If you clicked on this story because you are a PhD student with ADHD, I first want to congratulate you!
Doing a PhD is difficult, and it is even more challenging when you have to navigate a neurological makeup that may not inherently be suited to graduate studies. In a study that examined educational outcomes for young adults with ADHD (23 to 32 years old), Kuriyan et al. (2013) found that 15% of participants with ADHD held a four-year degree compared to 48% of the control group, and 5.4% of the control group held a graduate degree, compared to 0.06% of participants with ADHD. I included these statistics to show that we are doing something incredible!
I hope that by talking openly about the challenges that face PhD students with ADHD we can support our neurodivergent peers and work towards a future in the academy that sees more of us at the table. If you read my first article for The PhD Place, you will have already seen my tips for navigating doctoral studies.
In this piece, I’ve outlined some strategies and considerations that I’ve learned for managing life beyond your coursework, fieldwork, or dissertation writing that have been helpful to me.
Figure out how busy you need to be.
Similarly to our neurotypical colleagues, finding a work-life balance can be challenging for folks with ADHD. I’ve found that if I’m too busy and overwhelmed, it’s difficult to get started on anything. Alternatively, if I only have one or two tasks to do and lots of time to complete them, it’s hard to see the urgency in working on them, and I inevitably procrastinate.
Personally, I need to be consistently busy in order to be productive. If this is relatable, then I would recommend spending some time reflecting on how busy you need to be to stay on top of your work, and plan from there. Something I love about academia is that there are ample opportunities to get involved and expand your skills: you can join committees, you can become a reviewer for academic journals, or you can establish reading groups with like-minded scholars! These opportunities vary in terms of how much time they take, so have a look at what opportunities are available to you, and make decisions about how you’d like to be involved from there.
Talk to your supervisor and committee members about ADHD
If you feel safe doing so, I would have an honest conversation with your supervisor about how you experience ADHD, and what strengths and challenges come with it. I’ve found that disclosing my diagnosis and sharing my specific challenges have saved me a lot of stress and anxiety. The faculty members that I work with are better able to support me when I ask them for what I need. I’ve worked with my committee to ‘chunk’ larger pieces of writing so that I have multiple, shorter deadlines rather than one longer one. They understand when I need an extension if my focus has been poor, and they don’t blink twice if I’m not making eye contact much during meetings while I take notes.
Having honest conversations with faculty members has helped them to help me, and their support has been crucial in my success. I recognize that not all doctoral students have positive relationships with their supervisors, and if this is the case for you, I hope you’re able to access additional support in your institution. Even if you don’t feel comfortable disclosing, I would recommend doing some reflective journaling on your learning style and work habits, and brainstorm what you think you need to be successful. That way, when you run into obstacles, you have a good understanding of yourself, your needs, and ways that others can support you.
Explicitly work on managing rejection sensitivity - ideally before you need to.
One phenomena that folks with ADHD may experience is rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD). Essentially, this means that we may experience rejection or feelings about receiving criticism in a heightened way. In academia, we will face myriad forms of rejection: not getting scholarships we’ve applied for, being rejected from academic journals, receiving revisions that we disagree with, or being asked difficult questions from harsh audience members during conference presentations.
These experiences are all a part of academic life, and not all scholars we interact with will be compassionate in their questions or feedback. It’s therefore important to your own wellbeing to learn to manage rejection sensitivity proactively before these instances happen. If you resonate with RSD, work on building your resilience through lower-stakes contexts: ask a friend to review your course papers, practice presentations in front of peers and ask them for feedback, and reflect on how you’ve coped with moments of rejection throughout your life outside of graduate school. I know it isn’t helpful to simply claim that academic criticism isn’t personal (especially when sometimes, it might be), but if you can work on setting boundaries for yourself in how you conceptualize rejection and criticism, doing so may improve your emotional experience in academia overall.
Make the rest of your life easier.
Sometimes, the daily work of being a PhD student isn’t what stresses you out, but everything else. Feeding yourself, keeping your home clean, running errands, and paying your bills can take up a lot of time and energy, so I find it helpful to streamline or outsource these tasks if possible. Here are some things you can do for free to make your life outside of doctoral studies more manageable:
• Set up AutoPay on your bills to ensure they’re paid on time. I do this for my cell phone bill and public transportation card and it’s helpful to not have to think about it. You can also set up pre-authorized contributions to a savings account if you’re able to save money every month.
• Auto renew subscriptions that you know you will use long term, such as a VPN subscription, gym membership, or streaming service.
• Run errands on your way home from campus or when you’re already out of the house.
• Don’t leave an appointment without booking the next one so that you don’t have to remember to schedule it later.
• If you live with a partner or roommate, create a cleaning schedule so that you know when chores are getting done and who is doing them.
• If you have benefits and your insurance company allows it, have the services you use bill directly to the company rather than paying and filing for reimbursement later.
If you have the financial means to do so, consider these additional tips:
• Use a meal box subscription to take some of the planning, decision making, and labour out of cooking.
• Have groceries delivered.
• Hire someone to clean your home every so often.
• Have an accounting service file your taxes for you.
Case for your sensory needs and create a baseline of stimulation.
I recently learned that people with ADHD often need a baseline of stimulation to focus. This means creating a sensory environment that engages your mind and drowns out external distractions. For me, this happens most prominently through sound. I used to think I needed silence to focus, but actually I just need to avoid becoming distracted by isolated sounds. Try listening to classical music, music without lyrics, ASMR videos, white noise, or soundscapes created specifically for people with ADHD. While this stimulation is helpful for focus, white noise also helps me sleep.
In terms of other sensory needs, I only wear comfortable clothes while I work and I minimize visual distractions–for example, I use the “Do not Disturb” function on my phone and put it face-down so that I don’t see texts or notifications. If I’m at home, I’ll change where I’m working so that I’m not sitting in one place for hours: I’ll work at my desk, the couch, my bed, and the kitchen table, and move from one to the other when I need to refocus.
Sometimes, you can try every strategy you know to stay on track, and nothing will work. It’s frustrating when this happens, and you feel like you’re fighting your brain to do things that seem easy to everyone else. When this happens, I try to practice self-compassion and acknowledge where I’m at with honesty. Academia can be a competitive environment, but it’s important to remember that sometimes “good enough” is good enough. You’re here for a reason, and you have something to offer the world of scholarship that no one else does!
I hope you can hold that truth in mind when you’re struggling and remember that you can always try again tomorrow.