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I have the impression that there are a lot of hidden secrets, unstated norms and rules that make or break potential researchers in academia. How do I acquire this secret knowledge?

Additional context: None of my parents even went to college; I am a first-generation college student. I grew up in a poor family. I got a PhD a few years ago but am struggling to get a postdoc and advance. There are lots of things I would like to know, like:

  • how to write more papers quickly
  • how to write a compelling research statement
  • how to network like a professional
  • how to decide which topics to work on
  • how to work with academics in different career stages (junior faculty, postdoc, emeritus)
  • how to start collaborations
  • how to read academic papers efficiently
  • how to organize all the learning materials, including journal articles and my personal notes, efficiently.
  • how to tell if a talk I give is good or not, when nobody wants to give direct, honest feedback
  • how to find out about useful conferences
  • how to get on e-mailing lists where academics post about useful conferences
  • how to get asked to referee a paper
  • how to write a referee report
  • how to [do everything else that academics are expected to do]

Another related question is: How can I compensate for not having parents who are academics? A lot of academics have relatives who are also academics -- maybe a brother, or parents, or grandparents. I don't have any of that. I know that this will disadvantage me, but I want to minimize this disadvantage.

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    Your advisor is supposed to impart this "this secret knowledge" to you.
    – user9482
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 7:57
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    My advice is to find an experienced researcher/teacher to teach you the rope. There is no hidden curriculum. However, there are basic skills you do have to master. The competent/experienced researcher does each part of the research process very well, from problem selection, write-up to publicizing outputs. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 8:03
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    What if my advisor didn't? Then what?
    – cgb5436
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 8:20
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    The interesting thing about the list in the update it that some of these things just don't have an answer (or not one i've ever found) - like how to write a paper quickly - or how to choose a problem to work on. These are not really "hidden curriculum". Others very definitely are - like how to write a referee report. But know which of these things have answers and which don't is it self part of the hidden curriculum. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 8:44
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    Researchers from families where graduate diplomas are the norm rather than the exception are certainly at an advantage in many ways, but this advantage does not consist in having "hidden", "secret" answers to the questions that you are asking. Fixating on this idea is almost certain to lead down the wrong path. Anecdotally: I wasn't at any point imparted any "hidden secrets" on how to write a referee report, or start collaborations, or network. And are you seriously claiming that "getting on e-mailing lists where academics post about useful conferences" requires some kind of secret technique? Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 16:31

5 Answers 5

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There is no secret WAC (World Academic Council) full of old white cigar smoking males that guard the CRR (Compendium of Rules and Regulations).

However, cultural capital is a real issue. The problem is that it mostly works on a subconscious level. Universities are bureaucracies, and there is a way to behave inside bureaucracies that is more likely to lead to success. The problem is that those "rules" are not explicit. For people inside the organization they are so self-evident that they wouldn't be able to list them. If you break those rules, then that isn't even observed as "breaking of rules", but as the breaker being rude or dumb or lazy, i.e. being rude or dumb or lazy is a property the gatekeeper assigns to the individual, whereas breaking of rules is a property the gatekeeper assigns to an action. Yes, one of the rules in academia is that ad hominem arguments are not allowed, but whoever said that subconscious rules have to be internally consistent?

People who are not raised in a middle class background have real trouble navigating universities. Since this is all subconscious, there is no curriculum. Many people with a lower class background who did make it had a "cultural guide", someone who explained the rules when they became relevant, or explained what happened when (s)he broke the rules and received nasty responses, and/or mediated when such a conflict arose. This is in line with the comments by @Roland and @VitaminE .

The concept of cultural capital or cultural knowledge is a huge subject in sociology. A nice accessible introduction is here (though it very focused on the qualitative side and largely ignores the quantitative side of this field):

Lareau, A. (2015). Cultural Knowledge and Social Inequality. American Sociological Review, 80(1), 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122414565814

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    Sometimes these things are more explicit. E.g. understanding that in biology, the person who did the experiment goes first on the author list, and the supervisor goes last. Or the ins and outs of how funding bodies, or government assessment systems work, amd how that affects how universities run themselves. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 8:22
  • Ah, but you knew that that was something you could look at, and that there are circumstances where that knowledge could help you... Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 9:25
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    Yeah, because my dad was an academic, and my supervisors were good at including me in discussions of these things, and I hang around on the correct parts of twitter too much! But these are very much part of the hidden curriculum. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 9:28
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I suspect we could break your list into three categories.

