Hidden curriculum™ for mid-career faculty


Over the last few months, I’ve had some quality time with a bunch of other mid-career academics who are (also) experiencing an inflection point in their careers. We’ve advanced to a certain level, and now we’re wondering, “Where do we go next?” This state of mind has been amplified by the disequilibrium that the pandemic introduced into our jobs and our own lives. (Stay tuned to this space for more on that inflection point, perhaps.) Anyhow, another thing that floated to the surface was how the Hidden Curriculum™ is a problem for us too.

We usually talk about Hidden Curriculum™ as a mechanism of inequity for junior scientists. For example, undergrads aren’t aware of the procedures and cultural norms that of the grad school application process. Grad students are often unfamiliar with the schmoozing etiquette of the prevailing (upper-middle class white) culture in their discipline.

Some bad news is that the gatekeeping never stops.

What are some expectations, norms, resources, and pathways that aren’t transparently shared with mid-career faculty, but can be really important? Here are some examples that have come up:

-How to gain access to resources in your university. I’m not talking about checking library books out for six months or landing a slot for your kid in the campus daycare. There are some people in your university whose research programs and teaching agenda have more resources than others. They might be getting a bigger slice of their indirect, or they might have a side deal negotiated with one of a VPs or an Associate Dean, or they might have gotten into some cushy service commitment that compensates particularly well. Yes, It is entirely inequitable that there are non-transparent ways of landing resources on your campus. But it also is the way that business is often done. So while folks have been pushing for transparency for decades, there is a subset of folks who are benefiting from this lack of transparency. The Hidden Curriculum™ is the awareness of these routes to resources and power, and how folks who have this kind of access don’t advertise it. The specific levers vary from campus to campus, but it happens everywhere.

-How to get awards and honors. While everybody knows that you need friends to nominate you, I don’t think the people realize how often people straight up just ask their friends something like, “Could you nominate me to be a fellow of the society?” (Which by the way, I’ve done this for a university award, but not with a professional society.)

-Come to think of it, so many other opportunities that people have emerge because they straight up ask for the opportunity. For example, if you want to be on an NSF panel and haven’t gotten an invite, then what you’re supposed to do is send your CV to one of the program directors and mention that you’re interested in being on a panel. Same for being on an editorial board. If you’re experiencing a gap between grants and you need a little something to tide you over, some folks have been known to go up to administrators who handle purse strings and ask for a bit of cash to hold them over. I’ve totally seen this happen with success. Good things often come to those who simply ask for them, even if other people might think that it’s completely inappropriate or unjustified or inequitable to ask for those things.

-What you can hire people to do for you. A lot of us are familiar with what lab managers can do. (And plenty of us work in places where lab managers are outside the norm, and wish we had the consistent funding for one, but we don’t, I get this). Beyond what a lab manager does, a lot of more senior folks hire other kinds of people to take care of stuff for them, for both their science as well as personal matters. I’ve only recently realized how many people are paying personal assistants to for things like email triage and other business like that. A lot of first-gen academics don’t realize how common it is for faculty in the US to pay people to come into their homes and do a full cleaning on a regular basis. Folks don’t talk about it much, because it’s uncouth to talk about social class, but it’s super duper common.

-The pragmatics and politics of moving and landing positions at new institutions. This goes far beyond how to negotiate once you get an offer. Landing a new tenure-track position is a whole different creature than moving laterally or “up” when you’re mid-career. Sometimes, folks will go into some kind of admin work (for example, being a chair, or head of a program, while still also running their research lab) not because they want to do admin but because that’s the mechanism for changing institutions. There is a lot of stuff that goes on in mid-career institution switching that people don’t talk about. I’ve recently wound up on the radar of academic headhunting firms and now I get contacted once in a while (and there are some opportunities that I’ve quite been interested in), and I have a much clearer idea about how these moves happen. This isn’t a thing that I’m supposed to be talking about, but this is the kind of stuff that folks should know. On a related note, I recently was chatting with a faculty member who was in the neighborhood of coming up for tenure somewhere, who is looking to move closer to home or to a place with some modicum of civil rights. This is a person who consistently has seven-figure grant funding and their track record suggests that this will be continuing for some time. They were surprised to learn that they can kinda sorta maybe open the door to a new position at another university by starting a the conversation. While it’s true that jobs just don’t materialize out of thin air, if you think you’re a particularly strong candidate, it’s possible to work the angles and see if a place might want to recruit you. Some universities that are more overtly chasing prestige (such as, say, USC) have a blatant policy to welcome applications from very high profile people (like, members of the National Academy). I’m not sure mid-career folks ever get educated about cross-institution hiring and poaching, because it’s not in the interest of folks who have moved (or managed to negotiate bomb ass retention packages) to talk about this stuff.

