some encouragement in her journey? For example, it is well known that Richard Feynman was a recovering alcoholic but there have got to be other stories out there. Music and entertainment tends to accept, or even glamorize, those who come back from substance abuse (John Hiatt is one of my personal faves), but we don’t quite have that in the sciences.
Any stories, anonymous or otherwise, that might provide encouragement for our commenter would be greatly appreciated.
And again, you have my respect and admiration for your resilience and drive. I am certain you will be successful.
Correction: You already are.


20 thoughts on “This is why I blog: gratitude from stellar student, recovering addict seeking grad school advice

  1. Congratulations to Anon for overcoming such a difficult situation. I have limited info on TA/RA stipends and suspect policies will vary based on the institution. However, my previous institution encouraged US students to also apply for summer federal work study, which required filling out the FAFSA. One of the questions asked about previous drug convictions, so I suspect that might influence eligibility for this subset of funds.

  2. An application to graduate school is not the same as employment. It is an investment made in an individual with the hope that the scientific community will see a return on that investment. People want to know that they are investing wisely.
    It might be your “feeling” that Anon shouldn’t be asked about a 3 year absence of employment but the reality is that she will be. Many foundational fellowship applications will ask her about gaps in her career trajectory. As she continues to demonstrate potential this will become less important, but she needs to be prepared to offer an answer.
    Your “feelings” might help you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but they don’t offer Anon any concrete recommendations. The fact is, she needs to be prepared to answer truthfully and also outline her recent accomplishments to assure others that she has the potential to be a successful scientist. Essentially, she needs to be prepared to show others that she is a worthwhile investment.

  3. I’ve been on a graduate admissions committee for several years, and I think Anon has a couple of options about the three-year gap in her resume. She could explain it as she’s done here, and hope that the admissions committee is as impressed with her story as Dr. Pharmboy and I are.
    If she’s not comfortable doing that, she could just hide it. The applications to grad school that I’ve seen don’t ask your age or when you graduated from high school, so if Anon’s application says “Major State University, B.S. in ‘Ology, 2005-2009”, no one needs to know that she graduated from high school in 1999. In the unlikely event that someone asks her age at an interview and then notices the gap, she can say “Oh yes, I worked a variety of the usual jobs for a few years–retail, fast food, that sort of thing–before I figured out what I wanted to do and went to college.” I can’t imagine anyone’s going to grill her about this, they’ll want to get back to discussing the cool research she’s been doing as an undergrad and what she wants to do as a grad student.
    I don’t think her felony record will interfere with being a TA or RA. She might want to talk with the graduate office at her undergrad institution and see what their rules are.

  4. Graduate schools are seeing a mass of applications to graduate school now, with the economy tanking. I can’t imagine it’s hard to spin some plausible story about deciding on a change of career.
    I don’t see any point in being honest. Academics, for all their so-called liberal beliefs, are personally pretty conservative and don’t like things off the beaten track. Don’t lie, that can come back to hurt you later, but don’t expect to get the same reaction as here if you volunteer.
    I would imagine that the fact that Anon is already engaged in research should be the most important fact on her application.
    As for job interviews, by the time she graduates, people will be looking at publications, funding, evaluation letters, etc. I certainly wouldn’t talk about her “previous life” at conferences, academics are very gossipy and that could quickly become a career killer.
    I recently saw Waterloo Bridge with Vivien Leigh. Take her approach and bury the past. When she decided to own up to her past, it was disastrous.

  5. I don’t know about grad school admissions. I would think the 3 year absence would be less of a problem there than for employment. I know that when I was switched to a postdoc after graduation recently, they did a criminal background check (state university) that included every state I’ve ever lived in. I think it makes more sense to be honest because it will be much worse if “found out”. Accomplishments since then will be much more important. I definitely highlight the good stuff and minimize the bad, but I wouldn’t try to hide it.

