so you’re abd and also you’re beginning to suspect you have undiagnosed adhd

(Kirby’s note: this is super long and you don’t have to read it in order. Skip around, extract what you can, and hang onto it if you need to look at it again later. It’s not easily summed up in a tl;dr because it contains a lot of very small, specific recommendations. Feel free to cherrypick.)

Maybe this sounds familiar. I know an awful lot of academics, MANY of them raised as girls (but not all), who didn’t start figuring out they were neuroatypical until well into grad school. This is a sort of spin-off of the college thing — basically you’re playing that game but on hard mode.

What makes adults figure out they have ADHD is usually when their coping methods stop working. You don’t start looking for a name for the problem until you’re aware that there is a systemic, real problem (besides you just being “lazy”), which means you have to hit a breaking point first. For adults with ADHD the breaking point usually corresponds with a loss of infrastructure and organizational support in their lives. Young people who move out for the first time to go to college often find that they in fact have no idea how to feed themselves or keep a regular sleep schedule without externally-imposed enforcement. If you’re in your twenties and pretty smart and flexible, maybe you got through undergrad by soaking up all the structural support you could get from regular class schedules, dorm life or student co-op living arrangements, campus-internal transit so you don’t have to deal with bus schedules or driving. There are lots of ways that college imposes structure on the lives of undergraduate students.

This stops being true in grad school for many people. It’s much less common for grad students to live in dorms, and coursework can keep you from becoming a nocturnal gremlin… until you finish all your coursework. In many PhD programs finishing your coursework roughly corresponds with qualifying for candidacy — you defend a qualifying paper, or sit an exam, or something.

This is the beginning of the real slog for a lot of grad students who haven’t yet figured out their ADHD thing. Qualifying papers and/or exams happen outside a regular class structure. Theoretically you have an advisor, who is hopefully advising you, and their advice probably is something like “please write a paper. Please don’t not write a paper.” But if the paper isn’t a course paper, then you don’t have the important routine of having to go talk to human beings about the paper topic every week, and you don’t have the motivating fire under your ass of needing an actual grade. Qualifying papers don’t get grades! They qualify or they don’t. If they don’t, you keep rewriting it until it qualifies or you burn out and leave.

If by some stroke of immense luck you make it through the qualifying paper, perhaps because your advisor has the good sense to give you incremental deadlines or actually tell you how to write a qualifying paper, or perhaps because YOU had the good sense to develop a qualifying paper out of a course paper, then the crisis point doesn’t hit until after you qualify. Once you’re a candidate, they usually expect you to write a thesis.

“Please write a thesis,” your advisor has perhaps told you. Maybe in these words, maybe paraphrased. “Please don’t not write a thesis.”

How do you write a thesis? If you sought this article out, or someone sent it to you, it’s maybe because you think you have ADHD (or the person sent it to you thinks so). If you have ADHD, you maybe are used to relying on the magic “I don’t know, I just go into a fugue state and write a thirty-page opus the night before it’s due” thing to get through coursework. You might even have done this on your qualifying paper. This strategy does not work for a PhD thesis, as it turns out.

This does not mean you have to just force yourself to do it. Putting your nose to the grindstone grinds your nose off, but it does not produce quality work and it certainly does not just cause you to be suddenly normal.

Here is my advice. My advice is based on such grand qualifications as “I defended my thesis on time sort of” and “I didn’t set the rest of my life on fire in order to finish my thesis.” Also based on paying conscious and intentional attention to what ADHD adaptations work for me and those around me. I’m ranking them in order of “very important and very generic” to “much more specific but also you don’t need to stick to every detail if it doesn’t work for you.” Take or leave any part of this advice as you see fit.

Stop trying to do things the “normal” way.

The “normal” way to do things (writing papers, but also everything else) hasn’t worked for you so far and it’s not going to suddenly start working now.

If you’re in grad school, you were likely tagged as “smart but lazy” in elementary school. Teachers or caretakers probably got really frustrated with your total refusal or inability to sit and do homework, even as you were acing exams. Consider this: trying to just force yourself to sit and do homework isn’t going to work now any better than it worked when you were eight. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it! It just means that success for you is going to look very different from what people have told you it looks like.

