A rite of passage is a ritual that occurs when a person changes their state in life. Examples of rites of passage are coming of age rituals, marriages and births. The PhD is just such a ritual. It marks the change from an undergraduate student to a qualified, independent researcher.
At the beginning the PhD candidate is removed from the comfortable surroundings of the undergraduate and becomes separated from the old life. Many PhD students also move away from their families and friends to a foreign country or city.
During the time of the ritual the candidates learn new skills to prepare them for their future life. They also suffer some hardships to prove their endurance and persistence. During the rite the candidates occupy an anomalous position. They are no longer what they were at the beginning but have not yet reached the point where they can occupy the new state they will be prepared for at the end.
At the end the candidate has proven that s/he is capable of independent research. At this point, a ceremony takes place to welcome the candidate back into society in his or her new role. In the case of the PhD this involves a public ceremony where people wear funny clothes and hats and make speeches. Thus public recognition is given to the candidate for passing the rite of passage and attaining a new state.
In a survey of PhD students I found that some of them described the PhD as an ‘ordeal’ and that they had to ‘struggle’ to achieve their ends. This supports the observation that the PhD is a rite of passage that has to be endured to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. It also illustrates the fact that the PhD has to be earned by passing through the rite of passage. By suffering the ‘ordeal’ the student learns how to overcome it and develop as a researcher.
Two other characteristics of a rite of passage are also found in the PhD. They are ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’.
Liminality means that the persons undergoing the rite of passage are in an in-between state, what Victor Turner calls “betwixt and between”. That is they are no longer in the state they were in before they started but have not yet reached the state in which they will be when the rite is over. The PhD students are ‘liminars’ because they are no longer course work students whose entire work is predefined and set in stone but are not yet qualified to be independent researchers who can proceed at their own pace in their own directions. They are moving away from one state towards another, very different state. While in transition they are neither one nor the other but in some undefined state in between.
Communitas is the fellow-feeling that arises between people undergoing the rite of passage together. This is apparent from the way that PhD students in their later years help those who are following in the years behind them, as they received help from their forebears when they were beginning students. This feeling of communitas makes present day PhD students members of a community that goes back to the first PhD students in the past and will go forward into the future as long as there are PhD students to carry it forward. The sense of belonging, the communitas, joins all the past, present and future PhD students into one community. Many PhD candidates carry this communitas over into their later lives when they maintain a friendly contact with those with whom they shared their time as PhD candidates.
Thus the PhD shows all the characteristics of a rite of passage. The isolation, change, liminality and communitas are all part of it. As well, there is a certain amount of pain and anguish in the PhD as in many rites of passage. Passing the ordeal of the rite is not easy – it’s not meant to be – otherwise there would be little value in the reward won at the end of it. The reward must be earned by blood, sweat and tears – at least metaphorically if not actually.
This is a guest post by Rod Pitcher, a PhD candidate in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. A collection of Rod’s forum postings over the last year is available as a free ebook called PhD Musings. A second collection, More PhD Musings, will become available soon in a free ebook. Rod can be contacted at Rod.Pitcher@anu.edu.au or via his profile, his blog or follow him on Twitter @Rod_Pitcher.