I started a job a bit more than a year ago, and about 2 months in I begun my TS/SCI clearance process. I applied to a Masters program 6 months afterward. I found out I got accepted a few months after applying, around March or so. I was going to give my two weeks notice (I'm an at will employee) very soon to start my Masters, but my clearance just came through. Now I'm not sure what to do, as I feel leaving only a month after receiving a clearance is unethical.

Some notes and my thoughts:

  • I am a software engineer. 99.9% of this job is unclassified, I don't even really understand why I was required to get my clearance. So during the past year and a half I have been able to contribute to the project with no problems. It's not like I sat around doing nothing while getting paid.
  • I felt at first it doesn't matter if I leave because it's a similar situation to leaving after getting a bonus, and the clearance investigation only costs about $5000. But the clearance process took me almost 9 months, and I feel that is not fair to the company. I heard from coworkers that a big part of a clearance is ethics and character, and if I wanted to get a clearance again in the future this might not fare well.
  • I do not want to get a masters while working, many people have suggested that but it's not something I am interested in. I have already been accepted to an in-person (well... hybrid due to COVID-19) program.
  • Yes, I can reapply next year but would like to avoid that if possible, as I have been trying to get my masters for 4 years now but every year there is something new that prevents me from getting it.
  • The school is a few thousand miles away from the job, so working while going to school is not possible
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    – DarkCygnus
    Aug 3, 2020 at 4:12
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  • Do what's best for you. See Kat's answer.
    – shaunakde
    Aug 12, 2020 at 21:42

11 Answers 11


No, it is not unethical.

Do you think the company would have any qualms about firing you or laying you off if it were advantageous to them, even if it were very inconvenient for you? You could give up this chance to start your masters, tell them about it, and they might let you go tomorrow because that's what makes sense for them. They wouldn't think twice about it. Neither should you.

You owe your company work for the hours they pay you and anything else you agreed to in your contract (if anything). Nothing more, nothing less. Give your company notice so they can find a replacement (which is likely more than they'd do for you), then do what's best for you with a clear conscience. Chances are $5000 is a drop in the bucket compared to everything else they've spent on you anyway, and I'm sure they didn't have someone constantly working on it for nine months, that's just the government taking forever to do its part. Don't sweat it.

It is possible someone will be upset about this decision, and that person may block you from being hired again or might badmouth you in the future. Personally I wouldn't want to work with someone so petty anyway, but if you're concerned about this to the point where it might change your mind, you could try talking with your manager. It's a risk though, because if you do tell them then decide to postpone it, you are essentially telling them you'll be quitting in a year, which isn't going to be good for your career either. Maybe you meet regularly about career goals and you could float grad school as something you've been wanting to do and see if their reaction is generally supportive or not. I personally wouldn't worry about it though, you aren't doing anything wrong, so it's not likely to haunt you. It's not going to be a scandal that people gossip about across the industry or anything crazy like that.

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    I totally agree with this answer, but do be aware that it might not make you friends in that company. I did the same with my masters, and while the company I left was always friendly with me, they were planning a project around my presence that had to be scrapped until the next year. It was unfortunate, but it did turn out for the best. I just wasn't welcome to work there again.
    – Malisbad
    Jul 31, 2020 at 7:07
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    @user91988 Oh, business is indeed personal. I have ended up going back to companies, and it was how i left that made them want me back. Jul 31, 2020 at 15:06
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    @user91988 Yes, but age and treachery can always overcome youth and skill. Things do still work that way, it's just that we are now dealing with nihilistic youth who do not see past immediate gratification Jul 31, 2020 at 15:22
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    @user91988 - "I can't imagine going back to a former company, it's not the way things work anymore" - citation needed, because plenty of people go back to former companies.
    – camden_kid
    Jul 31, 2020 at 15:50
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    @user91988 lots of people go back to companies they've worked for previously, especially if the only reason they left was to take a break from working entirely, rather than because they have an objection to their job. I've also seen young people do it.
    – Kat
    Jul 31, 2020 at 20:50

I don't think ethics is the primary concern. You need to consider what you can get from your Master's degree compared to what you can get with a security clearance. An active security clearance is worth a lot in software engineering. As a 20 year professional, I have had one coworker with a Master's. As a former holder of a security clearance (TS/SCI) prior to being a software developer, I have never stopped kicking myself over letting it lapse.

