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Navigating graduate school can feel like taking the road trip you had been dreaming about but with an outdated road map. One of the authors of this essay, Aurora, thought getting into her dream graduate program would be smooth sailing if she produced quality research and excelled in her classes. Little did she know that she, in fact, needed to excel in an underlying invisible curriculum.

This invisible curriculum is not new. Philip Jackson coined the term “hidden curriculum” in 1968 to describe what students unknowingly learn through their interactions, scholarly connections and academic culture; it comprises unspoken values, beliefs, norms and culture. This hidden curriculum is not something that Aurora was aware of as an undergraduate student, nor was it mentioned at any of her graduate school orientations. As she sought guidance from mentors, professional and career development programs, and leadership programs and activities, she realized that the etiquette and the unspoken conventions were just as important as the academic curriculum for success in graduate school and beyond.

Demystifying the hidden curriculum and eradicating barriers to accessing an equitable academic training experience can improve graduate students’ quality of life, mental health and overall success, especially for students of color, first-generation students and others from historically excluded groups. As professionals in graduate education and career development who focus on supporting such students and postdoctoral fellows, we believe it’s important to create and disseminate information about systemic ways to address that hidden curriculum and the barriers it often creates. In this piece, we will focus specifically on networking, mentorships and career planning.

Leveraging Networks

Making social connections in new cultural contexts is part of the hidden curriculum that can influence graduate student success positively or negatively, because networking is how research and professional collaborations often occur. At Aurora’s undergraduate alma mater (a historically Black college), networking was built into the framework of every program and interaction. Faculty members created space and opportunities for students to explore their scientific interests. The culture was conducive for open and frequent communication among most faculty and students. And when Aurora was building and successfully leveraging her network, it felt effortless and not like a skill that she needed to refine.

But as a graduate student (at an elite, primarily white institution), she initially found that building a network did not happen nearly as naturally. It was not until she attended a professional development workshop hosted by a program geared at supporting underrepresented students that she learned viable strategies for optimally networking and leveraging those connections through Robbin Chapman’s Thrive Mosaic mentoring model.

In general, networking can often seem easier and more organic for those from historically included groups or for naturally extroverted people, and there may be some truth to that. Based on our own experiences, however, we’ve both concluded that ultimately it is a skill that can be learned and enhanced.

If you are new to networking, we recommend another “Carpe Careers” article by Beka, the other author of this piece, on how to get started with networking. Another great resources is Next Gen PhD by Melanie V. Sinche, which includes a chapter, “How to Network Effectively,” that covers navigating informational interviews, introductions and reaching out to new contacts. Or you can visit the Building Your Research Community iBiology course, which provides free online videos and self-reflective content on expanding your network. Or you can check out Aurora’s podcast on Networking and Leveraging Networks for additional tips and perspectives.

For students and postdocs who are somewhat hesitant to seek out networks, initiate collaborations or find mentors, a great starting point is to join professional organizations and national societies with mentoring networks like the National Research Mentor Network, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, Women in Bio or the Society for Chicano/Hispanic and Native American Scientists, to name a few.

You can also start by reaching out to just one person. Consider attending a conference, workshop or seminar and commit to having at least one conversation with someone new. After the event, be sure send an email sharing what you appreciated about the meeting and, if interested, ask for a follow-up coffee chat or meeting with that person.

For many students, email etiquette is part of the hidden curriculum. A more formal, concise and grammatically correct approach is usually a good bet when approaching someone new. However, the academic culture varies from institution to institution, and that includes each college or university’s conventions regarding networking, correspondence, open-door policies, teaching/learning modalities and classroom experiences. In some cases, informal or less formal approaches may be more successful, so discuss what you are trying to accomplish with a mentor or more experienced peer (a near-peer mentor) to learn the culture at your institution or organization as well as others.

Mentoring Up

The best mentoring relationships involve active and equal participation from both the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring up requires the mentee as well as the mentor to contribute to the relationship by initiating meetings, suggesting communication frequency and style, and proposing research and extracurricular activities. It is important for students to know that mentoring up is OK, expected and appropriate—even if it crosses cultural differences that occur in cultures that especially show deference to seniority and elders.

