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Advice and support for your academic journey.

Are you a PhD student with ADHD, autism and/or mental health difficulties, or want to find out how you can support those who do? In this article, our Editor-in-Chief reflects on a compilation of our top articles featuring impactful stories of perseverance from neurodivergent PhDers. These five writers all offer valuable support on how to navigate the PhD and prioritise wellbeing in the face of challenges posed by neurodivergence in an unaccommodating world. If the summaries sound good, you can enjoy the full articles for yourself (click the titles to open in a new tab)!

A Supportive and Inclusive Community

It’s coming up to my one-year anniversary as Editor-in-Chief at The PhD Place, and I’ve been reflecting on the incredible stories of perseverance shared here every week. Reading and editing these articles is a genuine pleasure because they serve as sources of inspiration and resilience (recent ones include Coping with Bereavement and The H in PhD Stands for Hope). On this platform, we want to help you feel that you are not alone on your journey!

Central to our values is embracing diversity among doctoral students, which includes neurodiversity and neurodivergence: people who think, behave and process information differently to the majority of others, diverging from typical neurological traits. Well-known examples are ADHD and autism, but dyslexia, dyspraxia and chronic mental health conditions also fall under the umbrella term. Neurodivergent minds undoubtedly bring valuable and novel perspectives to the academic community, but neurodivergent students still face stigma and ‘invisible’ challenges that impact on wellbeing. Through openly talking about these difficulties, we can start thinking about possible solutions. Fostering an environment where all voices are appreciated – particularly voices that have previously been ignored or marginalised – cuts through the myth of the ‘perfect’ PhD student, promoting an improved and more holistically supportive academia.

In line with this vision, I’m excited to showcase some of our excellent articles penned by neurodivergent PhDers, highlighting their strategies and wisdom for readers who may be facing similar challenges.

As the most-read article on our site (!), Kristy Smith provides a goldmine of actionable advice for any PhD student struggling with ADHD traits. As Kristy discusses, common issues with ADHD include a subpar working memory for keeping on top of deadlines and meetings, and task paralysis (overwhelm leading to inability to start a task). Her top tips for boosting motivation and productivity include ‘body doubling’; protecting your most productive hours; writing everything down; and capitalising on ‘hyperfocus’: ‘I’ve learned that if I spend my time being productive in whatever way is most appealing to me, I’ll get far more done than if I tried to force myself to work on a task that seems daunting or boring’. This helps make the most of your abilities, working with your ADHD rather than against it.

Kristy makes a particularly insightful point that procrastination doesn’t necessarily compromise success, because ADHD brains are designed to work well under pressure, so ‘if procrastinating hasn’t detrimentally impacted your success so far, then it isn’t going to ruin your life now’. This realisation has allowed her to reduce her anxiety surrounding procrastination and stop berating herself for it, instead viewing ‘the pressure of a looming deadline as fuel’.

In a follow-up article, Kristy explores how to manage the rest of your ADHD life outside of academics. This includes tips to streamline life admin tasks, and to pro-actively manage rejection sensitivity and sensory needs. Ultimately, she points out that some days it’s futile to fight your brain to get things done, and it’s essential to practice self-compassion when you’re struggling.

This is a particularly candid and powerful article submitted by Hannah Broadbent, who celebrates the idea of being okay with being ‘distinctly average’ – if someone who has ascended to the academic heights of a funded PhD can ever really call themselves that. She emphasises that perseverance, rather than exceptional intelligence or unwavering passion, was the key to her success. A PhD can come with immense pressures of perfection and being the ‘best’ in every possible way; many have dealt with pressure to overachieve since schooldays, exacerbated by internalised ableism. Not meeting these inhuman standards can feel like a crippling personal deficiency and contribute to mental health struggles. But the perfect PhD student is a myth, and as she reminds us, personal wellbeing is what’s really important.

Hannah is a self-proclaimed ‘PhD survivor’. She shares her mental health journey during the tumultuous PhD, where she battled imposter syndrome, disabling anxiety and began ‘despising my subject, my research, and to be quite frank, my life’. She took time out when she needed to recuperate, though ‘every return spiralled [her] back into that abyss of despair’. Seven years on, through sheer perseverance and self-compassion, she conquered the ultra-marathon of resilience. Her story perfectly aligns with the belief that tenacity and strength of character constitute a huge part of being able to complete a PhD.

