Staying with the trouble: liminality in transdisciplinary doctoral research

Have you ever caught yourself, surrounded by a group of academics or early career researchers, experiencing a quiet torment, wondering whether you’ll ever reach the end of your PhD and join these colleagues on “the other side”? They all did it, and they are not super humans – yet there is a chasm between you and them. I feel this often, and suspect other PhD candidates do too. Working in the field of sustainability science comes with an added anxiety for me, as I also feel a profound sense of despair and powerlessness in the face of the horrors of the Anthropocene, which I must look straight into if I am to say anything sensible about them.

This PhD is my most difficult undertaking yet. No, that’s not strong enough. This PhD is a seemingly insurmountable task which I fear I don’t have the guts to get to the end of. Sometimes I wonder whether I even have it in me to pull it together in the few months between now and my August 2019 submission deadline (oh God, that’s this year).

I feel ashamed and self-indulgent admitting these fears. Affirming platitudes and thoughtful encouragement do little to assuage my anxiety or to stoke the fire of motivation. But, there’s no going back. I’ve come so far, learnt so much and feel as though I have a great deal to offer the academic community once I’m done with the ruddy thing. And to think of all the opportunity and energy that will be unlocked on the other side (or so they say)! Until recently, I had no words to frame this feeling of being stuck, overwhelmed and insecure.  And then I came across the phrase ‘doctoral liminality’.

Liminality in its common usage derives from the Latin word for threshold and describes the disorientation that occurs in the middle of a transition from one stage to another. Being on the threshold is not outside anymore, but not inside yet, either. Suspended between two worlds, I am no longer the student I was when I entered the doctoral programme, and not quite the scholar and researcher I am working to become.

I was introduced to doctoral liminality in a course at the African Doctoral Academy at Stellenbosch University about doctoral supervision, especially oriented towards novice supervisors. A Professor in my department recommended that I attend, as I’m involved in co-supervision of students in our MPhil in Sustainable Development programme. It was an excellent opportunity to engage critically with the ‘professional work’ (Halse & Malfroy, 2010) of doctoral supervision and I left with a number of helpful frameworks and heuristics to guide my supervision practice in the future.

In the midst of the dense material and rich discussions, this idea of doctoral liminality resonated most strongly, and has helped me understand this disconcerting moment in my PhD journey. And so, I wanted to share it. For our community of transdisciplinary scholars, I think it’s a fruitful topic of conversation, because it can help with building the competencies required to master the ‘triple jump’ of transdisciplinary research: scientific excellence and rigour, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care.

Jess Tripple Jump Illustration 6

The notion of liminality, conceptualised by van Gennep (1960) is useful for understanding the stripping away of old identities, the emergence of new ways of seeing and the oscillation between states of being. “Liminality involves wavering between two worlds, after the separation from the previous identity but before the point of incorporation into a new one” (Keefer, 2015:19).

Life is peppered with rites of passage and the passing of thresholds. The same can be said about doing and achieving a PhD. It is a significant and transformative portal into an academic community and has life-altering implications. While each PhD journey is distinctive, there are certain experiences that are shared across disciplines and research fields. Often, these shared experiences coalesce around the shifts in perspective that result in transformed ways of seeing oneself, one’s research and the world at large.

Describing the earned doctorate, Keefer explains that “as a rite of passage toward creating new knowledge, this identity shift often follows a period of uncertainty, confusion, or doubt. This in-between, transition period within a rite of passage is known as a period of liminality” (Keefer, 2015:18). He goes on to say that “these liminal moments of transition exhibit a former way of being or knowing towards a future state. Liminality in this domain refers to the in-between period where one is no longer who previously existed, nor has yet developed into the independent researcher or expert practitioner” (Keefer, 2015:18).

The literature on doctoral liminality is particularly concerned with elucidating the lived experiences – intellectual and emotional – of doctoral students betwixt and between. As Keefer asks in his paper, “how much do we really know about the experience of well-educated learners who feel confused, overwhelmed, disoriented, and even lost in a process much larger that they are?” (Keefer, 2015:18).

