guest post: grad school’s hidden curriculum

The following is a guest post by Jessica Calarco.

The idea of the hidden curriculum has a long history in sociology. As with most sociological terms (see also: culture, social capital, organization, structure, etc.), it’s easy to find a dozen different definitions floating around in the literature. In my own research, I talk about the hidden curriculum as the knowledge and skills that matter for student success but aren’t explicitly taught.

There’s a hidden curriculum at every level of schooling. From preschool to postdocs. In a recent thread on Twitter, I talked about the importance of uncovering the hidden curriculum. I talked about how important it is to talk about times we’ve been embarrassed or hurt by things we didn’t know.

I started by sharing a few of my own stories. Like the time I mistakenly assumed that “forthcoming” is just a fancy word for a working paper draft.

And the time I spent far too much money on conference poster that was far bigger – and far greener – than it needed to be.

And the time I wrote a 34-page summary of everything I could find on a given topic for the “literature review” assignment in a class.

I also shared links to resources I’ve found or created in navigating my own way through the #hiddencurriculum.

These resources included a suggested outline for writing academic articles (pdf here).

And tips for writing response to review letters, for when you get an R&R from a journal. (Note: a request to “revise and resubmit” is not a rejection – it’s the next step in the publication process).

Super helpful tips from Raul Pacheco on writing literature reviews. (His blog has dozens of terrific articles on writing, research, organization, and productivity in academic life).

And tips for choosing a team of mentors (including both faculty and other grad students) to help navigate the hidden curriculum.

I ended by calling on other scholars to share their own embarrassing #hiddencurriculum stories, and dozens (maybe hundreds by now) took up the call.

They shared stories of struggles with discipline-specific language

And sometimes country-specific language.

And with the general jargon of academic life

And with all those academic titles.

Struggles with statistics and software.

Struggles with writing and publishing.

Struggles with grants and funding.

Struggles with conferences and presentations and networking.

And struggles navigating the job market.

Other scholars also shared their own (and others’) resources for navigating the #hiddencurriculum of higher ed. Some scholars offered general advice on getting through a PhD.

This thread from @thehauer includes a pretty incredible array of resources:

But individual tweets and links from other users also included helpful suggestions.

Including suggestions for writing and presenting.

A guide for turning the thesis into journal articles.

A guide from the prestigious journal Nature on writing abstracts.

A guide by visualization expert Tufte on making better slides for presentations.

Suggestions for making statistics easier and faster.

Suggestions for finding and applying for grants, funding, and awards

Suggestions for networking and finding your tribe in academia.

Suggestions for reducing the financial cost of success in grad school.

And suggestions for navigating the academic job market, including this talk by Samuel Perry.

One of the problems with the hidden curriculum of higher ed (and there are many), is that it’s a perfect catalyst for impostor syndrome—the feeling that you’re just not good enough, and that maybe you got here by mistake.

And yet, if there’s anything the #hiddencurriculum tweets have made clear, it’s that almost all of us have been confused at some point. And afraid to ask.

If we want to uncover the hidden curriculum of grad school, we need to change the culture. We need to make it okay to say “I don’t know.” We need to make it okay to ask.

But changing the culture isn’t enough. Because some students—first-generation students (those who are the first in their family to go to college), working-class students, LGTBQ students, students of color, students who learned English as a second language—will almost always be less comfortable asking. And some advisors will always less willing or less able to answer.

And that means we also need to change the structure of grad school. That means formalizing the hidden curriculum. Building in time and resources for professional training.

Because if we assume that students will pick it up along the way and that advisors will fill in the gaps, we’ll inevitably have students slip through the cracks. And those students will, more than likely be the ones academia needs the most.

Jessica Calarco is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

8 thoughts on “guest post: grad school’s hidden curriculum”

  1. This is important. Some thoughts. (1) Sad when I hear stories of profs being rude when a student asks a question, and I know it is real, but honestly many of us are willing to answer them without trying to make you feel like an idiot. While agreeing entirely about importance of horizontal mentoring, I’d also urge students to test profs with questions to see whether they answer them or just act rude. There’s lots of stuff I’m willing to tell people if they let me know they want to know it. Entitled students ask LOTS of questions, assume they have the right to find out things they don’t already know. (2) A lot of the problem is the things you don’t know that you don’t know you don’t know, so you don’t know there is information out there to ask about. As a mentor, it is often difficult to find out what people don’t know, as it is patronizing to tell them things they do know. Mentors ought to get better at asking questions about what people do or do not know, hopefully in a non-stigmatizing way. (3) Sometimes the information has been given but you haven’t “heard” it because it wasn’t relevant to you yet and you were flooded with other things, so you tuned it out. Meta-advice: any time you have to do something new in grad school (take stats, write a lit review, get an R&R, do a poster, do a master’s proposal, apply for a grant, attend a conference, whatever) make the assumption that somebody can tell you how to do it, you don’t have to figure it out on your own, and look for info. Ask profs, ask friends, check Internet. (4) We need a more central location and organization for this kind of compilation. Lots of Depts including mine have been collecting mentoring information, but it is still scattered all over the place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This stuff is so important, and there are a lot of senior faculty who really need a remedial lesson in the nature of the hidden curriculum. In my last year of grad school, some new grad students’ questions pushed me to ask a senior faculty member to organize something on CVs and such, and the faculty member’s response was, basically, that they were smart enough to figure it out on their own. The faculty member was actually not being rude–just incredibly clueless.

    Liked by 1 person

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