  6. Anon might want to be cognizant of this:
    Student Suspected Of Making Meth
    And follow-up, just to complete the story:
    Student Accused Of Making Meth Agrees To Plea Deal
    From the first story:
    “A BRIEF SURVEY of 17 schools by C&EN found that only the chemistry department at the University of Texas, Austin, regularly conducts criminal background checks of all graduate students. The school does not require such checks, but the department decided to start doing them three years ago. “The university mandated them for staff and faculty, and we decided to extend it to grad student employees,” says John Baxendale, administrative manager for UT Austin’s chemistry department. “We basically began doing them just because we thought it was a good practice.”
    “The results of the checks, which cost the department $5.00 each, are not used as a factor in admissions but could prevent a student from being appointed to a teaching or research assistant position, Baxendale adds.”

  7. I don’t qualify as an expert of any kind but I’d like to offer an opinion anyway. Anon, what you have accomplished already is far more difficult, far more impressive, more heroic even, than any PhD. I deeply respect your strength and commitment and I admire your decision to not just live but to live well. You already have *everything* that it takes to succeed in the field of your choice.
    The “missing” three years will be easy enough to explain away, if that’s what you choose to do. However, you will at some point be asked to explain the felony charge. (It will come up. Most university applications specifically ask about “criminal” history.) My opinion is that you should be totally honest from the get-go about all of it; the three years, the felony, the addiction, the recovery — the whole story. That doesn’t mean you have to tell your story to every person you meet on the street, but the relevant parties need to know. You have lots of reasons to be very proud of yourself and no reason whatsoever to feel shame.
    I have a friend who was a heroin addict, has a criminal record for shoplifting, and now has a PhD in entomology. She has always been honest and open about her past and no doors have closed in her face.
    I went to nursing school with a woman who was an addict and has a felony conviction for possession/intent to sell heroin. This was tricky because she was entering a field in which she has complete access to all kinds of controlled substances. A felony in itself can disqualify a person seeking a nursing license. She had to be interviewed by the board of nursing, which, although she fretted a lot before the interview, turned out to be just fine. She probably had to “explain herself” similarly when she was applying for jobs. She had no trouble at all getting the job that she wanted and is a fantastic, responsible nurse. She chooses not to tell people about her past unless it is absolutely necessary.
    Anybody with a modicum of knowledge about addiction is going to respect and admire you. Those who make negative judgments can go straight to hell. Any program would be damn lucky to have you. Find one that suits you and enjoy every minute of it. You’ve already done the hard part. The rest is cake.
    Congratulations and take good care.

  8. I would very carefully weigh the potential impact of the felony record on the future career when deciding to hide it. Many “state licensed” jobs will require a full background check, so while you can get a PharmD with a felony, you might not be able to get employment as a pharmacist depending on the felony (especially if drug related). Ditto for teaching, medical field etc. In that case, the record is highly relevant for the admission, and having hidden something like that would surely piss off the university if it comes out later. Yes, you might get into the program, but you might find yourself at a very short end of the stick halfway through your grad studies, if not legally so practically.
    Also, starting to hide it sends you down a slippery slope later on; there are few graduate degree jobs that will not include a minimal background check, so you will have to disclose that during the interview (I wouldn’t put it in the application, if I see applicants with a big gap somewhere I usually just ask if they want to elaborate, but don’t make a big point out of it). And you don’t want to have your adviser find out when he’s called for a reference that you hid something like that for n years while you were working for him/her.
    Last but not least, we’re talking graduate school here. Most colleges have a more liberal leaning, and taking in someone like you fulfills the “disadvantaged background” requirement. It might actually work to your advantage if your other qualifications hold up.

  9. Thanks to all who’ve commented so far, it’s interesting to hear different perspectives. I’m definitely not into trying to hide the past, especially if that means being dishonest…it’s just difficult to imagine how to present it.
    Since my background isn’t really relevant to my field (I’m not in addictions medicine or social work or something like that), I really lean towards the suggestion of presenting the evidence that I’m a great candidate for admission, and then directly addressing the past, perhaps during interview or visit…
    I think there’s just no way around some awkwardness, but I do not want to feel like I am hiding something that could jeopardize my grad. program later or piss off my adviser.
    So thanks again to all who are commenting with advice and encouragement, I appreciate it!