-The benefits of being attached to a particular airline. If you fly several times or more per year, and especially if your lab is purchasing tickets for other people in your lab, it can really pay off to stay on the same airline and have a personal credit card that gives miles for this airline. Mid-career faculty might have the budgetary leeway to purchase these tickets on their own cards on and get reimbursed, which results in accumulating a ton of frequent flyer miles, which can be used for good purposes. This will give frequent flyer status, which means you’re more likely to get upgraded to more comfortable seats, and if you get the fancier credit card, it will buy access to the airline club while also accruing miles at a faster rate. Which sounds like a decadence, but it can turn airport time from an annoyance to something downright comfortable and an opportunity to do work or genuinely relax. On three different occasions before the pandemic, I stepped into the airline club in LA and bumped into a senior scientist colleagues from other institutions, who were waiting for connections. Senior folks aren’t advertising that they’re traveling in this kind of comfort, because what sounds more elitist than using the airline club? Another slice of the academic Hidden Curriculum™.

-Getting papers into glam journals. Yes, it’s possible to submit a paper to Nature or Science or PNAS and it gets accepted after peer review and revision. That does happen. But I have heard innumerable backstories about when senior authors push back when rejections happen, demand additional reviewers, and perform various kinds of manipulations and machinations to get their manuscript in print. If you’re wondering why certain labs seem to have an “in” with particular venues, that’s because they probably do. Related: a lot of senior folks are perfectly recommending their good friends as peer reviewers, and the editors handling the papers may very well not know who is best buddies with the authors.

That’s some of the mid-career hidden curriculum that comes off the top of my head. Though I imagine there’s a lot of stuff that I have yet to learn about! What did I forget or not know? (As always, you can comment anonymously by just not leaving your information.)

8 thoughts on “Hidden curriculum™ for mid-career faculty

  1. Absolutely, I’m a first gen academic and it’s something I’m just slowly learning about and realising its relevance to past experiences. My recent post about the great resignation got me thinking about whether this is also a contributing factor to some people leaving academia around this career stage, discovering that they may not have the collateral they didn’t know they needed to progress their career. I agree with most of your points, probably some slight cultural differences in Australia, but I would also add:
    – how to get grant funding from non-conventional sources,
    -how to get the ‘right’ institutional support on your grant application to make you more competitive (somewhat relevant to your resources point),
    -how to get your needs met out of your internal service obligations (ie getting out of service you don’t want to do, or being able to achieve real outcomes from token service roles)
    -how to get involved in policy/decision-making at your institution/department and at your favourite professional society

  2. To what extent does “not supposed to talk about this” mean that even if you take the initiative to ask around about things like how to get more funding, people will play dumb? In other words, is there an unspoken active effort to shut out the people who aren’t already in the know?

    • If you cut a special deal, then everybody else will want access to that same deal. It’s understood (tacitly or otherwise) that you shouldn’t let advertise this arrangement.

      For example, at one college, I know that some PIs had negotiated getting a bigger slice of their returned indirect than other people. I also know of some folks who got reassigned time for certain external service commitments while other people aren’t getting reassigned time for essentially the same role. I also know that some people have gotten the grants office to pay for a grant writer to support a proposal, but other people didn’t get that kind of support.

      It’s not just about taking the time and initiative to find the funding. This kind of funding is inequitable, and no surprise, it’s the senior white guys who end up getting more than other folks. It’s not often an “active” effort to shut out people, but that is the effect when have a privilege that others don’t and you keep it on the down low.

      I’ve known a bunch of mid career faculty who have spent their careers working up the ranks and playing by the rules only to discover that people who have been getting further ahead have been playing by a different set of rules. So I thought it’s important to talk about this.

  3. One big issue in this is that people asking for a anything ‘extra’ are perceived very differently based on all different aspects of identity. Women often face backlash in asking for anything beyond the standard package and BIPOC folks are likely to be perceived negatively for asking for these things too. I know women are often more successful in asking for things for their team (i.e. it can’t possibly be focused on the individual PI it has to be her care-taking someone else) but to be honest it gets exhausting to have to always make an extra effort to make sure I look sufficiently like a mother hen in any request that might put me on an even playing field with my male colleagues. The hidden curriculum isn’t just hidden from marginalized groups, it’s different.

    • Thanks, I appreciate that you pointed this out (and while it’s clearly that all of this is layered in privilege the fact that I didn’t explicitly point it out says something about how easy it is for folks with my identity to overlook this)

  4. From political science, an interesting survey on start-up packages:

    Farris, E., Key, E., & Sumner, J. (2022). “Wow, I Didn’t Know These Options Existed”: Understanding Tenure-Track Start-Up Packages. PS: Political Science & Politics, 1-7. doi:10.1017/S1049096522000993


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