This might mean looking weird. Do what you can to support yourself through whatever anxiety you have around that, but also don’t let that be the barrier that stops you from doing your best work. This might mean doing research in an untraditional format, or it might just literally mean not forcing yourself to “sit right” when you’re trying to read. This might mean that you’re one of those people who gets all their work done in a noisy bar between the hours of two and four in the morning. Whatever! It’s no one’s business how you need to do your work as long as you’re not bothering anyone, just start paying attention to what feels good and intuitive when you feel like you do manage to get a good flow going. As long as you’re not, like, singing along to Puccini in a shared office, you’re fine.

Setting up boundaries around this takes practice. If people in your life disapprove of what adaptations you need in order to work around the ADHD, you may need to have a conversation about it. You may need to seriously tell your parents or your roommates or your department chair, “This is what I need to do in order to work. I need you to respect the fact that I know my brain better than you do, and I’m doing it this way because it’s just never going to get done otherwise.” If they argue with you about this, that is more of a problem with your relationship with that person, and less a problem with the ADHD.

Tell your advisor what’s up.

You don’t have to get a formal diagnosis, and you certainly don’t have to share your diagnosis with your advisor. You do have to tell your advisor that you’ve been struggling. You do have to tell your advisor that you’re going to try some new workflows. You really have to tell your advisor what specific things you need from them in order to survive. (More on what that might be later.)

At a certain level, you need to be vulnerable in front of your PhD advisor, and you need them to meet you where you’re at. They need to demonstrate that they can learn and grow with you. They need to respond positively when you give them feedback politely, and they need to actually take that feedback into account when learning how to manage you. Sometimes it takes advisors a little while to figure out how to best relate to you, or to remember that you are a real human person with feelings — it is much easier for them to realize this if you act like a real human person with feelings in front of them! For me, this did mean crying in a lot of peoples’ offices during my crisis year, but it sure did get the point across.

Advising is a skill that needs to be learned through practice, like many skills. As an example of really good advising-learning: at some point during my third year (out of 5), my advisor seemed to suddenly figure out that graduate students need positive feedback in order to, like, be alive. I don’t know what made her realize this, but I do know she started putting happy faces on my drafts. Or that precious “Nice!” in the margin. I could tell she was doing it intentionally because she was doing it to other advisees (having not previously done a lot of :)s before that, anecdotally) and she was doing it religiously, on every piece of dogshit draft I ran across her desk. I made her read a lot of godawful drafts. I keep wanting to send her apology cards for it. But when she started putting the :)s and “Nice!”-s on them, my drafts got better. I am pretty sure she noticed this, because she has kept doing it, and I’ve got a folder full of screenshots of every little compliment among the hundreds of edits I’ve got on my thesis draft. Not only does this help me psychically (as a human person with feelings) but it is also very helpful academically, because I pay close attention to what gets the “Nice!” and try to do it more. Do I know that I am as easy to train as a dog? Yes. Does that mean it’s less effective? No!

My advisor trying a new thing that she wasn’t accustomed to doing (give grad students positive feedback on every piece of work) meant that she and I suddenly got to experience a big growth spurt together. My writing got better, and our meetings got a lot more fun. I was less afraid of criticism because it came with the reassurance that criticism did not encompass her total opinion of me. When I was more resilient about being criticized, I became more able to actually follow the advice she was trying to give me. This all worked out fantastically!

Another example, with my other advisor (because I am a lot of grad student, I needed a lot of advisor) — sometime deep into the slog of data treatment, I told her that I needed to meet on a specific calendar. Not every week, because then I wouldn’t have enough to show for myself and would be stressed out in the meeting. But not once a month, because if I’m left to my own devices for too long I go a little off the rails. I asked for every two weeks. She gave me exactly this schedule, and it was immensely helpful. Meetings served as mini-deadlines for me, with the benefits that deadlines have (make me do stuff) and not the drawbacks (give me anxietydepression).

Both of these examples involve me and my advisors working as a team, with some explicit communication (say how often you need to meet!) and some adjustment in communication style (happy faces). If you don’t talk to your advisor about what’s going on, they have no opportunity to grow with you. They’re probably not going to psychically figure out what you need if you go into a dissertation hole and don’t talk to them for months at a time, or if you go to meetings weekly and say “Yeah everything’s fine :)” with no honesty about your process. Please give them the opportunity to do well by you.