  10. Obviously some places might be prejudiced against the felony. I would hope that this person’s post-felony record that is clean, shows a turned-around life with accomplishment will overcome it. Heck that kind of determination to turn a life around should be a plus.
    But I do know for sure that if the felony is undisclosed and is discovered that there is no chance whatsoever. Organizations willing to hire ex-felons are almost certain not to hire an ex-felon if they find out about it after the applicant fails to disclose it in the appropriate spot in the application.
    I don’t know if graduate school do background checks, but it would not be surprising if they did. There are retail companies that do basic background checks for entry-level, near-minimum wage positions and if they come up with something that was not disclosed then the applicant is forever barred from employment. I am darn sure that a graduate student is considerably bigger investment for a university than a bag-boy is to a chain grocery store. Thus I suspect that prospective graduate students are more closely examined than a prospective clerk.

  11. Hey Anon-
    As one who recently started an undergrad and is in a somewhat similar boat (though without the felony), I am all for the honesty side of the argument. I have accepted that is may limit my options in some regards, but I am not at all interested in pretending to be something I’m not or merely pretending I should be ashamed of who I am and what I have done with my life. Because while I have managed to do a great many things I’m not terribly proud of, I am very proud of where that has taken me. I am proud of the distance between here and now, versus then and there – because that distance is so very extreme and the differences are so very extreme.
    You have a lot to be proud of – a pride that most people will never have the opportunity to feel (and thankfully so). Fuck anyone who doesn’t recognize and/or accept that and accept you – and your work, which should speak much louder than who you were.

  12. I’m trying very hard to not make this personal for myself or for those who’d support homeopathic remedies. 1) No one really wants someone to go out and use again. 2) Society is much better served by someone who is exploring, learning, studying the manner in which the physical world operates than by someone lost in a world of hedonism. 3) Given the language used, it seems clear that the persons responding are utilizing the 12 step method. 4) Although the 12 step method is not for everyone, and it is based on nothing more than curing a “disease” through a miracle from a higher power and I’ve got a great deal of difficulty believing that anyone with a deep interest in science would use it…if it works for the person and it makes the world a better place(saves lives, increases knowledge) who am I to argue? 5) On a personal note: I think 12 step programs are dangerous, I don’t think that persons involved truly give up their past behaviors(aside from drug use) I think they simply re-route those behaviors into socially approved courses of action…that doesn’t mean legal or ethical. It doesn’t mean reflective of higher virtue. It can mean a very pragmatic view of “bringing in pigeons(converts)” that involves criminal activity and cult like devotion to “oogie-boogie” mystical principles that benefit no one other than the “true believers.”

  13. Anon – My university requires that felonies be disclosed; my -department- has that page separated and submitted separately to the chair of the department so that the application is considered on its own merits.
    The only rule-outs are the violent crimes against persons, as those would prevent students from working with vulnerable populations in my state, and I work in a clinical program. Applicants are informed of that in the application letter.
    Those crimes would not prevent admission to non-clinical programs. Substance-related convictions sometimes result in a monitoring agreement; the director for that program year needs to negotiate that on a case-by-case basis with the student and facility. It’s never been a problem, and I’ve always been negotiating that for the student’s coverage in case of any misunderstanding. The facilities have never even hesitated.
    I can not possibly see how surviving homelessness and restoring your life to its current condition would work against you in this situation. That would speak to tenacity, problem-solving, etc. Were I interviewing you, I’d be thinking, “Yes, this is probably not someone who’ll be lurking around the halls for 10 years… and how lovely to have a student who understands how the real world works.”
    You might consider preparing a brief – very brief – statement as to what has replaced substance use in your life- specifically, how you are now handling significant stress (which may or may not have been the role of substances for you.) I wouldn’t go into this in great depth, I would maintain boundaries, but 1 or 2 sentences here are worth considering and having in your mental pocket ready to go. This would be a major life change for you, potentially, and some interviewers might have concerns re: risk for relapse.
    I think your plan of interviewing with dignified candor is an excellent one. Best of luck.