  1. Things everyone struggles with. Writing more (and better) papers faster is the name of the game in publishing. How to read and organizing documents efficiently is a very common question here; some of us have systems we like, others are okay with having no system, and others are constantly pursuing the elusive perfect system. Some people are good at networking, and others are not -- and there are classes/books about how to do it better. Starting collaborations is notoriously difficult, particularly at an early stage where you don't have so much to contribute.
  2. Things you should have learned in grad school. Your advisor should have given you enough criticism on your talks and manuscripts that you know what is required. You should know the major conferences in your (sub)field because your advisor should have been sending you there, and your should recognize the names from the literature. You should have enough existing research that you can recognize opportunities to dive deeper or broader.
  3. Cultural factors that others take for granted. Networking and interpreting feedback may be more difficult -- I'm reminded of the joke about Brits and Americans, where the Brit says "I have some concerns," the Americans thinks "oh good, we're close to agreeing," but the British person actually meant "I couldn't disagree more." Similarly, values like being reliable, obedient, and respectful tend to be strong positives in certain socio-economic groups but are neutral or even negative in some academic groups.

For now, my answer is to recognize that there are three different issues here, and to take some confidence in the fact that most of the bullets on your list are actually in category #1 (issues that all academics struggle with); there is no indication here that you are "hard-wired" to be unsuccessful due to your cultural background. In particular, remember that the road to a tenured position is very narrow; people across all grad schools and all backgrounds are having many of the same struggles that you are.

On the other hand, several of your bullets are in category #2, which is a little concerning. I recognize that this invites an obvious follow-up question: how do I learn the things I should have learned in grad school? I invite you to search our archives for any past questions along these lines, and if there are not any, to consider posting that question separately.

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  • How can I compensate for not having parents who are academics, or for having a less than stellar advisor? A lot of academics have relatives who are also academics -- maybe a brother, or parents, or grandparents. I don't have any of that. I know that this will disadvantage me, but I want to minimize this disadvantage.
    – cgb5436
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 9:35
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    @cgb5436 hang out with academics. Go to conferences, don't miss the watercooler chat, ask and observe your colleagues, build up your network/peer group. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 9:49
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    @cgb5436 - you keep asking questions along the same lines (both in the comments here, and in your past posts) but you don't seem to be devoting much thought to the answers. Frankly, it seems like you want to hear that success in academia is impossible for people from your background, so it's not your fault if your career doesn't work out. I would urge you to instead get back to work, do some interesting, enjoyable research, and also consider the full range of future career paths -- you may find that your interests and skills are actually a better match to something else, and that's totally ok.
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 10:34
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    @cgb5436 To reiterate cag51's comment in slightly different words, you have correctly identified a range of skills that are important to develop in order to succeed in academia. The only thing that remains to be done is to let go of the idea that (most) other people had these skills fall into their laps instead of having to work for them in the same way that you do. This idea seems to be re-directing your attention from working on these skills to expecting someone to inject "hidden secrets" directly into your brain, Matrix-style. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 17:05
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    I think it is important to note that even comparatively small differences in opportunity can compound to large effects over 20-25 years of learning and education. When I write proposals now, I draw on things I learned when I was 14 and we spent a term in English class discussing and practicing persuasive writing and rhetoric. We had time to do that because everyone in the class already had solid reading and writing skills at the age of 11. And so on, back through childhood, all because we happened to be born in a modestly affluent area in a first-world country.
    – avid
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 17:31
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The best answer to those things that you should or could know (and to be able to recognise which those things are) is to find your self a trusted mentor. Doesn't have to be someone senior (although that often helps), but could just be someone of your own generation how seems to be clued up about these things. Have coffee with them frequently and just chat about whats going on in your life and theirs. This will be easier if/when you get a postdoc. Perhaps its even worth focusing your search on advisors who have a reputation as good mentors rather than good practitioners of your field.

