My own PhD diploma is over a decade old, and I teach in a high school rather than a graduate program. However, I think everyone who teaches or mentors in academic settings, not just those contemplating professorial careers, stands to benefit tremendously from A Field Guide to Grad School. In this sagacious yet plainspoken book, sociologist Jessica Calarco gives the gift of expert, culturally critical mentoring on topics ranging from funding your graduate studies to academic publishing to being on the professorial job market.
I’m intentionally positioning Calarco’s work here as gift, and you and/or your students will, too. Like many PhD students, I experienced teaching and mentoring in graduate school that was at times unclear, at times combative, and nearly always operating under the assumption I held knowledge I didn’t yet have. A copy of this book, at the start of my academic career, would have gifted me valuable clarity on institutional norms, perspective on difficult interpersonal situations, and language to describe why I (a student from a low-income family with no academic ties) so often felt bewildered and blundering. It’s clear this book aims to serve students, particularly those with marginalized-in-the-academy identities and backgrounds, as they navigate their graduate studies. But, as her last pages make clear, Calarco’s bigger motive is empowering early-career scholars to change the broken systems that created the market for her book in the first place.
Chapter by chapter, A Field Guide to Grad School adroitly unpacks the knowledge and skills – from applying to and selecting a program to navigating the job market and balancing work/life as an early-career professor – that graduate students must develop in order to thrive. Calarco is a sociologist, not a biologist, but even portions of the book that skew specific to that field are rich and informative for those in science, education, or both. I am particularly in awe of Calarco’s breakdown of academic writing genres (research reports, focused literature reviews, etc.) into idea-by-idea outlines that center universal practices like argumentation or positioning yourself in meaningful conversation with literature in your field. You and/or your students will also appreciate practical features like the timetable for how long each segment of an academic talk/lecture should take, the appendix containing snapshots of Calarco’s CV as both the document and her career lengthen, and the brief but powerful introduction to backwards-planned and inclusive course design.
My favorite part of this Field Guide is how it shows the reader an example of how to serve as an active accomplice in dismantling systems of elitism and oppression. As Marian Wright Edelman has said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” As its subtitle suggests, this nimble and compassionate volume makes visible the hidden curriculum of graduate studies, but it also serves as a paradigm for undertaking the work of responsive education through a justice-oriented lens. Calarco’s integrated, unwavering anti-bias stance is an excellent model for those of us in positions and/or identities associated with power who are ready to learn how to pass that power equitably to others.
Calarco and I live in the same Midwestern college town. Although we’ve never met, I am heartened to know that someone like her is approaching the work of mentoring early-career scholars in my hometown with such humanity, courage, and vision. Whether you are considering graduate school, supporting graduate students, or serving elsewhere in higher-education administration – or simply interested in how to make learning and mentoring more humane – A Field Guide to Grad School should be on your reading list.