OBJECTIVES The hidden curriculum may be framed as the culture, beliefs and behaviours of a community that are passed to students outside formal course offerings. Medical careers involve diverse specialties, each with a different culture, yet how medical students negotiate these cultures has not been fully explored. Using surgery as a case study, we aimed to establish, first, whether a specialty-specific hidden curriculum existed for students, and second, how students encountered and negotiated surgical career options. METHODS Using a constructivist grounded theory approach, we explored students' thoughts, beliefs and experiences regarding career decisions and surgery. An exploratory questionnaire informed the discussion schedule for semi-structured individual interviews. Medical students were purposively sampled by year group, gender and career intentions in surgery. Data collection and analysis were iterative: analysis followed each interview and guided the adaptation of our discussion schedule to further our evolving model. RESULTS Students held a clear sense of a hidden curriculum in surgery. To successfully negotiate a surgical career, students perceived that they must first build networks because careers information flows through relationships. They subsequently enacted what they learned by accruing the accolades (`ticking the boxes') and appropriating the dispositions (`walking the talk') of 'future surgeons'. This allowed them to identify themselves and to be identified by others as 'future surgeons' and to gain access to participation in the surgical world. Participation then enabled further network building and access to careers information in a positive feedback loop. For some, negotiating the hidden curriculum was more difficult, which, for them, rendered a surgical career unattractive or unattainable. CONCLUSIONS Students perceive a clear surgery-specific hidden curriculum. Using a constructivist grounded theory approach, we have developed a model of how students encounter, uncover and enact this hidden curriculum to succeed. Drawing on concepts of Bourdieu, we discuss unequal access to the hidden curriculum, which was found to exclude many from the possibility of a surgical career.