Navigating the Hidden Curriculum of Graduate School

By: Carly Graverson. Carly explores factors that shape students' educational journey, going beyond the confines of the formal curriculum.

Graduate Student Orientation

Graduate school is a transformative journey that shapes the future of aspiring scholars and professionals. However, beneath the surface of academic coursework and research lies a hidden curriculum that can significantly impact the experiences of graduate students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds. The hidden curriculum refers to the unwritten rules, social norms, and expectations that exist within academia, often aligning with the values of the white middle and upper class. This can create a challenging and exclusionary environment for individuals with intersecting and marginalized identities, including race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. This blog uncovers the hidden curriculum in graduate school, its impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and strategies to navigate and disrupt its influence.

Understanding the Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum operates as a set of tacit knowledge and expectations that are not explicitly taught but are assumed to be universal within the academic context. It encompasses the norms, behaviors, and practices that are second nature to those who are familiar with the educational system. Author and associate professor of sociology at UW-Madison, Jessica McCrory Calarco, describes this as “taken-for-grantedness” knowledge. For individuals with little prior experience or exposure to these unwritten rules, navigating the hidden curriculum can be challenging and overwhelming. This can lead to feelings of exclusion, imposter syndrome, and a lack of belonging. 

5 Strategies for Navigating the Hidden Curriculum

  1. Give yourself grace. You are in graduate school to learn and grow. You should not hold yourself to an unfair standard of knowing everything before entering.
  2. Find a team of people whom you trust. As much as graduate school is driven by independent work, graduate school is also about building a community (i.e., a network) that you can depend upon. These people will serve as connections, mentors, reviewers, and friends. Not every person will serve every role, so you should seek to build relationships with peers, advisors, and others who can support you during your graduate journey.
  3. Ask for help when you need it. This can be tough, especially when you need to ask someone with more authority or seniority than you. Consider the worst that can happen though, which is simply that they say no. So go ahead and ask for help, as long as you do so respectfully, appreciatively, and efficiently.
  4. Self-advocate. If you thought asking for help was tough, this could be even more difficult. Recognize that you are becoming an independent scholar and will need to make choices for yourself. This may mean advocating for your funding or building your academic resume (also known as a curriculum vitae or CV) by teaching classes. The details may vary based on your program, but again, approach situations of potential conflict with respect and act as your own advocate.
  5. Pay it forward. Before you know it, you’ll be the senior grad student who has learned tons of academic jargon, has built a team of trustworthy people, and is on their way toward graduation. When you see a new grad student struggling to navigate their graduate career, act as one of their mentors to finding grace in their journey.


Navigating the hidden curriculum in graduate school is a complex journey, particularly for students from diverse backgrounds. Understanding the impact of the hidden curriculum on diversity, equity, and inclusion is crucial for creating a more inclusive and supportive academic environment. By promoting awareness, providing mentorship and support, fostering inclusivity, and continuously reassessing and adapting our approaches, we can disrupt and demystify the unwritten rules of the hidden curriculum. Graduate education should be a transformative experience for all students, regardless of their background, and by addressing the hidden curriculum, we can work towards creating a more equitable and inclusive future.

Useful Resources

This blog is merely a snapshot of the hidden curriculum that is common in graduate school. However, my research led me to find Calarco’s book, A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum, a candid and helpful resource. It is available online through Rice’s Fondren Library.

At Rice, diversity, equity, and inclusion are central and meaningful parts of the overall university experience. We believe these values increase the vitality of everything we do – education, scholarship, service, and community.