Her writing style is enjoyable and accessible. I highly recommend giving this a read!

Jo Grace is an autistic researcher who writes with authority and, aptly, grace on the experience of being autistic and doing a PhD. She has shared two empowering articles with us. The first is about the ‘autistic advantage’, exploring both the strengths and weaknesses that come with being an autistic PhD student. Autism is likely highly represented within the PhD community, being a neurotype that enjoys acquiring deep knowledge on a specific topic and thinking of novel ideas – ideal PhD material! A notable advantage of both autism and ADHD is the capacity for ‘deep focus’, which Jo exemplifies during long train journeys. She also points out that autistic masking constitutes practice of ‘doing my own brand of qualitative research’. However, she also delves into the enormous stress and trauma that academia (and wider society) can inflict on autistic people. She flags the need for supportive supervisors, and to lean into your autism instead of attempting to quash it. A thorough ‘further reading’ list is also provided.

In a second article about bridging the gap between research and practice, Jo reflects on her burnout from a schoolteacher role for students with disabilities, partly due to not yet being identified as autistic. Her passion to want to continue working for those young people in some capacity led to her transition into a fulfilling doctoral researcher role; she writes, ‘In research I found the power I lacked. I found the knowing.’

Written from another autistic perspective, Lauren Smith’s uplifting article is packed with sage tips to prioritise your wellbeing, manage overwhelm and leverage your strengths when encountering the ups and downs of a PhD. These tips include setting goals at your own pace, avoiding comparing your progress to others and reflecting on just how far you have already come. She also recommends somatic exercises like breathwork to help regulate the nervous system when things feel ‘too much’.

Lauren highlights the need to advocate for what will work well for you. Self-advocacy will get you closer to meeting your wellbeing needs by lessening the burden of social difficulties and executive dysfunction. One example is the way you view supervisions: they are there to work for you constructively, and you may find communicating by email and one-to-one meetings easier and more fruitful than in bigger groups – so make sure you voice your needs. Importantly, Lauren references the ‘double empathy problem’ where non-autistic people should hold some responsibility to ‘tune in to autistic people’s needs’ and ‘adapt their communication style, rather than expect autistic people to consistently conform’ and attempt to change who they are.

Check out Lauren’s full article for more excellent wellbeing advice!

Another insightful ADHD-focused article, this time from someone who only came to realise they have ADHD during the overwhelm of the PhD itself, when academic and parenting responsibilities clashed in an ‘utter panic’ with which she ‘could not cope’. During ADHD Awareness Month, Jo Strang stumbled across descriptions of women with ADHD for the first time. The revelation of ADHD was transformative, making sense of her struggles with time blindness, procrastination, information overload and executive functioning. Alongside her unexpected self-discovery, she dealt with both invalidating comments and supportive ones that reminded her of the strengths that her ‘complicated brain’ brings.

Jo points out that the concept of submitting a draft can prove particularly challenging for neurodivergent brains, which tend to work in extremes: either completing tasks at the last minute, or not at all. The idea of submitting a work-in-progress tightened her stomach with dread. She learnt to reconceptualise drafts as ‘everything I have done so far by a given point’, to work through the night when the environment is quiet, and to leave overwhelming WhatsApp groups – without feeling guilty about it. Like Kristy, Jo finds it more productive to stop fighting against procrastination and ‘just change tack’, as well as blocking out time to drift into her ‘delightful state of hyperfocus’. Jo’s practical solutions for coping with a neurodivergent brain in a world generally designed for neurotypical ways of functioning make for an empowering read.

Final Thoughts

Nath has created an important platform through @ThePhDPlace, filling the gap in the need for community and support. By amplifying previously-neglected voices in these articles, we aim to demonstrate that academia is a space where everyone has a place no matter their identity (or at the very least, should have a place, acknowledging the persistent barriers faced by many). Our sincere hope is that these stories serve as sources of inspiration, strength and empowerment to you, showcasing diverse academic journeys and how personal challenges can be overcome.

We are grateful for all contributions, and this curated selection represents a snapshot of the rich tapestry of voices within our community. If you have your own PhD story to share, whether about your personal academic journey or guidance on any aspect of doing a PhD and beyond, contribute an article to our site and let your voice be heard!

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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