Recognising that that might not be possible, you might try looking for online communities that can help. This community is one such place, although the advice here is, but design, focused on a pretty narrow set of questions. Another place is twitter. Follow #AcademicChatter for example, or pick some profs/well known postdocs in your field that spend their time live tweeting conferences, or talking about academic culture, or just complaining about academia rather than just promoting their latest papers. Try @ProfessorIsIn or @jenheemstra. There is a slack group for new (mostly biology) faculty (NewPI_UK) that I have found invaluable starting out as tenure track academic in the UK - its just a bunch of us in the same position trying to work things out together. Perhaps you can find (or start) something similar.

There are also podcasts. Try "The effort report" (https://effortreport.libsyn.com/), which sees its mission as specifically talking about the hidden curriculum, although again, i think mostly aimed at new faculty in the sciences. .

Finally, and this is probably not quite appropriate for you yet, but there are paid courses in the non-academic side of being an academic, but these are mostly aimed at tenure track people. Examples include EMBO's Lab Leadership course and CSHL's Leadership in Biosciences. Some career coaches also specialise in academia.

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There are many, many barriers faced by first-generation college students in academia. The pushback to your question makes sense, as the vast majority of academics don't learn the answers to your questions through their relatives in academia; in fact, I would disagree, and say that most academics don't have relatives in academia at all (personally, none readily come to mind). Most academics learn the answers to these questions through their advisors and mentors, either during their undergraduate and graduate educations. Of course, access to such advisors and mentors is the part that's blocked off from many low-income students. The most dedicated and well-known advisors are mainly at prestigious universities, where students from underprivileged backgrounds are grossly underrepresented; further, even at a prestigious university, a low-income student may have a more difficult time doing the networking necessary to get access to a good advisor, and may arrive with less preparation to be able to stand out from the first year.

I sympathize with your plight, though I completely disagree with the premise that academics learn this "secret curriculum" from family members in academia, as I doubt this is rarely, if ever, the case. It's simply a fact that academics from wealthier backgrounds have access to better educational opportunities which teach them these lessons.

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  • OK. Because many academics are not modest in expressing that they come from well-off families whose parents or grandparents were academics. You never hear academics go, "Hey, neither of my parents were able to guide me through college. They didn't even finish high school! I did it and so can you. I made so many mistakes and there are so many things I could say that could be helpful for early career people who are in my shoes."
    – cgb5436
    Commented Apr 6, 2022 at 5:43
  • Well, FWIW, I learned a lot about some of the aspects of academia from my parents. But this only helped me to understand power dynamics better and not struggle with wordings as much early on. Struggling pretty much the same with the actual research as first-generation academics I know. Also, @cgb5436, it's almost too late for you, but the main helpful thing is to find a good mentor (either your advisor or just someone experienced you can confide to). Some of the things you ask about are easier resolved with some show-and-tell. Networking is also absolutely key.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 12:58
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There is no secret knowledge that comprises rules or recipes for success. Academic success relies on your own work, your own ability, your communicative qualities, your enthusiasm for the work you do, the opportunities you see for the application of your work elsewhere, the way you support your students, the way you work with your supervisors, the care you take to write and publish what you do, the interest you take in others’ work, the opportunities you seize for collaboration. I also recognise the role of luck, but that is beyond control. Each of these themes could be expanded into an essay.

It is damaging to your own development to think that there are secret rules. That is the way to paranoia, where you think the world is somehow arranged to keep you out. It is not: it is waiting for your contribution.

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    I agree. Then again, perhaps OP refers to the various "soft skills" that you mention by "secret curriculum". Many of them are not taught explicitly in graduate education. There's a lot of implicit knowledge that academics learn by osmosis (and which is therefore very hard to spell out in an answer here). Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 7:56

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