ADHD in doctoral studies

ADHD in doctoral studies

With this blog post I wish to increase awareness of (high-functioning) ADHD in doctoral studies, reduce the stigma around it, and help doctoral students with ADHD (or suspecting having ADHD) find tools, that can help them succeed on their doctoral journey.

I also want to spread the word that ADHD is not only a negative thing. People with ADHD are creative and innovative, and have a special way of thinking. This, if anything, is a huge strength in research work!

ADHD in adulthood

ADHD or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a developmental disorder, that usually starts in childhood. For about 15% of cases, the symptoms of ADHD continues, slightly modified or improved into adulthood. Around 3% of adults are diagnosed with ADHD. But there are a lot of undiagnosed adults, who have found ways to control or mask their symptoms. Those with ADHD usually have to work hard to not let the symptoms affect study, work, and their relationships.

At some point though, you might run out of tools for handling the ADHD symptoms – or at least for making sure they don’t affect your studies or your work. Symptoms of ADHD include difficulty concentrating for long periods of time, getting easily distracted, or acting or speaking before thinking things through.

So, how does ADHD affect doctoral studies? Reaching a state of and maintaining concentration is key for progress in your studies, but the independence and sometimes loneliness of research work, puts this to a test. Difficulties with inattention might also show as having trouble working in large classrooms with a lot of people distracting you from your coursework. Or it might make it harder for you to plan ahead and organise tasks and activities.

We all might have difficulties with these things from time to time. Especially during remote work and studies, most of us have experienced problems with concentration. It doesn’t automatically mean that we all have ADHD. It’s important to remember that ADHD means that these symptoms have a profound impact on your daily life. Nevertheless, everyone can benefit from the strategies I’ve listed below to boost productivity and time-management.

From a difficulty to a strength

As I wrote in the beginning, there is a lot of stigma around ADHD, which keeps people from talking about it and seeking support for the symptoms. Therefore, instead of viewing it as a predominately negative thing, we should celebrate the positive aspects of ADHD. Those with ADHD might have felt their whole life that there is something wrong with them, resulting in low self-esteem. I want to correct this.

So, how can we turn the difficulties into strengths? By the way, I’ve written about finding your strengths previously here.

Let’s look at common ADHD symptoms and see what they actually mean:

  • Difficulties concentrating can be translated into the ability to perceive the environment with precision and notice small changes.
  • Implusivity can mean readiness to adapt to changes and ease of meeting new people.
  • Hyperfocus (i.e. solely focusing on one thing for a very long time, losing track of everything else going on around you) can be useful in a research setting, because it means really diving into a specific topic.
  • Activity can help you reach your own goals and it can also translate into optimism to deal with difficulties.
  • Energy helps you keep yourself moving and healthy.
  • Strong emotional experiences and readiness to throw oneself out there, can cause unexpected situations, but might also be a richness in life.

So, you see? Having ADHD doesn’t mean that you are a failure or that you won’t be able to finish your doctoral studies. Although ADHD in doctoral studies may require extra effort, it also entails a lot of useful features for your doctoral journey.

Here are some strategies for you to try to increase your chances of success.

Strategies to help plan, focus and maintain attention

Maintaining attention and focus:
  • Decrease distractions or the possibility of distractions by making sure that your physical working space supports doing work that requires focus. Turn off e-mail notifications for a certain time period and schedule time for answering e-mails, looking at social media and handling small requests.
  • Do only one thing at a time. Don’t try to multitask – it’s a fool’s game! Finish your task before you move on to the next one.
  • Don’t think that you have to do the same thing for hours. Chop up your tasks into smaller pieces to increase motivation. Smaller tasks are easier to complete, easier to organise and are less overwhelming.
  • Write down the things that are stealing your attention and deal with them later on.
  • If you’re having severe trouble concentrating, set an alarm on for every 10 minutes to refocus you attention to that task at hand.
Reducing hyperfocus:
  • Recognize the situations in which you are likely to hyperfocus. Good self-knowledge gets you a long way!
  • Decide beforehand how much time you will devote to a certain thing. When you’ve set a certain time window for a task, it might help you move on when the time is up.
  • Take breaks, it can help you refocus and notice if you are hyperfocusing.
  • Ask for help from friends, peers or your supervisor.
Planning and time-management:
  • Use a diary, a planner or a to do list to plan your day or your week.
  • Write down things you need to remember. Having too many things to remember inside our heads, might cause us stress and anxiety, and lead us to forget things.
  • Create routines. Routines help you remember appointments or tasks that you should get done.
  • Try time-management techniques: 1) Set goals, 2) Chop tasks, 3) Prioritize, 4) Schedule (more information here)
Take care of yourself:
  • Prioritize your health and wellbeing. Poor sleep, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of exercise as well as stress and anxiety infuence your ability to concentrate.
  • Schedule breaks, many small ones and some big ones, to make sure you have the energy to focus.
  • Be self-compassionate. Don’t get angry at yourself for losing concentration. It’s normal and it happens. You can do this!
If you’re having trouble concentrating on reading articles or books:
  • Use colored highlighters, post-it notes, anything to make it more vibrant and aesthetically interesting.
  • Make sure your reading time is short enough for you to maintain focus.
  • Put an alarm to buzz every 5 minutes to refocus.
  • Take notes while reading. Writing helps stimulate your brain and keep up activation.
  • Try reading aloud or record yourself while reading the text. You could also try the text-to-speech in a word processing software.
  • Try reading in different places and with different background noises.
  • Draw mind maps. Besides helping with concentration, this can help with learning new material.

Ask your supervisor for support, ask your course teacher for additional time in an exam or turn to your doctoral school’s planning officer or coordinator to get more information on what support is available for you in your doctoral studies.

References and extra readings:

ADHD in adults

Lesch KP. Shine bright like a diamond: is research on high functioning ADHD at last entering the mainstream? J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2018;59:191–192

Sedgwick JA, Merwood A, Asherson P. The positive aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a qualitative investigation of successful adults with ADHD. Atten Defic Hyperact Disord. 2019;11:241–253.

Resources in Finnish:

ADHD liitto. Aikuisen arki toimimaan.

ADHD ja korkeakouluopiskelu

ADHD – vaikeudesta vahvuudeksi?

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