Fieldwork: The liminal experience you never even knew you had!

A 4th year Cyprus Field Trip. Photo credit: Louis Kinnear.

In this post, Dr Gillian McCay, assistant curator of the Cockburn Geological Museum, reflects on the transformative experience of fieldwork for Earth Science students…

If you ask a group of Earth Scientists what a liminal experience is, I can safely say that most of them will look at you like you have just spoken in dolphin whistles and clicks… But what most people don’t appreciate is that liminality is in fact a concept that is central to one of the biggest elements of Earth science training: fieldwork!

Fieldwork – love it… or hate it… (we admit there are some people out there who don’t like it…) – is a massive part of what we do in Earth Sciences. Whether you want to be a geochemist and work in a lab, or a geophysicist looking at seismic lines, chances are, someone, somewhere, has had to go into the field to get the rock sample you will analyse, or lay the geophones and receivers to collect the seismic data. So if we want to try and understand the subject, and appreciate some of the limitations, which includes the difficulty of getting samples and data, we have to know about fieldwork.

So back to the original question – what is a liminal experience? Liminality is an anthropological term used to describe the transitional phase experienced by a person during a rite of passage; a process of leaving behind an old identity, and becoming something new (Turner, 1967, Turner, 1995). As educators and researchers, we accept that, as we ourselves learn and discover, we might change our attitudes or ideas about things. And, as we teach students, we sometimes challenge habits of a lifetime, or of a social construct, if we are including a whole cohort of people from different cultural backgrounds. The idea that challenge and being pushed outside your comfort zone can be transformative, and may even be “good for you”, is perfectly captured in the concept of liminality. As a result, when the concept of liminality is applied to education, it is often used to describe an uncomfortable transition phase that precedes the mastery of a new idea or practice of working (Meyer & Land, 2003).

“But what does this have to do with fieldwork?”, I hear you ask. Well, having spent literally hundreds of days in the field with students, I can safely say I have witnessed the transformative effects with my own eyes. 

Firstly, the approach to fieldwork. I have seen students dress sense change rapidly, from the first field trip where they turn up in trainers and have only a pencil in their pocket, to the third trip where hiking boots have been donned, waterproofs purchased, and preferred pencils and notebooks have been figured out.

A 3rd year field trip to Inchnadamph, in the NorthWest Highlands. Photo credit: Madeleine Berg.

Secondly, there is the shock of residential fieldwork. Stuck in the Highlands for two weeks, no mobile phone reception at your accommodation, possibly days of rain… Often the realisation that you might actually want to drink from an outdoor spring… And, more shockingly, that you will at some point have to pee in the outdoors! As well as the fact that, during all this, you are expected to… complete assessed work! Write in a notebook, while trying to keep the thing out of the rain! Not letting the all-important map you have been working on blow away in the wind… And, the true horror, trying not to forget or lose your compass-clinometer and colouring pencils on the last outcrop in order to avoid trailing backwards and forwards needlessly across the heather.

Thirdly, just before students have to go on fieldwork for their dissertations – the first truly independent fieldwork that they will do – comes the development of steely determination. Come rain, hail or sunshine, the work will be attempted: decisions about whether to apply the sun block or the midge repellent will be thought through; contingences plans will be made on days where the weather is to hot/cold/rainy/foggy; the first aid kit will be carefully packed; and the most appropriate food will be taken in their backpacks… And suddenly before your very eyes the transformation is complete. The students have become fieldworkers!

A 4th year Cyprus Field Trip. Photo credit: Louis Kinnear.

Although for many there will be days where you feel like, “the field kicked my butt!”, for most, the shared experience of the bad weather (as much as the good) bonds groups of students together in a way that is immeasurable. Some like to call this “retrospective fun”, where you will all regale each other with the terrible details for years to come. And it is this forging of group identity which is the true highlight of fieldwork. What truer way is there to think of fieldwork as a rite of passage for all budding Earth Scientists?


Turner, V., (1967). Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. In The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Pp. 93-111. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Turner, V., (1995). Liminality and Communitas. In The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure. Pp. 94-130. New York: Walter De Gruyer Inc.

Meyer J. & Land R. (2003). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. ETL Project Occasional, Report 4, Edinburgh.

Gillian McCay

Gillian McCay completed a PhD in Geology at the University in 2010 and has been assistant curator of the Cockburn Geological Museum for 7 years. Gillian’s interests span geological time, ranging from 600 million year old sedimentary rocks in Scotland and Ireland to the tectonic evolution of the Eastern Mediterranean over the past 30 Million years. Although Gillian still considers herself a field geologist, these days she more often finds herself crawling around in cupboards than climbing over mountains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *