The #HiddenCurriculum of Applying to Graduate School (for Anthropology)

The #HiddenCurriculum of Applying to Graduate School (for Anthropology)

A recent conversation on #AcademicTwitter has been about the #HiddenCurriculum, that is, all the things that you’re expected to know but are never formally taught or the hidden tricks and hacks to help you succeed in academia. In anthropology, the #HiddenCurriculum is deep. Proposal writing, research methods, and data analysis are rarely taught as courses. Writing conference presentations and abstracts, writing and submitting article manuscripts for peer review, writing book reviews, and writing a CV are generally mentored activities, if you’re lucky to have a mentor who is that invested in your future. Teaching, advising, organizing, and advocacy are learned by experience or maybe a graduate school workshop. The problem with the #HiddenCurriculum is that it readily reveals itself to those in positions of privilege through their access to professional networks, mentorships, and family, legacy, or alumni connections. That is to say, keeping the #HiddenCurriculum hidden disproportionately benefits wealthy White people. In this post, I want to reveal a part of the #HiddenCurriculum to which I am privy: applying to graduate anthropology programs in the United States.

Before I begin, I want to give a disclaimer: my graduate school application process was developed five years ago, and it was tailored to my needs, abilities, and finances. Additionally, among my peers, I find that my process was thorough, intense, and perhaps overkill. Finally, in spite of its length, this is a rough guide and is open to discussion, input, and questions in the comments. Your mileage may vary. Another feature of the #HiddenCurriculum conversation on Twitter is talking about things that you learned the hard way, things that might have been embarrassing because you didn’t know any better. In this case, this is both a guide and a story about how I applied to way too many graduate schools. Nonetheless, I hope this can help applicants develop a plan. Please take note of all bolded text. These are either things that may not be immediately apparent to you until you’re in the thick of applying (if at all).

First, we need a timeline. Applications are generally due in December (but not always). Deadlines and procrastination give me anxiety, so let’s begin in August. Read all of this first and plan accordingly, because many of these tasks will overlap in different ways.

Late July through September:

Get help. Odds are, the person who has the most experience with graduate school applications is going to be someone in your department. I was lucky to have a fantastic undergraduate advisor. I went over the plan with her, she helped me tweak it, she read everything I wrote, and she pushed back and called me out when I overstepped or said something stupid. Crucially, this person will likely be a letter writer, so talk to them about how many letters they’re willing to write. More on that later.

Cast a wide net as far as you can, geographically, and create a list. For me, this was “the United States, in states where midwifery is not illegal.” (I wanted to apply to Duke and Notre Dame, alas I could not.) Do a Google search (“anthropology + [geographic location] + [research topic]”), find articles, books, faculty profiles, and graduate program websites. Do the research to figure out who is doing work similar to what you’re interested in doing. Scour the websites of graduate programs and the schools to figure out what the funding looks like and what kind of resources are available with respect to mental health, community, activism, unionization, and other kinds of things that you might want while you’re in graduate school.

Let me go back and reiterate something, because this is important to know upfront: there are multiple websites you should be looking at within the same university. While not always true, the general structure is this: a graduate program exists within a department (e.g. Department of Anthropology), which exists within a graduate school or college (e.g. Graduate School of Arts and Sciences), which exists within a university. At the very least, you should be looking at the Department and Graduate School websites. When you apply, you are effectively applying to each of them, so they oftentimes have their own requirements. The application itself will likely be on the Graduate School page, but anything you mail will likely be sent to the Department.

At the end of this process, I had picked fifteen schools (which I now understand is an absurd amount).

Justify your choices and cull the herd. That awesome advisor I had? Once I showed her this ridiculous and overeager list, she turned it around. “Okay, now write about all of them and justify to me why you need to go to each school.” This exercise forced me to reexamine the university resources, locations, funding, advisors, and research topics. It turns out that I had picked a few schools really just based on names, rankings, and ideas of prestige that otherwise didn’t really serve me any practical benefit as an ethnographer. Having to sit down to really think about that forced me to cut those prospects out.