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    I hear very mixed things about this topic. I hear tons of people say it's very valuable, but other who say it's worth nothing and that there are over a million people with it. I don't know what to believe, but personally I know many people who don't work in the defence contracting sector that make much more then me. Also I should be able to keep the clearance, as it can be reactivated within a year of leaving
    – user120270
    Jul 31, 2020 at 20:37
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    @JohnDeman for sure you don't need a clearance to make a good salary in software. And it depends on what field you are pursuing. If you are going into a field where knowing theory will give you a leg up I'd say go for the Master's. If it is just about a piece of paper you can self-learn. Good luck either way. Jul 31, 2020 at 20:52

As the others have said, no it is not unethical, however; you are likely short-changing yourself long-term if you don't maintain the clearance. Cleared professionals tend to make a premium over non-cleared professionals. Additionally, you basically have lifelong job security with this one credential. Ageism is a real thing, especially in tech. A clearance is a great insurance policy to have in that regard. You've mentioned you do not want to do the masters while working - maybe see if your company will let you work part time a small amount if only to maintain the clearance. They can bill for more than a regular worker and also you are a cleared (and better educated) resource for them still when you graduate - assuming you still would like to work with them.

  • I have heard mixed things about cleared professionals salaries. All my friends who are not cleared make significantly more then me. That would be a great solution, but unfortunately the school is a few thousand miles away and they do not allow remote work
    – user120270
    Jul 31, 2020 at 20:43
  • Obviously salary has several variables, but, all other things being equal, for the same labor category and level of experience (and especially in a region with lots of cleared work) clearance will always pay considerably more. And again, it doesn't hurt to at least mention it to your company - especially if you have already made up your mind to leave. It depends on the nature of the contract between your firm and the client but many government agencies have relaxed remote-work options due to covid - yes, even for cleared work.
    – jayce
    Aug 5, 2020 at 16:00
  • I work at a company with cleared professionals. They easily command a +50% premium in annual pay. This is primarily why I am working towards getting a clearance. My pay didn't jump as much after my PhD. Hope this helps.
    – shaunakde
    Aug 12, 2020 at 21:45

I agree with the other answers that it is not unethical, however there is another tack you could consider.

Given the economic uncertainty with Covid 19, the company may welcome the opportunity not to pay you for a year while you do your masters, and then re-employ you as someone they already know and who already knows their systems as the economic situation improves. It is unlikely they would commit to this in writing, but if you intend to return to work rather than stay in academia then this approach may work out nicely for both you and the company. Probably the best you could hope for is a "get in contact with us when you have finished your Masters and we will see what the situation is" but at least it would leave a door open rather than burn bridges.

Of course this highly depends on your future intentions and the company's intentions and financial position, so you have to make a judgement, but if it looks plausible then I do not see what you have to lose by talking this through with your manager / HR department - you are going to leave anyway.

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    Years ago, when I tried to resign my position at a large corporation to go back to graduate school, my manager refused my resignation and told me to request a leave of absence instead. When I completed my MS a year later, my job was still there. However, I decided to go on for a PhD. When I completed that degree three years later they again offered me a job. I didn't end up taking the position, but it was clear that they valued my previous experience. Aug 1, 2020 at 16:10

Short answer: No. Not unless there is a real or implied deal that if they got you your clearance, you'd continue to work for them.

More nuanced answer:

While not unethical, it may not be the wisest move either. Why leave a job to go for a masters for the possibility of a job later? See if there is a way for you to continue to work for them while pursuing your master's degree.

You may also consider that they may not take it well, and that you could end up blacklisted from that company, and if your industry is one where there are existing whisper networks, you could end up limiting yourself down the line.

Weigh the pros and cons, then make your decision

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    A TS/SCI clearance with "only" a bachelors degree may be worth more financially over the course of ones working life than would be a masters degree (and no clearance). As an added bonus, there's a good degree of job security associated with a clearance of any sort: Such jobs cannot be offshored. Jul 31, 2020 at 17:36

Now I'm not sure what to do, as I feel leaving only a month after receiving a clearance is unethical.

No it's not. Sometimes timing may not be the best, but surely not something unethical to do (it's your career anyways).

Furthermore, I see few chances that this could be seen negatively on your resume, if you decide to include this job, as you state that you have been there for more than a year (which, in the eyes of some recruiters, will not raise any flags or make you look like a job-hopper).

I also doubt this could affect you negatively if/when trying to get a clearance again in the future... (if any having already obtained one could help getting one in the future to be faster? I'm not an expert on this aspect though...so take this paragraph with a grain of salt).

Besides, you've already postponed your Master studies for 4 years now... getting a chance like this may not come again quite easily. After you complete your Masters you can always try to reapply to this company if you want to.

However, what I do recommend, is to check your contract if there is anything you should consider or have in mind regarding your Clearance, to be sure there is nothing legally or contractually binding you or some condition you agreed upon getting the clearance (for example, imagine that your contract stated that when you got clearance you compromise to stay for at least X months in the company).

