Illuminating the liminality of the doctoral journey (HDRstudents_LaTrobe)

Photo by Toa Heftiba |

For the past two months, a group of graduate researchers, answering an email request, have been getting together online to discuss and explore their own experiences of the doctoral journey within the context of COVID-19.

While sharing passions, interests, insecurities and concerns has been a prime focus of the group, the initial call also forwarded the possibility of writing a paper to illuminate what for many of us is the liminality of the doctoral journey. In doing so, the group (known as HDRstudents_LaTrobe) took advantage of the diverse backgrounds of those involved. We were graduate students from both HUSS and SHE Colleges, located regionally, internationally, off-shore, and remote.

If you’re a graduate researcher and haven’t come across the term ‘liminality’ before, you may be under the illusion that what you experience in your own research journey in terms of uncertainty, inner doubt and imagined possibility, is unique to you and your individual circumstance. Let us clear up that misconception and share with you our collective experiences.

Anthropologist Victor Turner defined liminality as the betwixt and between (PDF of 'Liminality and Communitas'). While Turner focused on the rites of passage within tribal sociocultural systems, it has recently been applied to political, social and cultural changes. Broadly, liminality refers to a sense of transition - a leaving behind and going towards. One could argue that Turner’s anthropological meaning is appropriate, that the graduate researcher journey is a rite of passage into a tribal world. After all, hierarchical writing styles, the status of publications and the structure of the PhD are all artefacts of a nebulous, cultural and convoluted world that is academia. We see liminality, however, as aligned more with a postmodern perspective, to contain not just exterior cultural dimensions but also a deep inner sense of challenge, change and pretence.

Many of us in our group have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’. As with many other syndromes, graduate researcher imposter syndrome is a complex set of psychological feelings that in this case is hidden by the PhD cloak of feigned confidence.

We pretend to know what we’re doing, what we’re saying, what we’re studying, while at the same time being fearful of difficult, wicked questions that our supervisors may put to us. If that is not enough, there is also the stress and anxiety caused by not knowing whether our doctorates, once and if obtained, lead to employment in an increasingly contested and competitive academic space. This uncertainty and insecurity is further compounded by a sense of ‘aloneness’, a feeling that we are travelling with others on parallel rather than intersecting paths. While our paths may appear to cross, there are few people to talk to about our passion, our problems, hopes and anxieties. Instead, it's a case of heads in laptops in the hope that our individual journey will be worth it in the end.

This is not to claim that the PhD journey is bereft of joy, fulfillment and achievement. Indeed, the concept of liminality includes a sense of arrival within transitionary spaces that contain their own reward. As one member of our group has said, ‘The PhD has kept me sane’. In other words, liminality is not simply about uncertainty but also possibility. Graduate researchers bring to their spaces a rich sense of agency. Alongside the passion to pursue a body of research that is unique, there is also the desire to create, in a small way, a better world through the privilege of researching a topic that is personally meaningful and significant.

All members of our group recognise that the PhD path may end not in a beautiful forest but a difficult landscape. Drawing on resilience, inner belief and psychological support from family, friends, supervisors and even research participants, gives the journey a sense of purpose beyond one’s immediate needs and short-term goals. As another member of our group has said, ‘I feel that I am protecting a candle flame in a dark cave’.

There have been lessons that have emerged out of our online discussions. The first is that the university environment makes a huge difference. This difference lies not just in terms of access to knowledge (while important) or guidance (while crucial) but also in feeling valued by one’s department and school. Another finding is that liminality contains its own tension. When the forces of uncertainty are too great, when aspiration is dwarfed by insecurity, when the aloneness and disconnect overwhelms one’s passion, the doctoral journey becomes untenable. Finally, there is also an ideological component to the doctoral journey. The diversity across our group indicates that liminality characterised by uncertainty is not something that should define the graduate researcher experience. Nurturing ‘possibility’ and ‘value’ as key components of the journey help to subdue the need to feign competence and shine the light on the privilege that studying one’s passion brings.

It was not by circumstance that we started the group during the COVID-19 lockdown. The uncertainty brought out by COVID-19 seemed to be a prime time to explore our doctoral selves. Interestingly, we have found common characteristics within our own journey with the COVID-19 experience at a societal level. Primary amongst them is that COVID-19 is not a random event in the history of humankind but a symptom of a broader malaise in how we, as a species, treat nature. Those in situations of power have eliminated the reflective spaces that enable us to question the paths we are following. Likewise, the reflective spaces around the doctoral journey are being squeezed as the onus falls on timelines and completions.

Our hope is that by illuminating the liminality of the doctoral experience, those in spaces of power can create shifts to value the graduate researcher, recognise their aspirations and, in so doing, build passion and resilience into the system more broadly.

While the graduate researcher group that authored this post, is near the end of their project, activities are ongoing. If you are interested in hearing more, please contact Michael Atkinson ( This project was supported by the Intellectual Climate Fund (ICF). 


Ideas for this post were derived through numerous online conversations between 12 graduate researchers of the HDRstudents_LaTrobe group. It is authored by Michael Atkinson (School of Humanities and Social Sciences) and Andrew Albert Ty (Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines / School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University). 

Andrew Albert Ty
Michael Atkinson