By Tristan Herzogenrath-Amelung |

Recently (albeit not for the first time), I was asked by an insurance agent what my occupation was; a simple question that normally results in a simple answer. I told the agent that I was a PhD student, and his reply was prompt and clear: “Alright, a student, great.” He then entered my status into his computer. The problem is, however, that I am not a student – or am I?

I often find it difficult to classify myself in my current role. There is a theme of liminality that runs through the PhD experience: somehow, we are stuck in between everything.

Now, we are not really students anymore. We are certainly still in the process of acquiring new knowledge, but we are not normally taught by others. Starting at undergraduate level, we have progressively been given more freedom and autonomy to pursue research and work on our own, according to our own timetables, producing ever longer pieces of work, and being taught less and less as we did so. This pattern continued through the Master’s degree, and now as PhD students, we are supposedly competent enough to do pretty much everything ourselves – so much so that we can now even teach others.

Great, but then we are not really members of staff either. Admittedly, once we do paid work for the university we receive a staff card. When it comes to identification (and identity?), however, most of us carry the student card – and there might be further, if less tangible, reasons for this apart from being eligible for student discounts. And while some academics certainly try to treat PhD students as colleagues, there is still a clear demarcation: we have our own conferences, our own seminar series, and our own room. We are invited to some staff events, but barred from others. It seems we are neither here nor there.

On a more general level, even the distinction between professional and non-professional is blurred. We are officially students, and receive all the benefits that come with this label. But most of us certainly work at least nine to five, plus some evenings and the odd weekend; that involves research, going to and organising conferences, giving papers, teaching, mentoring, marking, admin duties, publishing (or trying to publish), and more. All in all that does not sound too different from what our professional colleagues are doing – a major difference being, of course, that as a PhD student you have to pay the university to be able to do all this, not the other way around. This is certainly not a claim for PhD students to get paid, rather a reminder of our liminal status that might have many of the trappings of professionalism, but is not perceived as such by most outsiders, and indeed by many within the system (unsurprisingly, I myself am undecided on the matter). Often it just feels like it is both.

Not even the terminology among universities is consistent – are we PhD students? Candidates? Researchers? This is surely a reflection of the limbo in which we pursue our doctoral aspirations. Somehow, it appears, we have climbed the inside of an academic pyramid, and then promptly fallen out at the top, and are now at the bottom of a new, inverted one.

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You are here…probably

Establishing exactly where in life we stand as PhD students can be difficult and at times puzzling, and often results in a sense of being lost and uncertain about where to go next. Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that we are in many ways located in a state of ‘in-betweenness’. This might also explain why outsiders can find it difficult to get their heads round what it is we are doing. But instead of letting confusion take hold, it might be better to view this liminality as an integral part of the process. Realising that ours is a complex, truly unique journey that defies simple definition could actually help to make the situation a bit clearer. Just as with our research, figuring out where we are, and where we are going is an ongoing task that includes repeated rethinking and readjusting. And after all, not fitting into one particular box also means a small measure of freedom.


Tristan Herzogenrath-Amelung is a second year PhD in Classics a the University of Edinburgh.  He studies the concepts of loyalty and combat motivation in the armies of ancient Greek city-states and early Hellenistic kingdoms, using both ancient evidence and theories developed for the study of modern warfare. You can find his page here.


(Image 1:, Image 2: Tristan Herzogenrath-Amelung)