Harvard Educational Review
  1. A Field Guide to Grad School

    The Hidden Curriculum

    Jessica McCrory Calarco

    Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 480 pp. $17.95 (paper).

    If the explicit curriculum of school consists of important lessons like how to summarize a text, use the Pythagorean theorem, and write a thesis statement, the hidden curriculum teaches less visible but long lasting lessons: how to earn your teacher’s praise, tell a convincing story, and ask an authority figure for a favor. For decades, education scholars have investigated how the hidden curriculum of schools creates powerful but unspoken “rules of the game” that students must decipher and follow if they want to succeed within a specific educational environment. Students who are socialized and trained by their families to follow (and even manipulate) their school’s hidden curriculum are more likely to reap rewards from teachers and authority figures (Calarco, 2018). These advantages accumulate for middle- and upper-class students as they move through increasingly complex and high-stakes educational environments. By college graduation, the completion gap between higher-income, continuing-generation students and their low-income, first-generation peers is a staggering twenty-eight percentage points (Cahalan et al., 2020).

    In A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum, Jessica McCrory Calarco adds a much-needed practical contribution to the field, training her critical eye on the hidden curriculum of graduate school and academia. With humor, empathy, and clarity, Calarco systematically demystifies “the things you’re expected to know or do but won’t be explicitly taught” (p. 1) in graduate school with the ultimate goal of reducing information asymmetry, imposter syndrome, and inequality in academia.

    As a tenured sociologist who studies how privileged students secure unfair advantages in elementary school, Calarco is particularly well suited to this task. Drawing on her own experiences, as well as tweets from the robust #hiddencurriculum conversation she launched on Twitter, she candidly discusses the highly competitive and status-driven world of academia and how to succeed within it. Writing as a mentor-teacher, she walks readers through the social and structural contours of graduate school, explaining why it’s important to attend a top-ranked program, the pros and cons of submitting your work to midtier journals, and how to efficiently keep track of all the articles you read. She argues that the strategic “how-to” of graduate school is rarely explicitly taught and that high-quality mentors are in short supply, which creates an advantage for students who have a network that includes people with graduate degrees they can turn to for advice. In contrast, students who are first in their families to attend graduate school often have to learn the hidden curriculum on their own, generating frustration, self-doubt, wasted energy, and costly mistakes. Democratizing access to the hidden curriculum, Calarco argues, is therefore a key stop on the long road to making academia a more equitable and inclusive place.

    A Field Guide to Grad School begins with advice on how to choose a program and apply to graduate school and then moves through eleven sequential chapters that guide readers through a variety of key topics, including how to stay on track in your program, find funding for research, attend conferences while on a student budget, and navigate the job market. In each chapter, Calarco explains how the topic fits within the larger context of graduate education (e.g., why people go to academic conferences) and then shares basic logistical advice (how to select a conference to attend and how to apply), inclusive strategies for success (how to attend on a budget), and how to maximize your success in this area (purposefully network there before you go on the job market). Beyond just the utility of condensing this information into one easy-toread guide, Calarco’s explanations, resources, and strategies are tremendously valuable.

    Calarco writes clearly and empathetically, demonstrating her understanding of how inequality manifests in graduate school not by using complex sociological terms but by anticipating what needs to be explained and why. One of the clearest examples of this foresight are the email templates she includes throughout. From requesting a meeting with a scholar you admire at a conference to accepting a revise and resubmit offer from a journal editor, her straightforward templates make one of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of the hidden curriculum remarkably uncomplicated. She draws on her perspective as a senior scholar to contextualize the stakes of these requests, noting which email requests are always worth sending and which you should use sparingly. While email strategies may seem mundane, learning how to communicate with gatekeepers is essential in the highly competitive realm of academia, where everything from job offers to publishing decisions is determined by your peers. Further, expanding your network to include senior scholars who will advocate on your behalf is key for professional success, especially for graduate students whose backgrounds and scholarship challenge the dominant norms and bounds of their field.