Students should learn how to communicate expectations with their mentor about what they hope to gain from the relationship to support their ongoing career journey. They should also have concrete conversations with their mentor about the work environment and how they each want to interact. For instance, how does each prefer to be contacted? How often should they meet, and what would be the best mode to receive meeting reminders? How does each prefer to receive feedback, whether about a manuscript, technical skills and experimental design, or even interpersonal communications? Neither party may know the answer to these questions, but having such conversations early and often can be especially valuable.

Career Planning

A formal career and training plan or individual development plan (IDP) can facilitate those conversations. Creating a formal plan can help with aligning expectations, since it is important for students or postdocs and their mentors to have conversations about the skills, experiences and opportunities that would best support their career goals. It is OK for students and postdocs to be uncertain about aspirations, so career exploration can be part of those goals.

Gaining the skills and experiences that will serve graduate students and postdocs on their career and professional journey starts with having some idea of what they want to do after graduate school or completion of postdoctoral training. While that can change over time, starting with a professional goal, and having conversations with both formal and informal mentors can help explore and clarify that goal. IDPs can be a great start to getting those conversations going. Even if IDPs are not required at your institution, you can start a career-planning conversation with your mentor along those lines.

Useful resources for planning for one’s career training collaboratively with mentors include myIDP and ChemIDP. There is also advice available on developing an IDP in the Science Careers IDP article series, which also includes suggestions for building a mentoring team or building a research community. When drafting an IDP and preparing to have conversations about the desired training experience, it may be helpful to review material that describes best practices for mentor-mentee relationships and research trainee treatment.

The Role of Training Professionals

Campus administrators should also play key roles in supporting graduate students from historically excluded groups navigate the hidden curriculum. It would be beneficial if academic administrators and career training professionals could share evidence-based strategies and models for networking that empower those students to initiate and sustain connections that are pivotal for their success in graduate school, postdoctoral training and their career.

Administrators should create institutional programming so that no preknowledge is required and all students and postdocs receive equitable access. Training would be beneficial as early as the undergraduate years to give students opportunities to practice building and leveraging networks, mentoring up and managing training experiences. That way, by the time they begin graduate school and postdoctoral training, they already know parts of the hidden curriculum and feel empowered to suggest and pursue possible collaborations. Because networking is such an important career skill, programs and program directors can include these foundational skills in orientations and in tandem with mandatory programs like research poster sessions.

Program directors and career development professionals should also consider advocating for or offering mentor training opportunities at their institution, such as the evidence-based Center for Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER) Entering Mentoring curriculum, and the Culturally Aware Mentor training programs. In addition, building in training for graduate students around parallel topics like mentoring expectations, building trainee confidence as researchers (career self-efficacy) and showcasing resources for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to access early in their training can support their growth into independent researchers or other career aspirations.

Concluding Thoughts

Often, it is not until graduate students from historically excluded groups have encountered a barrier that they start to seek resources and support. If you are one of those students, we challenge you not to wait until you encounter a barrier, which can feel insurmountable, to begin asking about, or begin sharing with others, resources and tips for navigating those barriers. The hidden curriculum can be especially opaque for many marginalized groups. JP Flores is a graduate student who has created a platform where first-generation students or scholars from historically underrepresented groups share their experiences with the hidden curriculum, “From Where Does It STEM.” As he said in his podcast, “studying STEM can be daunting, difficult and inaccessible—especially to students in marginalized, underrepresented communities with first-generation, low-income, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC identities.” So we urge you to reach out for help as soon as possible.

In a follow-up article, we will discuss the hidden curriculum in light of relationships with peers, social identity, your own self-advocacy as a graduate student and accessing academic resources. We hope both this piece and the upcoming one will inspire others who have traversed graduate school to share their experiences and learned resources, lightening the load for the leaders, scientists and scholars who aspire to positively impact the world.

Aurora Washington is a postdoctoral research fellow in clinical ethics and the ethical, legal and social implications of precision medicine and postdoctoral intern in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rebekah Layton is the director of professional development programs in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both are members of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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