A Different Kind of Animal: Liminal Experiences of Social Work Doctoral Students
Methods: A focus group was conducted with first-year social work doctoral students (N = 6; 1 male) at a mid-sized, southwestern public university at the beginning of their second semester. Participants ranged in age from 25 to 47 years old (M = 33.4) and varied by race/ethnicity: (South Asian = 1, African-American = 2, Caucasian = 3). An individual unknown to the participants facilitated the focus group, which was audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. The data were analyzed using grounded theory method and techniques (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
Results: Findings indicated that the experiences of the students mirrored the concept of liminality with respect to several characteristics. First, the students described the fall semester as a transition from previous social and professional roles into the role of doctoral student. Moreover, the students’ words suggested that the transition was accompanied by intense changes. They experienced a severing of previous roles and knowledge as they moved into a much more ambiguous place. Thus, one student described doctoral education as a “different kind of animal.” For many, this new role of doctoral student challenged their sense of identity. Furthermore, many of the participants described a sense of community among their cohort consistent with Turner’s (1969) concept of communitatis, which they credited with helping them to “survive” the first semester. Interestingly, though, the oldest student reported feeling less supported by the cohort, in part due to her age and previous life experiences. Finally, doctoral education as a process of becoming was something to be endured in order to reach a place not otherwise known.
Implications: These findings suggest that liminality is a useful concept from which to understand the sudden changes and demands placed on doctoral students. These transitions may be especially pronounced within social work doctoral education considering that many of our students are returning to school after long absences during which they worked as practitioners. The study’s findings demonstrate the need for anticipatory guidance and structured, sustained support, particularly within students’ first year. Efforts to enhance cohort relationships may provide additional support to new doctoral students and decrease attrition rates.