Most of these selection criteria are going to depend on your needs, but the best advice I received – which I think is probably applicable to everyone – was to choose programs where you can potentially fit with at least three different advisors. Some programs may not ask you to pick an advisor until two, three, even four years in, and a lot can change in that time. Other times, people aren’t what they seem. Sometimes your advisor leaves. And, look, people die. It happens. Set yourself up for some flexibility. (I’m currently with my third advisor, so this was crucial advice in hindsight; not everyone is so lucky.)

How do you know who “fits?” Well, it’s a bit of guessing game, and it will develop over the next couple months (and years). At this point, I was picking based on research interests and publications. Ah, she’s a Medical Anthropologist who works in Sierra Leone. (Medical Anthropology, West Africa. Check and check!) This other prof works on men’s reproductive health and Islam in the Middle East. (Masculinities, reproductive health, Islam. Check, check, check. Middle East? Not so much, but that’s fine.) And so on. At the time, I thought it had to be a perfect fit, but I can tell you now, it does not. Today, I’m of the mind that it’s much more important to get along or even click with your advisor than it is to have common research interests, but at this stage, that can be really hard to figure out – another reason to pick a programs with multiple potential advisors. At the end of this process, I had whittled it down to nine schools (which is still, really, too much).

Now that I’ve been in graduate school for a while, I will also add a cynical note, and this is my personal opinion: prioritize potential advisors that have experience advising. Profs who have never advised before will be learning how to do so on you, and if they mess up, they face few if any repercussions, while your stakes are much, much higher. I’ve seen this play out too many times, but students can’t be expected to know this before they go in. If you find someone you really want to work with who hasn’t advised before, be open to having a co-chair (or co-advisor, basically a second advisor) with more experience.

Reach out to people you want to work with. Send them emails, add a CV if you have one, and introduce yourself. “Hi, my name is Dick Powis and I’m an undergraduate at Cleveland State University. I’m going to be applying to graduate programs in the coming months. I’m interested in doing (x, y, and z) in (wherever), which seems related to your work on (x, y, z,) in (wherever). Will you be taking graduate students to begin next fall?” This last part is important: not everyone can or will take students. One professor responded, “I’d like to, but I have two students who won’t be graduating on time this year, so I won’t have time or resources for another student.” This is very thoughtful, and I deeply appreciated the response. She continued, “I suggest that you reach out to my colleagues at [another university]. I think you’d fit right in there.” In other cases, the profs you contact may give you tips specifically tailored to applying to their program.

Something I did not do, but which I recommend doing, is ask the profs who respond affirmatively if they would put you in contact with one of their students. Talk to the students. Ask them, “How often do you see your advisor. Are they responsive to emails? Do they read your work and give you feedback? Do they actively help you learn proposal writing, research methods, data analysis, article publication, and forms of professionalization?” In essence, you’re looking for someone who can reveal or assist with other parts of the #HiddenCurriculum. At the same time, graduate school can be very emotionally exhausting for BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and neuro-atypical students, so finding someone who will show you empathy and have your back is also important. Branching out from there, ask the students about the department (e.g. funding, camaraderie, etc), the university (resources, health insurance, housing, parental leave), and even the city (“Can I escape when I need to?”).

Full disclosure, this process backfired on me once. When it seemed like I was asking too many questions, I was later told by one prof, “[This university’s] students don’t need their hands held.” I didn’t get in, and it’s probably for the best.

Created a spreadsheet, because things about to get really messy! Even if you’re applying to one or two schools, this should help you keep everything organized.

