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Reflections from the liminal stage in my PhD journey

Reflections from the liminal stage in my PhD journey
May 15, 2019 625 views

I am typing this, sitting among a pile of boxes and rubbish, as I prepare to move to another house. Life is changing, yet again, and I have to find time to keep doing the important things, such as meeting my deadline for this blog. Try moving in the middle of the week, still having to coordinate getting the kids to school, making sure their uniform is ironed and lunch is made. This morning, I had a mini panic attack thinking I packed my youngest’s school bag with one of the sealed boxes. It’s crazy!

I am hoping that someday soon I can have a house of my own that I will never need to move away from. We all dream of this stable future devoid of inconveniences. It is perhaps, how we assume things will be once we finish our PhDs. But I have a sneaky suspicion that maybe things won’t change after all. Maybe it will even get worse, considering how stressed out academics are always saying they are? Being on the doorstep of change, as I am, is anxiety-inducing. Not a student, but not yet a scholar/academic. This is what Abram and Ibrahim (2012) say about the liminal stage that is PhD candidacy: “The PhD journey, like foreign travel, involves the exploration of unknown territories and encounters with unfamiliar cultures. The experience is as much emotional as cognitive, and aspects of the journey may be exhilarating, frightening, puzzling, stimulating, exhausting or tedious.” I find that this description fits being a parent to little kids as well. And I am doing both at the moment. Wouldn’t it be nice to try and figure out only one critical thing at a time? 

I am at the end of my third year. Thank God that there haven’t been any catastrophic events with my PhD studies so far. I’ve had challenges, but none of the horror stories you sometimes read about on the internet. In the coming year, I have to be dynamic and pragmatic, as things haven’t always turned out as planned (both in my personal and academic life). And because I have to start looking towards the future, it means I have to spare time to build my skills and look for possible employment. No more selfishly dedicating all of my time to my studies and the occasional conference or supervision of Masters’ students.

I’m just a little bit stressed! How will I balance analysis, writing, and engaging in work opportunities? I am looking beyond the exhilaration of the past three years, when I gained new skills, learned new methodologies, and articulated brand new concepts. I am leveraging the sense of growth I feel to weather the frightening experiences, such as financial insecurities (with a family to feed!). I also use that sense of growth to weather the fatigue of doing nothing but study in the past three years. There’s exhaustion that comes with having to run the last mile. I do feel that there is something exciting on the horizon but I know that it will probably be more difficult before it gets easy. Hopefully, I have laid a good foundation in the past three years.

My PhD experience has been the quintessential rite of passage, where, “the individual [is] neither one thing nor another, but betwixt and between… In managing the peaks and troughs of research, many students battle with moments of fear, inferiority, darkness and invisibility. They not only deal with emotional challenges, stressful situations, confusion, lack of moral, theoretical and methodological support, but they also juggle with too many responsibilities, identity crises and demands, either from their families, their institutions or their sponsors.” But there are many good days. Lots of achievements and milestones on the way. Right now, I am feeling hopeful and calm regarding my PhD, and I wish I could wrap this feeling up for some of the tougher days. Of course, if I come out the other end feeling as I feel now, I will 100% recommend a PhD to all my friends. 


Mamothena Mothupi (@mamothena) is in her third year of studies at the University of the Western Cape School of Public Health. This story was published on October 15, 2018, on SAYAS Blog (available here), and has been republished here with permission.

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