Take some of the cognitive load off.

For me, one of the absolute most exhausting parts of grad school has been the unending treadmill of SHIT TO DO. Tasks! There are bajillions of TASKS that people WANT YOU TO DO BY A CERTAIN TIME. It’s unreasonable. You might be a TA, which involves tasks like answering student emails, or actually literally going to the class you are a TA of probably, or grading one million homeworks; you might be an RA, which involves tasks like answering PI emails, or actually literally going to a physical lab and being there in IRL, or entering/transcribing one million data. This is on top of things like paying bills, getting groceries, going to advisor meetings, going to your OWN damn classes, doing your OWN homework or treating your OWN data — it’s a lot! You’re not stupid or lazy or careless for having a hard time holding all this in your brain! Your brain is already trying to do a really difficult, delicate thing (thesis), and piling a bunch of still-necessary-but-less-personally-important tasks on top of the brainmeat makes the meat all flat and nasty.

Don’t try to just carry it all in your head. This is flat-out not going to work. You maybe, maybe got away with this up through high school. If you somehow got through college without any kind of calendar system I am impressed but a little worried about you. By grad school you should not be trying to “just remember” literally anything. Not (just) because you can’t, but because it will push valuable thesis brain cells out your ears. Don’t try to just remember it. Write it down in a way that makes sense.

You don’t have to get a cutesy planner and keep every appointment and task in it unless you really want to. You can use your phone calendar but for the love of god sync it with your email/computer calendar and make it so that some trusted other human (partner? advisor? I don’t know your life) can add things to it maybe. As you are writing down your tasks in your bujo or your phone or wherever, consider the following:

Don’t stare at the empty document.

This is more specifically about writing, or any long extended task. Again, you may remember hours of your childhood spent just miserably staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for the homework to manifest in front of you. This probably didn’t work for your times tables and it especially will not work for your PhD thesis. If you find yourself staring at an empty document for more than a pre-set amount of time (about 1 minute for me — probably don’t let yourself go over 5 minutes), here are some alternative things to try besides just doing psychic damage to yourself:

You may find that was stopping you from writing was that you were freaking hungry for hours and didn’t notice. After you take care of your needs for food/moving-around/natural-light/social-interaction/whatever, you can go back and try #1 or 2 again, rather than just trying to dive straight back into perfect writing — OR, if attending to your human needs didn’t really fix your brain block, seriously just stop for the day. Beating your head against it for another hour is going to make you even more tired and miserable than if you’d actually gotten an hour of writing done, and your writing still won’t be done! It’s not worth it. Forgive yourself, give yourself a hug, and try again tomorrow.

Allocate your hours and honor your own boundaries around them. If it’s late it’s late.

Do not try to write your thesis after teaching four back to back class sections. Do not try to write your thesis in between the five meetings that are distributed between nine and four on Friday. Do not try to write your thesis after coming home from your side gig as a barista. Your tired brain can probably make words come out, MAYBE, but most of what you will accomplish here is upsetting yourself and ruining tomorrow and possibly the day after. Even if you do manage to come home from your Starbucks job and successfully write 500 words, you will almost certainly have to rewrite or possibly completely delete them later.

Trying to do thesis work around a full day of OTHER work is spending (your valuable brain cells) on credit. ADHD means that your credit limit is low and your interest rate is VERY expensive. What you spend over-budget on Monday takes away from things like “can you get out of bed at all on Tuesday” and “are you even going to make it to work on Wednesday” and every other aspect of your life. If you are habitually going over-budget every day, that’s called a deficit. Don’t run an energy deficit! It will eventually go to collections and things will go downhill for you VERY fast.

“How am I even supposed to work on my thesis then, if I have all this other crap to do?” you ask me. My answer: you are going to have to make a budget.