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    Employers may ask about previous clearances. Even if they are lapsed due to non-use, someone with a Secret or Top Secret appears more likely to get through the process, thus it is a safer bet to hire them. Also, people sometimes fail these checks and they may have to be let go. But higher level clearances (fiduciary or TS) require serious investigations for everyone. So if federal investigators are behind, it will still take a long time.
    – danak
    Jul 31, 2020 at 16:06
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    There is nothing contractually binding. The clearance can be reactivated within a certain amount of time after leaving a company with no reinvestigation. After this time a new investigation will need to take place
    – user120270
    Jul 31, 2020 at 20:50

I am a software engineer. 99.9% of this job is unclassified, I don't even really understand why I was required to get my clearance. So during the past year and a half I have been able to contribute to the project with no problems. It's not like I sat around doing nothing while getting paid.

In most cases the clearance is only because you're in an area that may have whatever security level you're cleared for. Generally speaking, I never heard of someone cleared actually working on something that is not unclassified. So your situation is not unique. Just note that you need a clearance and need-to-know requirement before you can access such material. So it's not like a TS guy can access any TS stuff.

Now I'm not sure what to do, as I feel leaving only a month after receiving a clearance is unethical.

Here's the problem: having the ability to get cleared for a TS/SCI clearance is somewhat of a demand item. At my company, there is a big referral bonus for people who can refer people and get them to clear a TS/SCI. The fact is your clearance is active for 5 years, if I remember right so that means from now until 5 years later, you can reactive your security clearance. When you leave somewhere, the company would request the government deactivate your clearance, then when you get a new job, and you're still before the activation date, the company can ask the government to reactive your clearance. So if you complete your masters in 2 years, you can come right back to where you work and get the clearance activated again. As a matter of fact, you'll probably find government type jobs much easier than most as a lot of places want you to get cleared.

As far as if it is ethical, I don't think so unless you signed some sort of contract that says you'll work someplace for X number of years. As I said earlier, you're a demand item so that works to their favor that you're kept there. That also means that they'll probably try to keep you around if you plan to leave. I'm betting since you feel guilty they'll go that route rather than throw more money at you.

With that in mind, I don't think the relationship between you and your employer is exactly one sided. They want you there because you passed a TS/SCI that is somewhat hard to come by, and you want to go elsewhere to pursue your goals. I recommend that you take the approach of your goals rather than sticking around to be used for a contract.

Plus it sounds like you didn't just stayed around for a month. The TS investigation probably took about a year and you probably worked with a interm clearance. So you still worked at your security level, just not fully cleared.

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    I think it's only 2 years for TS if it's inactive, 5 if it's active. But some people in my area have been having their inactive clearances (not DOD) revoked sooner than expected, plus gov't is gov't... so I wouldn't plan on a full 2 years. Jul 31, 2020 at 20:12
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    I did not have an intern clearance. The project's codebase that I work on is pretty much all unclassified. I know what parts of the project are classified, but it's not the codebase which is what I work on.
    – user120270
    Jul 31, 2020 at 20:59
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    The project's codebase that I work on... @JohnDeman OK, so it's not like they were paying you to do nothing those 9 months. You did work and you worked on getting clearance as part of your job. I actually don't understand why you think this is an ethics issue.
    – BSMP
    Jul 31, 2020 at 21:06
  • @BSMP my coworkers are very keen on how a clearance of this level is very much a privilege and hold it to a high regard. Maybe they are wrong, but I don't know and just wanted to get others opinions. (I didn't really understand the big deal considering about a million people have it)
    – user120270
    Jul 31, 2020 at 21:14
  • @Dan - The minute the author leaves the company their clearance will be effected. Without a sponsor the author can’t hold the clearance
    – Donald
    Aug 2, 2020 at 7:52

Re: Can this impact your ability to get a clearance in the future.

Here are some explanations from ClearedJobs.net (the full explanation is longer, but I am just pulling the most relevant parts):

The purpose of a polygraph is to determine, to the greatest extent possible, whether or not any given applicant can be trusted with sensitive information.

A Counter Intelligence polygraph asks the candidate questions limited to the subject’s allegiance to the United States. The questions are based on foreign contacts, foreign associations, etc.

A Lifestyle Polygraph asks the candidate questions that concern the individual’s personal life ... A Lifestyle polygraph attempts to look for issues in a person’s private life for that which he or she might be blackmailed.

So the first set of questions is basically will you actively give away secured information, for example if you were loyal to another country to the extent that you would give that other country secured information.

The second set of questions is if you can be pressured into giving secured information away. If you can be blackmailed or if your financial circumstances are so dire that you can be bribed.

