the cover of the book A Field Guide to Grad School by Jessica McCrory Calarco

Book Review: A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum by Jessica McCrory Calarco

A friendly, informative book

Graduate school has a hidden curriculum. This curriculum covers all the things you need to know to succeed as a graduate student that aren't explicitly taught in graduate coursework. They're hidden, because they're taken for granted.

The hidden curriculum is contrasted with the formal curriculum, i.e., all the stuff that is explicitly taught. The formal curriculum tends to focus on thinking skills. The hidden curriculum tends to focus on doing skills, i.e., the how's of research in academia.

The hidden curriculum is extremely important because as it turns out, there are a lot of things you need to know to succeed that are just … assumed, ignored, implied, never spoken of… what, you didn't know that? Didn't you absorb it through osmosis by standing in an academic building? Or learn it from your parents (who are professors, of course)? Or from friends (who already have their PhDs)? Privilege plays a role in learning the hidden curriculum, but there's more to it than that.

In conventional academia, professors are rewarded for time spent on research and on research activities such as winning grants, publishing papers in high-impact-factor journals, and stacking up awards and accomplishments—which are needed to win tenure. (Tenure: Job security for academics, i.e., a job for life so long as you don't violate university policies. It usually takes 5-7 years for a professor hired on the "tenure track" to go up for tenure.). There is less reward for being a good mentor and teacher, even though many professors do as much teaching and mentoring as they do research. Professors rarely have the time or energy to do both research and mentoring well. Which one slides? See the rewards. Professors have little incentive to teach the hidden curriculum.

So how do you learn the hidden curriculum?

Fortunately, there's a book!

A Field Guide to Graduate School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum by Jessica McCrory Calarco (2020, Princeton University Press) is a detailed, friendly book packed with information and advice about graduate school. From applying to and choosing a graduate program through building a team to help you succeed and eventually, the job market; covering the research process and its myriad details—reading, writing, funding, publishing, social media, conferences; with discussion of productivity, schedules, staying on track, and work-life balance, this book touches on every part of graduate student life. There's even a chapter defining a bunch of academic jargon.

The book's strength is its thoroughness. It's well-researched and current. There's tons of information.

I appreciated Calarco's mindset toward grad school: it's not for everyone. In her chapter about how to choose a graduate program, she emphasized that you should only go to grad school if it furthers your career, and to really take money into account when choosing a program. (Or, like me: if you think it'll be fun!) Consider, too, tradeoffs you may have to make about location, culture, community, family, and so on.

Long-term planning is critical to not regretting the decision to attend grad school. Only enroll if it helps you accomplish or learn something that you can't do or learn in another, easier, cheaper way.

(Planning your career? Read about my favorite life planning book: Designing Your Life)

Downside: Thoroughness and Organization

The downside: The book's thoroughness. Because it touches on everything, some topics get little airtime. For instance, there's only a page and a half on time management, even though managing your time well is a significant portion of a graduate student's daily battle. (There were pointers to some good time management systems, though.)

Similarly, while Calarco acknowledges the problems with the work-as-passion model that permeates academia and reminds students not to feel guilty for taking time off, there wasn't a ton of useful info on finding work-life balance. Which is fine - the book has plenty of useful things to say about the work side of the equation! It's a book explaining how graduate school works—un-hiding the hidden curriculum—more than it is a book on how to succeed at being a graduate student (though there's lots of advice on that front, too).

The book also felt a bit disorganized. As a writer, I can see why Calarco ordered the information the way she did—in the order you might need to know the things in graduate school. But then you end up with four different places discussing a master's thesis, or comprehensive exams, and sometimes the explanations are repetitive. If you're looking for all the information on a certain topic, you have to use the index and flip around.

A friendly, informative book

Overall, Calarco's A Field Guide to Graduate School is a friendly, informative book that will help current (or future) graduate students understand the nuances of the system they've joined. I especially recommend the book to students who did not grow up steeped in American academic culture.

Postdocs or faculty may also find useful advice in the book. While Calarco focuses on the experiences of graduate students, some of her advice is more useful for people farther along the academic pipeline. For instance, she describes the process of academic book publishing, an activity that is rarely, if ever, on a graduate student's radar.

Compared to other "how to grad school" books, this one has a greater focus on the mechanics of getting a degree and less on life planning. If you're interested in careers—in or out of academia—there are a couple other books I've reviewed you can check out:

And read about my own forthcoming book on thriving in grad school!

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