How to make a budget if you’ve never done it before

Notice some features: it’s color-coded. I haven’t scheduled Sample Gradstudent for more than 7 hours of brain on any given days. They’re not allowed to work on the weekend. Their teaching days are shorter and don’t involve any writing because they find teaching really draining. I’ve scheduled LUNCH every single day. The schedule counts meetings as work hours, and specifically predicts that Sample gets sort of squirrelly around hump day and needs a couple hours in the afternoon to fuck around and poke at emails. These are all NECESSARY features, and your schedule needs to include meals/weekends/tired-but-working-time/fuckaround-time. Your brain needs those things in order to function.

A couple more points about the budget:

How to do to-do lists when you have adhd

Part of the problem of being ABD is that the enormity of “please write a thesis. Please don’t not write a thesis” is totally unfathomable to our weird brains. “That’s like a paper, right? Like a really big paper. I sort of know how to do that” — maybe you do, but the scale is really different. You’re going to have to keep two channels of massive running to-do lists, and you’re going to have to spend time wrangling them in order to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be DOING during your carefully-scheduled writing hours.

For the thesis itself

I sure hope that your advisor made you do a thesis proposal or prospectus or something. It will be helpful if you have some idea of what chapters are going to be in the thing, and maybe in what order.

Break it down by chapter. Chapters are closer to journal articles in size. It is actually possible to write a thorough outline for a single chapter — that’s not always possible for the whole thesis at once.

Break it into work stages. Each chapter is going to have pre-writing work (data collection, data analysis, literature review, idea synthesis), writing work (write it), and post-writing work (deal with committee edits, find the four million typos, hunt down missing details, typeset it in LaTeX if you’re nasty). Each of those stages, for each chapter, is a whole big to-do list by itself. If you have five chapters and three stages each, this means the thesis is contained in fifteen large to-do lists. Keep them somewhere safe and reasonable, and edit them as necessary.

Break the stages down into actual tasks. My Chapter 3 was a chapter with a lot of data. The pre-writing stage had tasks upon tasks. It was roughly something like this:

Some of these tasks were completed in an hour or two, but MANY of them were days if not weeks of work.

At the start of each work session I basically sat down, looked at the big list above, and made a little single-stickynote list of what steps I thought I could possibly do in my two-hour span. A different stickynote for morning and afternoon, sometimes more. When there’s a billion tiny steps it’s really easy to lose track of something that can be a big issue down the line, so you’re going to have to try and be religious about this.

The other thing I strongly recommend is finding ways to train yourself to get a positive response when checking off a task. If you need to break out a bunch of little holographic stickers or cool gel pens for checking off your tasks, then so be it. Do whatever you can to just give yourself small, material rewards each time you do a thing. Pavlov yourself to drool when you check off a box.

For everything else

For teaching, RA’ing, admin work, household chores, and every single other thing that wasn’t the thesis, I did a single sticky note at the start of the day. If stuff didn’t happen I had to write it again on the next day’s stickynote. That’s just how it is sometime. Luckily, because I successfully trained myself to get a dopamine response from checking off boxes, it’s pretty motivating and I’m much better at doing tasks than I was before grad school.

If you want to get fancy, you can make little progress bars and fill them in with highlighter for long, continuing tasks. Or for tasks that need to happen every single day, get a wall calendar and put a sticker on it whenever you do the task for that day. If it feels a little like you’re parenting yourself, that’s fine — just really do it. Get stickers that you really like.

Some other fun little adhd hacks

  • Do you have the adhd thing where you just can’t freaking read? Me too! Try making the PDF huge. Try reading the conclusion and all the section headings first. Try manually going into the article and adding a bunch of whitespace and paragraph breaks. Try live-tweeting the article. Try getting your hapless roommate to read it aloud to you while you can fidget freely. If you figure out something that works, drop me a line and I’ll add it here.
  • Do you have the adhd thing where your brain just stops being able to hear words for no reason? Damn, same! Try doing something with your hands: doodle, write down random keywords that you can hear, knit, get a fidget spinner, twirl your pencil. It does weirdly help a lot. If you’re like me you also hate looking at peoples’ faces, but if you can force yourself to look NEAR the speaker’s face it will help your auditory processing. Also I have to point my right ear at the speaker because my left ear doesn’t process as well. I don’t know, dude, brains are weird. DON’T close your eyes to try to focus, you’re just going to fall asleep.
  • Do you have the adhd thing where the smallest piece of criticism from literally anyone feels like being stabbed? Big mood. Hoard positive comments from people you respect in a little folder, like I’ve done here:

