What this handout is about
This handout outlines how ADHD can contribute to hitting the wall in graduate school. It describes common executive function challenges that grad students with ADHD might experience, along with tips, strategies, and resources for navigating the writing demands of grad school with ADHD.
Challenges for graduate students with ADHD
Many graduate students hit the wall (lose focus, productivity, and direction) when they reach the proposal, thesis, or dissertation phase—when they have a lot of unstructured time and when their external accountability system is gone. Previously successful strategies aren’t working for them anymore, and they aren’t making satisfactory progress on their research.
In many ways, hitting the wall is a normal part of the grad school experience, but ADHD, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, can amplify the challenges of graduate school because success depends heavily on executive functioning. ADHD expert Russell Barkley explains that people with ADHD have difficulty with some dimensions of executive function, including working memory, motivation, planning, and problem solving. For grad students, those difficulties may emerge as these kinds of challenges:
- Being forgetful and having difficulty keeping things organized.
- Not remembering anything they’ve read in the last few hours or the last few minutes.
- Not remembering anything they’ve written or the argument they’ve been developing.
- Finding it hard to determine a research topic because all topics are appealing.
- Easily generating lots of new ideas but having difficulty organizing them.
- Being praised for creativity but struggling with coherence in writing, often not noticing logical leaps in their own writing.
- Having difficulty breaking larger projects into smaller chunks and/or accurately estimating the time required for each task.
- Difficulty imposing structure on large blocks of time and finishing anything without externally set deadlines.
- Spending an inordinate amount of time (like 5 hours) developing the perfect plan for accomplishing tasks (like 3 hours of reading).
- Having trouble switching tasks—working for hours on one thing (like refining one sentence), often with no awareness of time passing.
- Conversely, having trouble focusing on a single task–being easily distracted by external or internal competitors for their attention.
- Being extremely sensitive to or upset by criticism, even when it’s meant to be constructive.
- Struggling with advisor communications, especially when the advisors don’t have a strict structure, e.g., establishing priorities, setting clear timelines, enforcing deadlines, providing timely feedback, etc.
If you experience these challenges in a way that is persistent and problematic, check out our ADHD resources page and consider talking to our ADHD specialists at the Learning Center to talk through how you can regain or maintain focus and productivity.
Strategies for graduate students with ADHD
Writing a thesis or dissertation is a long, complex process. The list below contains a variety of strategies that have been helpful to grad students with ADHD. Experiment with the suggestions below to find what works best for you.
Reading and researching
Screen reading software allows you to see and hear the words simultaneously. You can control the pace of reading to match your focus. If it’s easier to focus while you’re physically active, try using a screen reader so you can listen to journal articles while you take a walk or a run or while you knit or doodle–or whatever movement helps you focus. Find more information about screen readers and everything they can do on the ARS Technology page.
Citation management systems can help you keep your sources organized. Most systems enable you to enter notes, add tags, save pdfs, and search. Some allow you to annotate pdfs, export to other platforms, or collaborate on projects. See the UNC Health Sciences Library comparison of citation managers to learn more about options and support.
Synthesis matrix is a fancy way of saying “spreadsheet,” but it’s a spreadsheet that helps you keep your notes organized. Set the spreadsheet up with a column for the full citations and additional columns for themes, like “research question,” “subjects,” “theoretical perspective,” or anything that you could productively document. The synthesis matrix allows you to look at all of the notes on a single theme across multiple publications, making it easier for you to analyze and synthesize. It saves you the trouble of shuffling through lots of highlighted articles or random pieces of paper with scribbled notes. See these example matrices on Autism, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, and Translingualism.
Concept maps (also called mind maps) represent information visually through diagrams, flowcharts, timelines, etc. They can help you document ideas and see relationships you might be interested in pursuing. See examples on the Learning Center’s Concept Map handout. Search the internet for “concept-mapping software” or “mind-mapping software” to see your many choices.
Advisor meetings can help you reign in all of the interesting possibilities and focus on a viable, manageable project. Try to narrow the topics down to 3-5 and discuss them with your advisor. Be ready to explain why each interests you and how you would see the project developing. Work with your advisor to set goals and a check-in schedule to help you stay on track. They can also help you sort what needs to be considered now and what’s beyond the scope of the dissertation—tempting though it may be to include everything possible.
Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Break the dissertation project down into bite-sized pieces so you don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of the whole project. The pieces can be parts of the text (e.g., the introduction) or the process (e.g., brainstorming or formatting tables). Enlist your advisor, other grad students, or anyone you think might help you figure out manageable chunks to work on, discuss reasonable times for completion, and help you set up accountability systems.
Tame perfectionism and separate the processes. Writers with ADHD will often try to perfect a single sentence before moving on to the next one, to the point that it’s debilitating. Start with drafting for ideas, knowing that you’re going to write a lot of sentences that will change later. Allow the ideas to flow, then set aside times to revise for ideas and to polish the prose.
List questions you could answer as a way of brainstorming and organizing information.