Go back to the graduate school application and graduate program websites (two different things!) and collect all the information you need about their application requirements. Here is an example list:

  • Personal Statement
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Writing sample
  • University Transcripts
  • GRE scores
  • Application Fee (or Waiver)

Down the left side of the spreadsheet, make a list of the universities to which you intend to apply. Across the top, make a list of all the requirements. In the table, you need to develop a system for noting the requirements for each item. School X requires a statement of 2,000 words? Type “2000 words” in the cell that joins “School X” with “Personal Statement.” Someone requires two pages? Writing sample is optional? They only want two letters? That school doesn’t require GRE scores? Write it all down. That school wants a research statement? Make a new column, and then write it down too. The spreadsheet will help you keep track of all of this. Include URLs where you find this information so that you can quickly access it. Add the URL of the application page, too.

As you progress through the applications, come back to the spreadsheet and fill cells in with a different color to strikethrough text to tell yourself that the task is finished and uploaded (but do make sure that if it needs to be mailed, you note that as well).

Add a couple more columns: “Letter Writers” (which I’ll talk about next), “Primary contacts” (those are the profs), “Secondary Contacts” (those are the grad students), “Reached out,” and “Contact responded.” These last two are boxes to check when you’ve completed that respective task.

Finally, a note about application fees: Graduate school applications are expensive, but there are waivers for those of us who cannot afford them. My application fees would have totaled $666 (hell yeah), but I paid nothing. Search the university websites, do a Google search, or – as I had to in a couple cases – call the graduate school.

Think about who can write your letters. You need to pick at least three people who can write you strong letters of recommendation. Along with the Personal Statement, letters are the most important part of the application packet. Your writers should be professors with whom you’ve worked, with whom you’ve taken a course, or with whom you’ve had a conversation; and, I hate to say it, their job title matters. Professors, Associate Professors, and Assistant Professors should come before Visiting Professors, Adjunct Professors, and Lecturers. (It’s not the best system, but I will add that the latter three probably don’t have the time and definitely aren’t paid to be writing letters anyway. That’s my opinion, you may find otherwise.)

You can pick more than three, even though the programs will probably only require three letters. It’s not that you can send in more than three, but that you can give your writers a break by distributing the labor. I applied to nine schools; my advisor agreed to write nine letters. The other 18 letters can be divided twice (nine per writer), or three times (six per), and so on. This system will give you a chance to do a little social engineering as well. In my case, I was close to someone who had done their PhD at Berkeley, but had little time to write letters, so she agreed to write just one for my Berkeley application. That application was rejected, so it may not have helped, but I have heard professors say that they pay special attention to letters written by their colleagues or alumni of their programs. And, if you reverse engineer this, you may find yourself including the departments with which your mentors have connections in your pool of prospective graduate programs.

In general, it doesn’t hurt to ask very early, “Hey, when I apply to graduate school, would you mind writing me a couple letters? I can give you notice when the time comes, I just want to see if you’re comfortable with that.” (Remember, we’re still in August or September.) And then I give them four weeks, two weeks, one week, and then three, two, and one day notices. It’s important to talk with your writers about this process though too. In many cases, the letters of recommendation are not due until after your application is due, and it’s not always easy to figure out what that date is. When you apply, the system will ask you for the names and email addresses of your writers, and then it will send them an email asking for their letter. That email will have the due date, but you will not receive it. If you’re worried that a writer may not get it in on time (which happens), just ask them about the deadline for their letter, and then adjust your strategy accordingly. There’s a lot more detailed discussion out there about letter writers, how to pick them, how to politely nudge them, but I want to add: Show gratitude. Give them a Thank You card. If you really want to go overboard, send them a coffee mug from the school you got into.

Get to work on that personal statement. This is one of those things that requires its own blog post, and there are plenty of resources out there. I will add my own experiences here. The writing prompts are all different, but they’re essentially asking the same thing: where have you been, where are you now, and where are you going? Figure out which school has the highest maximum word or page count and do that one first. If a program has no maximum, aim for two pages, single-spaced. I wrote a generic template with spaces for the university names and a paragraph near the end that addressed each specific program. Then, cut down from there to meet the max word or page counts of each program.

