Google maps can’t find ‘My PhD question/argument/plan…’

Some of you may have noticed that I missed a post last week. I was fortunate enough to be in Lancaster last week (not writing a blog post), at the Higher Education Close-Up 7 conference. One of the keynote speakers was Ray Land, one of the authors of the now well-known ‘threshold concepts’ papers (with Jan Meyer). His (and Meyer’s) research on threshold concepts also considers ‘liminality’ and the transformative potential of higher education. The concept of liminality in particular has inspired this post.

Liminal spaces are defined by Land (referencing earlier work by Turner) as precarious spaces, or spaces of uncertainty. You are moving away from one thing and towards another, and the journey is not necessarily always clear. He uses images of tunnels or portals – the former quite an anxious image and the latter a little more hopeful – but both indicating the movement towards the new, be it a new way of thinking, a new horizon, new possibilities.

Meanclochog Tunnel (from
Meanclochog Tunnel (from
Inner Fort at Krak des Chevaliers (from
Inner Fort at Krak des Chevaliers (from

The key thing, connected to work on threshold concepts, is that once you have undertaken the journey and gone down the tunnel or through the portal, you cannot really go back and see what you left behind in the same way again. Once you know something, it is almost impossible to not know again. You are changed – the liminal space and the journeys you take within it changes, transforms you.

The thing about the journey, when one is talking about higher education and in the case of this post, the doctorate, is that it is often a difficult one to make. The liminal space of the PhD, moving in circles and lines and all kinds of directions it seems at times, from not being a doctor to being one, and from not knowing to knowing and so on, demands both ontological and epistemological shifts and these are often challenging, uncomfortable, tricky. But, I think we have to see, even in our most uncomfortable moments, that the very purpose of a doctorate is transformation. You don’t do a PhD to stay the same and just gain a title (well, at least I hope you don’t). You undertake this rigorous, demanding, challenging process to be transformed into a different kind of thinker, writer, academic researcher and/or teacher-practitioner. Change is desirable, but it’s not easy.

The other image Land used in his keynote as a metaphor for a liminal space was a labyrinth or a maze.

The maze at Longleat in the UK - from
The maze at Longleat in the UK (from

I was struck by this in particular, as oftentimes this is what my own PhD journey felt like, especially starting out. There was no clear map, and I so wanted one. My supervisor clearly held herself up as a guide and someone who would help me think and write and read, but who would not tell me what to do. This was often great, but sometimes really frustrating as all I wanted was for her to just tell me what to write so I could write it and know it was right! The thing is, though, certainly when you are doing a full research doctorate, that the struggles to get to the ‘right’ kinds of thinking, reading and writing that will be most productive and generative for your study is where the learning happens. That is the liminal space and that holds the potential for the transformation, growth and change you seek. To be lost in the maze (within reasonable limits, I think) is to be doing the work of transformation.

The thing about mazes or labyrinths is that there is a way out. Often you find it by trial and error, sometimes you have a map of sorts. Most often you find your way out by paying attention to the missteps and the steps in the right directions, so that you can more consciously track your journey and your way out to the other side – to the doctorate being written and awarded, in the case of a PhD student. The thing about liminal spaces, though, is that academia, but its nature, requires you to exchange one maze (for me the PhD) for a new maze (postdoc research and publishing) and then another and another as your career grows. It requires us to stay in liminal spaces where we are never fully settled on an idea or a theory or a problem, but where we are constantly questioning and challenging ourselves, our colleagues, our students, to keep thinking, reading, writing, talking and in the process to to keep harnessing and using the transformative power and potential of what counts for us as powerful knowledge and knowing.

So, even though you may long for a Google Maps kind of supervision/doctoral process where you can plug in your title and get a clear route or two or three to your final destination, that kind of PhD is less likely to bring about the kinds of transformation in your scholarship and in your self that will count not just in academia, but in other parts of your life as well.

Google map (from
Google map (from

Embrace the journey, embrace the liminal spaces – they can often offer far more than they demand from you if you are willing to go there.

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