Like I said earlier, my advisor figured out that in order for me to be alive and not die, she has to say “Nice!” every once in a while. I cleverly save the nice’s in a folder and look at them when I feel like shit. It’s cheesey but it genuinely helps. You can also keep a little journal and write nice crap people say to you. You can also go to therapy! Doesn’t make the problem go away, but I will tell you it IS an adhd thing and you are NOT being weird or stupid and also you can take care of your emotions around it without freaking out or assuming the magnitude of your feelings reflects the magnitude of other peoples’ feelings. People can tell you your paper is a little underbaked without hating you, and also it’s not like dumb or imaginary to get your feelings hurt about it.

  • Do you have the adhd thing where every six months you feel like your whole life direction and thesis is garbage? You may want to specifically invest slightly more time/effort in rotating your crops. After turning in a draft of a chapter, take a full two weeks to work on your secret side-project that has nothing to do with the thesis. It puts nutrients back in the soil (nutrients = passion and creativity, soil = your brain). You can also spend some time trying your hand at #scicomm — do a guest spot on your friend’s podcast to talk about why your research is cool!
  • Do you have the adhd thing where you literally only ever do things the night they’re due? You have to invent a bunch of incremental deadlines, and you have to convince yourself they’re real. For a while what I’d do is at the end of each advising meeting I told my advisor exactly what chunk of output (a chapter, or some data, etc) I wanted to give to them before the next meeting, and then I’d have to get it to them early enough for them to have time to actually read and discuss it. If you don’t meet with your advisor often enough for this to work, or if it’s giving you too much anxiety, try a buddy system where you trade drafts with a colleague or have periodic check-ins about the work. The deadline for “write a PhD thesis” is actually made of a whole lot of little deadlines like “write an introduction” and “figure out your bibliography management situation” and “make your graphs not look like garbage” and there are so many little tasks that you HAVE to break them down and spread them out. Go back up to the section on to-do lists and just, like, give your advisor access to the lists.
  • Do you have the adhd thing where you can’t work when you’re depressed? Oops, that’s a normal person thing! The difference is that people without adhd are better at pretending to look busy, or doing weird mindless fluff-tasks, or literally just lying. You’re not doing less than your peers, you’re just more transparent. If you are having a significant enough mental health thing (for example, sad, lonely, anxious, having a weird relationship break with your parents lately, your cat is sick, a professor was mean to you) that it stops you from getting work done, you will probably find “pretending to work” as exhausting as actually working, if not moreso. It’s honestly better for your health AND productivity to just take it as a sick day.

Addenda — hacks from others!

  • the thing where you can explain it out loud but you can’t think when you’re writing or typing: voice-record yourself explaining the thing, then transcribe and edit from there [h/t Mindy Snitnow]
  • the thing where if no one is watching you do it, it just will not happen: buddy system, “body doubling,” study dates. Lots of ways and formats for doing this, but basically you probably have “that annoying adhd feel when” you are a social creature and need social interaction as part of your human existence. Writing with friends can be either validating and supportive or sometimes distracting — you can also find specific study-buddy acquaintances where that’s the basis of your whole relationship. You can also form a writing group with people in other disciplines (which helps practice communicating ideas clearly!). [h/t Mindy Snitnow, Hunter]
  • the thing where you get into a zen state of thesis and forget to eat or move for six hours: this is absolutely an ahdh thing, by the way — “hyperfocus” is also a result of not being able to really control your focus at all. Several people have suggested pomodoro method, which you can google, but it involves setting a timer to make you take a break at regular intervals. You can also add sticker incentives to this one! [h/t Betsy Sneller, Jessica Nicholas](*Pomodoro/timer setting works for some people but it does not work for me, mainly because I either spend the whole time anticipating the timer and therefore not really working, or I do get into a good flow state and then FREAK OUT when the timer interrupts me. You should try it once or twice and see if it works for you. You’ll kind of know right away if you’re paying attention to your reactions/feelings.)
  • Do you have a grad-student-adhd thing I didn’t talk about here? @ me on twitter (kirbyconrod) or email (gmail: kabconrod) me and I’ll edit this to add questions and advice that people share with me.

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.