Liminal experiences during the doctoral journey often comprise a sense of isolation, a lack of confidence and imposter syndrome, and research misalignment, according to Keefer (2015). Naturally, these are experienced to varying degrees of intensity by different people. Keefer argues that an awareness of the markers and conditions of doctoral liminality can inform supervision strategies that support doctoral students during these periods of transition. He is prudent to note that “this is not to claim that knowing about doctoral liminality will automatically help learners work through it. However, helping postgraduates know that there is a term that frames this experience, and that the suffering is not done in complete isolation, may be useful” (Keefer, 2015:26). Perhaps this is also the value of communities such as this; to cultivate a shared language and alliances of support.

Looking beyond the more generalisable experiences of doctoral students in their liminal phases, I suspect it might be worthwhile to tease out this concept of doctoral liminality further in the context of transdisciplinary research and sustainability science, where a major pillar is, to put it simply, change. Changing from, transitioning from, one state of being/governing/valuing/fuelling, into another. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges of this field, is harnessing the collective imagination to create and step into a more just and resource-efficient future – but we are by no means there yet. We are (stuck) on the threshold.

Transdisciplinary research (TDR) means engaging with problem-driven and solutions-oriented research that is collaborative and emergent. TDR and its various methodological approaches is increasingly used in the context of sustainability challenges that are fundamentally complex and social-ecological in nature. This approach to knowledge co-production, through strategies for doing ‘science with society’, presents a whole host of new challenges, insecurities and ethical considerations for researchers—hence our efforts to explore the triple jump of transdisciplinary research referred to above. As a transdisciplinary researcher on what might be described as an un-disciplinary journey (Haider et al, 2017), I find it challenging to relate to disciplinary doctoral journeys, research approaches and institutional structures.

But the challenge goes deeper for me. Engaging with sustainability issues (which, in my case, are the intersections between climate change and the political economy of energy and development), can be acutely troubling and disorienting. For many, this manifests as ‘climate grief’ – our collective anxiety, anger and despair in the face of ravaging climate change. It’s impossible to do the necessary thinking work without at the same time knowing the bleak fact that current planetary conditions can no longer support social and/or ecological flourishing. And the future doesn’t look very hopeful: on the one hand, we witness deep and violent resistance to transformation and on the other, we are without alternatives that viably contend with the status quo. The impasse feels like a state of liminality that’s festering.

It’s a triple whammy, really, being a PhD candidate in this field, at this moment in human history: engaging constructively with the truly devastating realities of the Anthropocene, as part of a doctoral research inquiry with all its inherent complexities, and in the spirit of a transdisciplinary research approach that’s trying to bring about transformative change in the world.

This line of thought doesn’t easily lead to a clear conclusion about the way forward. Instead, I fall back on the wisdom of Donna Haraway, as she implores us to ‘stay with the trouble’, being responsible and present as we face existential liminality, betwixt and between this world and a more just, sustainable and flourishing one:

“Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (Haraway, 2016:1).

Similarly, in the steep uphill to the end of my PhD journey, the only way through might be staying with the trouble, present and committed to one sentence after another. Here goes.

Megan pic

About the author: Megan Davies

I am a PhD candidate at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University. My research investigates South Africa’s transition to energy democracy with reference to the potential and limitations of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme. I am also involved in teaching and supervision as part of the MPhil in Sustainable Development at Stellenbosch University and coordinate a research group, Renewable Energy for Transitions at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition.


Van Gennep, A. 1960. The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press.

Haider, L.J., Matteo, J.H., Julie, G., Hamann, M., Masterson, V.A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., et al. 2017. The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. 13(1):191–204. Available online.

Halse, C. & Malfroy, J. 2010. Retheorizing doctoral supervision as professional work. Studies in Higher Education. 35(1):79–92. Available online.

Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Keefer, J.M. 2015. Experiencing doctoral liminality as a conceptual threshold and how supervisors can use it. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. 52(1):17–28. Available online.

2 thoughts on “Staying with the trouble: liminality in transdisciplinary doctoral research

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and heartfelt post, Megan. I, too, aspire to submit my PhD dissertation this year. A central tenet of my argument is liminality, itself; so I was intrigued to see the concept applied to my status as a doctoral candidate. As a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, I have long trained to “stay with the trouble”, and can testify to the power and effectiveness of this approach. May you soon emerge into the relative relief of van Gennep’s aggregation/incorporation phase, and may your research succeed in helping our sad and bewildered species survive on this planet we’ve so mindlessly brought to its current sorry pass.


  2. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!


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