Make a slideshow of your key points for each section, chapter, or the entire dissertation. Hit the highlights without getting mired in the details as you draft the big picture.
Give a presentation to an imaginary (or real) audience to help you flesh out your ideas and try to articulate them coherently. The presentation can be planned or spontaneous as a brainstorming strategy. Give your presentation out loud and use dictation software to capture your thoughts.
Use dictation software to transcribe your speech into words on a screen. If your brain moves faster than your fingers can type, or if you constantly backspace over imperfectly written sentences, dictation software can capture the thoughts as they come to you and preserve all of your phrasings. You can review, organize, and revise later. Any device with a microphone (like your phone) will do the trick. See various speech to text tools on the ARS Technology page.
Turn off the monitor and force yourself to write for five, ten, twenty minutes, or however long it takes to dump your brain onto the screen. If you can’t see the words, you can’t scrutinize and delete them prematurely.
Use the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes, write as much as you can during that time, take a five-minute break, and then do it again. After four 25-minute segments, take a longer break. The timer puts a helpful limit on the writing session that can motivate you to produce. It also keeps you aware of the passage of time, helping you stay focused and keeping your time more structured.
Sprints or marathons? Some people find it helpful to break down the writing process into smaller tasks and work on a number of tasks in smaller sprints. However, some people with ADHD find managing a number of tasks overwhelming, so for them, a “marathon write” may be a good idea. A marathon write doesn’t have to mean last-minute writing. Try to plan ahead, stock up on food for as many days as you plan to write, and think about how you’ll care for yourself during the long stretch of writing.
Minimize distractions. Turn off the internet, find a suitable place (quiet, ambient noise, etc.), minimize disruptions from other people (family, office mates, etc.), and use noise-canceling headphones or earplugs if they help. If you catch your thoughts wandering, write down whatever is distracting and you can attend to it later when you finish.
Seek feedback for clarity. Mind-wandering is a big asset for people with ADHD as it boosts creativity. Expansive, big-picture thinking is also an asset because it allows you to imagine complex systems. However, these things can also make graduate students with ADHD struggle with maintaining logical coherence. When you ask for feedback, specify logical coherence as a concern so your reader has a focus. If you’d like to look at your logic before you seek feedback, see our 2-minute video on reverse outlining.
Seek feedback for community. Talking to people about your ideas for writing will help you stay connected at a time when it’s easy to fade into a dark hole. Check out this handout on getting feedback.
Time management and accountability
Enlist your advisor. Graduate students with ADHD might worry about the perception that they’re “gaming the system” if they disclose their ADHD. Or they might struggle with an advisor with a more hands-off mentoring style. It will be helpful to be explicit about your neurodiversity and your potential need for a structure. Ask your advisor to clarify the expectations specifically (even quantify them), and work with them to come up with a clear timeline and a regular check-in schedule.
Enlist other mentors. Your advisor may be less understanding and/or may not be able to provide enough structure, or you may think it’s a good idea to have more than one person on your structure team. Look for other mentors on your faculty (inside or outside of your committee), and talk to senior grad students about their strategies.
Pay attention to your body rhythms. When do you feel most creative? Most focused? Most energetic? Or the least creative, focused, energetic? What activities could you engage in during those times? How can you do them consistently?
Think about task vs. time. It can be difficult to estimate how long a task is going to take, so think about setting a time limit for working on something. Set a timer, work for that amount of time, and change tasks when the time is over.
Tame hyperfocus. If you have trouble switching tasks, ask a friend or colleague to “interrupt” you, or figure out a system you can use to interrupt yourself. For example, when you find yourself trying to fix a sentence for 30 minutes, you can call a friend for a brief conversation about another topic. People with ADHD often find this helps them to look at the work from a more objective perspective when they return to it.
Set SMART goals. Check out the handout on setting SMART goals to help you set up a regular research and writing routine.
Set up a reward system. Tie your research or writing goal to an enjoyable reward. Note that it can also be pre-ward – something you do beforehand that will help you feel refreshed and motivated to work.
Find accountability buddies. These can be people you update on your progress or people you meet with to get work done together. Oftentimes, the simple presence of other people is able to motivate and keep us focused. This “body-doubling” strategy is particularly helpful for people with ADHD. Look for events like the Dissertation Boot Camp or IME Writing Wednesdays.
Find virtual accountability partners. There are a number of online platforms to connect you with virtual work partners. See this article on strategies and things to consider.
Use productivity and focus apps. Check out some recommendations among the Learning Center’s ADHD/LD Resources. To find the best options for you, try Googling “Apps for focus and productivity” to find reviews of timers and other focus apps.
Learn more about accountability. See the Learning Center’s Accountability Strategies page for great information and resources.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Barkley, R. (2022, July 11). What is executive function? 7 deficits tied to ADHD. ADDitude: Inside the ADHD Mind. https://www.additudemag.com/7-executive-function-deficits-linked-to-adhd/
Hallowell, E. and Ratey, J. (2021). ADHD 2.0: New science and essential strategies for thriving with distraction—from childhood through adulthood. Random House Books.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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