A note about the GRE. When I applied five years ago, the GRE was the least important factor of the application. “It’s a formality,” one school told me. That’s an expensive formality, I thought. Today, some departments aren’t even requiring it. For those that do, don’t stress out. Do not withhold an application just because you have low GRE scores, unless, of course, you have to be picky because applications are expensive. (See? It’s a mess.) For the programs that do look at GRE scores, writing and verbal scores are generally more important than the math scores. And importantly, as with applications, there are waivers for the GRE fee. You’ll need to figure out how to get one on the GRE website and you’ll need to work with your home institution to secure it, because they have to send in your financial information to prove that you’re in need of one.

October – November:

Applications for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship are due in the last week of October (in 2018). The #HiddenCurriculum of NSF-GRFP applications is its own monster, and it tends to change from year to year faster than grad school applications, so I don’t feel comfortable talking about it. There are a lot of resources online to help you find your way (but do be careful that the advice given matches with the current year’s NSF application requirements!). If you are planning to apply, make “NSF-GRFP” its own institution on the left column of your spreadsheet and integrate it into your plan. Also, you’ll need letter writers.

If possible, meet people. Are you planning on going to the meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November? Email those profs again and ask if they’ll be in attendance and willing to sit down for 15-20 minutes for some coffee and a chat. Ask if their students will be there and reach out to them for the same. Go to their presentations. Invite them to yours, if you have one. (The #HiddenCurriculum of the AAA meetings is its own thing, too. Hopefully someone else can write that one. In the meantime, here’s a student guide for 2018.) And if not, ask if they’d be willing to have a conversation over Skype.

Get an elevator pitch together. It doesn’t need to be about research plans and it doesn’t need to gush about a university, professor, or theoretical perspective (I’ve heard those). Just a 30-second pitch about who you are and what you’re interested in. I also liked to hit profs with, “So, what book are you reading right now?”


You’ve done the footwork. You’ve made contact. You have a good idea of where you’re applying and who’s writing letters. Now to tighten everything up. Go back through, make sure everything looks good. Make sure that your personal statements match the university you’re sending it to. Make sure you’ve finished and uploaded everything.

Have anxiety about letter writers.

Hit “Send” and cry about the uncertainty of your future.


A note about GradCafe. It is not good for your mental health. It is anxiety inducing and horrifying and can become addictive. Avoid it like the plague. If you don’t know what GradCafe is, just keep it that way.

Alright, so I probably got some things wrong here or left a lot out (e.g. funding!), and seeing as I’m writing about academia, I’m sure someone will let me know straight-away in the comments or in my Twitter mentions. But that’s the #HiddenCurriculum, right? I feel like I’ve only got half the story. One interesting thing I’ve realized just writing this is how the hidden curricula become nested within each other. So, let me be clear again: what worked for me may not work for you. Talk to your advisors about planning. Talk to people at the university to which you’re applying. Talk to graduate students. If anything, I hope this can serve as a framework.

Epilogue: Of nine applications, I was accepted to my top two choices. That makes sense because they were the best fits. But don’t apply to nine schools.

5 Replies to “The #HiddenCurriculum of Applying to Graduate School (for Anthropology)”

  1. The most important part: When you have narrowed your search down to five or so potential advisors, READ THEIR WORK. Maybe not all of it, but some of their most significant pieces. Does the work interest you? Do you find the ideas in it compelling or fascinating? If not, you’re in the wrong place. Your advisor will be your most important intellectual interlocutor—make sure it’s somebody you want to talk to.

    1. Thank you Elizabeth. Would you elaborate on how someone can determine what a prof’s most significant pieces are? It’s not easy to tell from looking at a CV or faculty web site (if those are even up to date).

  2. This was great! Would also love to read a piece on what to do in the first few months of a program, especially if you don’t have previous anthropology experience. (My partner is starting a program in two weeks.)

  3. Thank you for writing this! I’m applying for anthro graduate programs this fall and I feel better reading this. It’s all so overwhelming!