Imagine you’re cycling through 50 browser tabs at once, 2 of them are playing different TedTalks from YouTube at full volume and another is stuck in a 5-second loop of that song you heard the other day – oh, and you can’t close any of them. Now imagine, saturated in all that noise, you have to do your research. This is a taste of what it’s like to be a PGR with ADHD. Blogger Riss shares their experience.
By Riss Muller
Whether it’s “that thing where kids can’t sit still”, simple laziness, or something that’s just another excuse, most people have some preconceived idea of what they think ADHD is. But the truth is most people don’t know what ADHD is or how it affects those who have it. ADHD is a complex condition that presents in a variety of ways. Just as each individual is different, it’s unlikely that two ADHDers will report identical experiences with their condition. A common thread though, is that it makes virtually all areas of life significantly harder and, in some cases, completely unmanageable. So, before we get into how my ADHD mixes with my PhD, I want to bust some common myths about what ADHD actually is.
What is ADHD, really?
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and there are three different subtypes:
- Primarily Inattentive – people mainly struggle with sustaining attention, following instructions, distractibility, attending to details, listening to others, and being forgetful due to poor working memory.
- Primarily Hyperactive/Impulsive – people mainly struggle with feeling constantly on the go, interrupting others, fidgeting, excessive talking, forgetting things, and a lack of impulse control.
- Combined Type – the most common subtype, characterized by a clear mix of all symptoms.
I have ADHD-PI (primarily inattentive) but with high levels of mental hyperactivity. This means I deal with all the inattentiveness, forgetfulness, and distractibility of ADHD-PI but with a side order of constant racing thoughts which rarely turn off. Alongside the symptoms which characterise these subtypes, there are also symptoms common to everyone with ADHD, such as rejection sensitivity, emotional dysregulation, and “time blindness” (the inability to accurately gauge how long tasks take).
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder; it develops in childhood and, in the vast majority of cases, is present throughout a person’s life, and its cause is thought to be linked to a crucial neurotransmitter: dopamine. Without getting too scientific, dopamine is the “feel-good” hormone. It’s part of our motivation and reward system, responsible for giving us a sense of pleasure and incentivising even the most basic functions like eating and drinking. In the ADHD brain, however, there’s a dopamine deficit, so our brains are always on the hunt for another hit of it. We’re driven by interest, by whatever gives us a dopamine boost, and so people with ADHD constantly oscillate between two poles. On the one hand, we can be highly distractable, forgetful, impulsive, likely to lose track of time, have difficulty relaxing or sitting still…the list goes on and on. But, on the other hand, we can hyperfocus on a task, zeroing in on the thing which is giving us that vital dopamine hit. All other “noise” is blocked out and we lose ourselves in the task, sometimes for hours at a time (though often at the expense of temporarily losing our ability to discern hunger, thirst, and other bodily functions).
In short, ADHD is a disorder concerning the regulation of attention and executive function (the ability to do stuff, even when you don’t want to). It’s not that we can’t concentrate, sit still, or get things done, it’s that we can’t regulate these capacities.
ADHD + PhD = …?
You can probably guess by now that having ADHD and being a PhD student are at odds with one another. The former negatively impacts things like motivation, task prioritization, sustained attention, and time management. The latter demands them consistently and to a high standard. It’s kind of like playing a game on the highest difficulty level…and you don’t know the rules…and whilst everyone else got behind-the-scenes access to the game design, you never got the invite. It’s incredibly hard.
Whilst most PGRs can probably slog through the menial parts of their research, for the ADHDer if our brain says ‘no’ we can’t simply “push through” because we simply don’t have the necessary neurotransmitters available to incentivise the task; our brains are structured, and therefore function, differently. When we look at our to-do lists, figuring out which task is the most urgent can be a labour in itself and folding the laundry can seem equally as important as editing a draft chapter. If we get interrupted, we can’t always jump straight back in; it can take hours, and all of our energy, to resume what we were doing. Not to mention struggling to remember meetings, juggle academic and personal responsibilities, having so much mental noise we lose track of what’s being said to us, or worrying about appearing unprofessional if we lose our train of thought midsentence or blurt something out impulsively.
Personally, though, the hardest part is the emotional toll. ADHD has worryingly high rates of comorbidity with anxiety and depression (around 50%) with feelings of shame and low self-esteem being prevalent. Even before starting a PhD, those of us with ADHD are already battling imposter syndrome, low mood, and poor self-image. Why? Well, imagine you grew up always forgetting when your assignments are due, you interrupt people a lot, and you never seem to be able to turn up somewhere on time. People tell you you’re lazy, you’re rude, and you need to try harder…even though you’re already trying your hardest. You compare yourself to everyone around you and wonder why things seem so much easier for them and, in the end, you blame yourself. As an adult, you can’t seem to hold down a stable job, you have piles of laundry and dirty dishes everywhere, and you’re burnt out constantly from the energy you spend achieving the bare minimum. As a PGR, you turn up to the game, so to speak, having already run an emotional marathon.
I got my diagnosis, like most people assigned female at birth (AFAB) , later in life at age 25, a year before I applied for my PhD. Until that point, my academic track record was a mixed bag. I’d failed every A-Level exam (bar one), had extensions on all my undergraduate coursework, and could only manage reading about one article a week. But I also got As in my coursework (even in subjects where I’d failed the exams), managed two jobs alongside my Master’s, and graduated both degrees with Distinctions. I’d never questioned that I was disproportionately struggling, and it was only after the first semester of my Master’s that I spoke to a doctor because my physical health had taken a turn from constant burnout and being spread too thin trying to cope. Overcompensation, abysmal work/life boundaries, and a deep sense of shame were partly the root of my success at university, but I knew it was unsustainable and things needed to change – especially if I wanted a PhD.
Fast-forward a few years and now, at the beginning of my doctoral journey, I have my diagnosis and access to much-needed help. I get to close those 50 browser tabs for a few hours each day thanks to medication and have learned strategies for managing my symptoms. I can finally exhale.
Having ADHD and working towards a PhD is unbelievably challenging. But ADHD is also, in many ways, something to celebrate. Those of us with ADHD are some of the most creative and dynamic people you’ll meet and we care deeply and enthusiastically about the things we’re interested in. We’re excellent problem solvers, insatiably curious, and incredibly resilient people which, all in all, makes us pretty talented researchers – especially when we’re granted the right conditions to flourish.
If you feel there is something affecting your research, you can speak to Warwick’s Disability Services, who will help you get all the support you need. On the PhD Life blog, we have a whole section on student experiences of research, which you can explore here. If you feel like you have an experience you’d like to share, we regularly welcome guest writers to PhD Life, just email email@example.com for more information.
Did you find this blog helpful for your own experiences? If you related to it in some way, let us know in the comments below, by tweeting us @researchex or by messaging us on Instagram @warwicklibrary.