Your situation does not directly fall into either of those categories, unless there is some other circumstance (for example, if becoming a student will cause financial hardship for you, or you intend to go to school in, e.g., North Korea).

There is a third way that this could possibly impact you: The only way to get a clearance investigation is for a company to first sponsor you for one (and they need to specifically have a cleared job that you will need it for). So if no company is willing to sponsor you, that would be a problem. But the contracting world is pretty understanding of job changes (especially if you show you can stick with your next thing for a longer time) and your previous ability to get a clearance is actually a good sign that you can get one again. Even better would be if you could find a minimum amount of work to keep your existing clearance current, because people with existing clearances are extremely useful (they can put you on a project right away instead of waiting).

  • This is definitely a good idea, I will have to look into this.
    – user120270
    Jul 31, 2020 at 20:52

I haven't confronted exactly this issue, and never interfaced with security clearances. But I'll recommend that you focus on your long-term goals.

It seems like the security clearance thing was foisted upon you without any desire on your part.

  • You say you never understood why it was required.
  • You've been successful at your engineering job for over a year without it.
  • In comments you say you want to get out of your current industry.
  • In other comments you say you're unconvinced of the economic value of the clearance.

On the other hand, the master's degree program is something that you've apparently desired for quite some time:

  • You say you've been trying to get in for 4 years.
  • You say every year there has been some problem blocking that.

First advantage: It's great that you have long-term goals (like the master's degree). That gives focus. Not everyone even has that, it's a huge advantage.

Now, plans can change, absolutely. If some opportunity came up that was clearly advantageous, like a multi-million-dollar opportunity when you're young (among other examples), one should absolutely weigh that and consider if one's priorities haven't changed. This is definitely a time when you should be evaluating the value of the security-clearance job security and whether that changes your long-term goals. Is the master's degree still important to you? Has your understanding of what that will do for you changed in the last few years?

But that having been said, it is way too easy in life to get misdirected off one's life goals for a short-term security, and never be able to get back. Speaking personally, all of my regrets in life revolve around not making concrete plans around a desired long-term goal like that. Arguably, the best we can do is to prepare ourselves to take advantage of opportunities in life when they pop up, at times that we can't predict. You have that opportunity now (for the master's degree).

So personally I would recommend that you run at your long-term goal as hard as possible, given the current opportunity. It's not unethical to do that. You know this was something you were pursuing even before the current job. Don't let the needs and environment of the current employer distract you from that. Either one of these opportunities may never come again (the master's program, and the security clearance). You need to clearly decide for yourself which is your higher priority. Then go after it, hard, right now.

  • You know this was something you were pursuing even before the current job: Yep, so it's not like suddenly OP wants to leave the company after whatever their term there was (or is) worth. OP had to work in the meantime so accepted job at company, and actually, let themselves be persuaded to postpone their own plans 4 times in a row. If that doesn't count for being flexible and willing to strike a compromise when asked to, what else does. Doesn't mean OP should make it a repeat pattern forever. Aug 3, 2020 at 3:02

You've been trying to get into a master's program for longer than you've been at this company, and now you've done it. Congratulations - go get your degree. You owe this company nothing. You've done their work for the past nearly-two-years, they've paid your salary the past past nearly-two-years. All debts are paid off and everyone's square.

Will they try to "guilt" you into staying? Almost certainly. Apparently this has worked with you in the past, as you say "...every year there is something new that prevents me from getting it". Stop giving in to these "other" pressures - whoever's doing this to you is behaving selfishly and just wants you to do whatever it is they want. Time for you to go do what you want.

There are always pressures for you to avoid doing things that you want. But "We just paid for a background investigation, and now that money will be wasted!" on the part of your employer is not a valid reason. That's a cost of doing business, and in the end it'll be a write-off on their taxes.

Go get your degree.

  • The "We just paid for a background investigation, and now that money will be wasted!" argument also qualifies as BS, seeing as getting clearance once means a lot towards (re-) clearance in the future both for the company as well as the OP, as per other comments and answers. Aug 3, 2020 at 2:39

From a company's POV they don't owe you anything: Each time they pay you the slate is clean and all debts are paid off. To have a mutually respectful relationship you must adopt their thinking on that. Whatever of value they give you is for your past work. Not a reward for future work. So you are ethically free to leave anytime.

Now, if you signed a contract that says you owe them money for a certain time period that is different and you have to abide by the contract (or buy your way out of it with cash).

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    @DanielR.Collins Good catch. I missed the 2 year part and thought they had only been there a few months. Updating answer.
    – HenryM
    Aug 1, 2020 at 17:58

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