restricted access The Right to Pass: Unblocking the Passage from Student to Doctor
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The Right to Pass:
Unblocking the Passage from Student to Doctor

Rites of passage, first defined in 1909 by the French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, refer to culturally sanctioned rituals individuals perform to denote and encourage their transition from one stage of life to another. These rites signal major milestones in people’s lives that might otherwise go unnoticed or unappreciated. Comparable to the universally acknowledged stages of birth, puberty, marriage, and death, academics pass through several junctures during their academic lifespan. Among these is the climactic moment when All-But-Dissertation doctoral students turn doctors. This transition is a pivotal point on the academic timeline, analogous to adolescents entering early adulthood. Considering rituals give credence to life-altering events, graduate students who spend years labouring on their dissertations and surviving the general pressures of academia must find ways to announce that they have finally passed—that they have finally shed their student identity for a more promising one as Doctors of Philosophy.

With this in mind, I asked several of my peers from the University of Alberta what rites they performed upon completing their dissertations. Many identified institutional rituals that unify the graduate student body as the most valuable: the grueling dissertation defence, followed by the [End Page 8] often-awkward postdefence party hosted by their supervisor and, of course, the symbolic victory walk across the stage to receive their degree on convocation day. Others favoured self-designed acts such as announcing their new status to the expansive Facebook world, calling their anxiously waiting parents after the committee made their final decision on the day of the defence, and adding the title of Dr to every credit card they owned, every email they sent out, and every flight they booked. All these rituals have a shared objective: the underlying need for newly titled doctors to publicly declare their change in status so that not only they but also people in their social circle acknowledge and accept the change.

Unfortunately, as many graduating PhDs would attest, ceremonial actions and communal affirmation do not necessarily secure a successful passage. Despite undergoing such rituals, many newly titled doctors are still unable to shake off their student identity. As one possible explanation for this stalled passage, the aforementioned rituals must feel arbitrary to those who do not see a corresponding change in their everyday routine after graduation. To begin with, graduates still work like students: the pressures to publish, devise new projects, and attend conferences never end. More importantly, many who labour under sessional wages also live as they did when they were graduate students. Without material and occupational rewards to signal their change in status, graduating PhDs thus face an identity crisis—they work like students, they live like students, but they are not students.

This identity crisis intensifies if graduates maintain the same social circles and occupy the same workplace as they did pre-graduation. According to anthropological studies, the rites of passage entail three phases: the first, separation; the second, transition; and the third, incorporation (Haviland et al. 326). To follow this paradigm, PhD graduates must first detach themselves from the institutions in which they earned their doctorates to better facilitate their mental growth into a doctor. Instead of nurturing this separation, however, some graduates find it most convenient to fall into sessional work at the institution of their PhDs while they keep their eyes open for employment opportunities.1 Overworked and underpaid, [End Page 9] these new sessionals may experience nostalgic longings to return to the relative security of student life, thereby further stalling their psychological transition into doctorhood.

As an incoming postdoctoral fellow at Western University, I would like to reflect now on the potential for the postdoc to be a transitional step inserted into the academic hierarchy between graduate life and professorial life. From a positive standpoint, the postdoctoral fellowship could cultivate what anthropologists consider a necessary and productive phase of liminality, the second phase of the passage in which individuals have left their previous stage in life but not yet entered the next one (326). As a liminal state, a postdoctoral degree could offer budding scholars time to mature into academics and...