    Beyond offering practical advice for crafting effective emails, Calarco also infuses the text with valuable professional strategies and systems. These strategies reflect her expertise in qualitative social science research but are useful for graduate students in any program. For example, she walks readers through how to keep track of and respond to reviewer comments using an excel spreadsheet and shares a template for taking notes on readings (which I immediately adopted). These strategies for documenting and defending thinking are essential to combat the weariness of constant critique and feelings of imposter syndrome that arise in the long and rejection-filled road of academia.

    While A Field Guide to Grad School is a tremendous resource, it alone cannot counteract the pernicious effects of the hidden curriculum in graduate schools. As Calarco argues, graduate schools spend almost no time teaching students the skills required to succeed in academia, nor do they systematically reward excellent mentors who disseminate this information. Further, ensuring that the increasingly diverse pool of graduate students has access to high-quality mentors who won’t “stigmatize, stereotype, silence, exclude, abuse or otherwise mistreat” (p. 388) them requires diversifying the professoriate and changing academia’s incentive structure. Until service and teaching are as valued as research in academia and earn substantial material and symbolic rewards, there will be little incentive for faculty to invest their limited time and energy in becoming better teachers, mentors, and colleagues. It’s worth noting that while the book discusses the need to challenge this dominant value system, it also reproduces it, spending only sixteen pages on how to be an excellent teacher and mentor. Given Calarco’s passion for teaching and the pivotal role that graduate students play as instructors and mentors to undergraduate and graduate students, a full chapter on teaching and mentoring would have been a welcome addition to the text.

    While Calarco’s primary goal is to help graduate students navigate and succeed in their programs, she makes it clear that the cultures and structures of graduate school require reform, and those of us who come from privileged groups should step up as leaders in this effort. She urges readers to combat systematic bias against women scholars and scholars of color by reading and citing their work. Further, she urges faculty to not shirk their mentoring responsibilities and to proactively share their best tools, tips, and strategies with their mentees. But this work must also be supported culturally and structurally by university departments and colleges. Calarco urges institutions to offer high-quality mentor training, provide course releases to excellent mentors, and identify where the hidden curriculum is lurking in the shadows and then drag it out into the open and make it part of the explicit curriculum.

    Calarco’s recommendations certainly resonate with my own experiences. The most useful course I have taken in graduate school was “How to Write a Publishable Paper,” a course that spanned two semesters and walked doctoral students through the process of writing and submitting an original research paper. Built around model papers, straightforward writing strategies, and detailed feedback from our professor, Dr. Heather Hill, the course was invaluable in helping me and many of my classmates publish our first manuscripts. Given the highly competitive academic job market and academia’s long-standing obsession with academic publishing, it seems irresponsible for graduate programs not to offer this type of course to all students.

    I am confident Calarco’s recommendations will resonate not only with many graduate students but also with the mental health, career, and student affairs staff who frequently step in to support the many students who are battling bias, imposter syndrome, inadequate mentorship, and feelings of disillusionment in their graduate programs. A Field Guide to Grad School is an excellent example of these principles in action and should be required reading not just for aspiring graduate students but for the faculty and administrators who shape the culture and structure of graduate education.

    Becca Spindel Bassett


    Cahalan, M., Perna, L. W., Addison, M., Murray, C., Patel, P. R., & Jiang, N. (2020). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States: 2020 trend report. Washington, DC: Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education, Council for Education Opportunity and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD). http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/

    Calarco, J. M. (2018). Negotiating opportunities: How the middle class secures advantages in school. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oso/9780190634438.001.0001

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    A Letter from the Editors

    Book Notes

    Critical Thinking
    Jonathan Haber

    The Campus Color Line
    Eddie R. Cole

    A Field Guide to Grad School
    Jessica McCrory Calarco

    Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Public Schools
    Larry Cuban

    If Schools Didn’t Exist
    Nils Christie; translated by Lucas Cone and Joachim Wiewiura

    Educating Students to Improve the World
    Fernando M. Reimers