  14. @Silver
    Thanks! How nice to know some details about how one department handles this stuff. I appreciate it! And I am actually working on a pat way to summarize what happened and that I continue to be engaged in a recovery community, in a way that is neither dismissive of the past or overly intimate with the details.
    So thank you again to all who gave advice/experience/etc. And thanks to Abel for putting this thread up!

  15. Anon,
    It should not be a problem. I was convicted of a felony when I was 18. My last year of undergrad I applied to PhD programs at a number of schools. Three of them required a disclosure of criminal record and I was accepted into each one. RA and TA’s were not a problem either. I was offered additional fellowships on top of the RA/TA at two of the three schools to which I disclosed my criminal background.
    Personally, my biggest concern is what happens after I finish my PhD. I am a theoretical physicist so I will need to work in academia and I do not know if the universities will be as forgiving when offering a tenure track professor position.

  16. There are laws that prohibit companies from making employment decisions on applicants based on their criminal record. Fact is that most states can only search up to 7 years for most crimes through a legitimate background check company. If they decide to use felonies that are older than 7 years they face severe liability as they can be sued under labor laws and discrimination laws. The playing field changes if you are Appling for a job working with children.
    Also, Most offenses can be expunged, see expungment rules for your states. You should conduct your own criminal background check from a reputable provider like Integrascan
    Terry Sweet

  17. Anon, I am in the process of applying to graduate school after being in recovery for almost three years and I’m glad you were open enough with your story in order to start this discussion. I quit my graduate program with only twelve credits left to finish because of my alcoholism. I knew that I could not offer anything to my field if I was still drinking and like any good addict, I chose to continue drinking instead of finish my degree.
    I was indeed turned down for admission to an academic program after one year of sobriety simply because I WAS honest about my alcoholism and how I new I was in recovery. However, my background is in counseling psychology and frankly, they were correct. I was still pretty nuts.
    With that said, I do not want to be in an academic program that would hold something like that against me, even if I were to be accepted. I believe there is somewhat of a “Please pick me! Please pick me!” attitude from people applying to graduate schools. Certainly you want to be accepted into a respectable program. But is a respected program one that does not capitalize on your assets (such as your fight from homelessness to recovery and school)and instead watches you like a hawk – waiting for you to fail?
    I don’t have many answers, but do know that you’re not alone in this struggle about how much to reveal. My recovery is actually an asset in my field, but it is up to me to find the program that will capitalize on it and not ask me to pretend it never happened.

  18. As Anon’s sister, and a graduate student, I have spent time discussing her situation with her before. My suggestion has been that she identify the felonies, and write off the time she spent homeless as time that she spent bumming around working.
    However, I would suggest that she doesn’t need to use the label of “addict” on those forms. There is a strong stigma, however archaic, that our society applies to addicts. Her curriculum vitae is strong enough to overcome the break in her employment and the felony record. However, people’s stereotypes and schemata, once triggered, are difficult to overcome.
    1. As long as the three year period where she was homeless and jobless came before her return to school, which it did, I don’t think that it will have a greater impact than it would on any other student. But she has to expect to encounter questions for this period. Her college record includes a one year stint at a university, and then a “hiatus” for several years, and then a glorious and successful return. She has to expect, and be prepared, to explain that break.
    2. A felony can certainly impact her ability to be hired and employed by a university. When I was applying to graduate programs a couple years ago I had to disclose any felonies on my record. However…. I believe that she is capable of explaining her felony record.
    3. This one is the hardest. I wish that there were more role models in the sciences for overcoming addiction. Actually, in my limited experience as a graduate student, I would say that academia glorifies substance abuse. Every conference I have been to is based out of the hotel bar. Many of the professors at two of the universities I have attended moved from their desks to the bars down the street around five o’clock. Although this is not the case in all situations, I am sure, I am more concerned that she will run into a graduate program that uses alcohol as a regular social lubricant.
    However it works out… I know that she is an intelligent capable woman who will find a graduate program where she fits in.

  19. The only rule-outs are the violent crimes against persons, as those would prevent students from working with vulnerable populations in my state, and I work in a clinical program. Applicants are informed of that in the application letter.
    Those crimes would not prevent admission to non-clinical programs.

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