Navigating Your Dissertation With ADHD


Completing a doctorate degree is extremely challenging for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Increasingly, I have dissertation coaching clients coming to me for extra support after receiving a ADHD diagnosis. I’ve noticed that in many cases, graduate students feel a sense of relief after being able to put a name to the cause of the challenges they have faced for years. (Check out this excellent article on all things ADHD.)

After receiving a diagnosis, students may still be unsure of how to best strategize around ADHD and make progress on their dissertation project. Thankfully, there are concrete strategies that doctoral students with ADHD can use to help reduce stress, move through the multiple phases of the dissertation and graduate.

Say YES to a structured schedule.
One strategy that can be helpful is to create a structured schedule with daily manageable goals. This can include defining specific time-slots for studying, working on research, and completing other set tasks. Some of my clients create an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of daily activities (with a column to check them off once completed). Other students find that a hard copy agenda with written daily goals provides a break from working on the computer and works well.

Using tools like calendar apps can also be helpful for keeping track of deadlines and assignments. Here are some of the best apps for students with ADHD. 

Think about the points through the day when you typically feel most focused and energized – and ideally work on your dissertation during that time. For many of my clients, this is early in the morning before other tempting activities can distract them. (An editor friend of mine calls this ¨eating the frog¨ first thing.)

Break down massive tasks.
It’s less overwhelming to break down large tasks into smaller, more do-able chunks and then set specific timelines for completion. Instead of trying to write an entire chapter, for example, what will each subsection within that chapter discuss? Create a skeletal outline for each subsection with your key points and the citations you plan to include. Cut and paste any notes you’ve already taken into the draft and begin weaving them into the content for that section. Consider working with an accountability partner to help keep things on track.

Try new ways of organizing information.
Another strategy is to try different methods of organization, such as color-coding, highlighting, and post-it notes, to help keep track of important information and stay focused. Many of my clients like using Zotero to keep track of their articles and notes, but there are many academic note-taking apps now available.

Let’s get physical.
It’s important for students with ADHD to establish a routine for taking breaks and engaging in daily physical activity. It’s clear that scheduling regular breaks can help to alleviate stress and prevent burnout while physical activity can help to improve focus and memory.

Support please!
If possible, try to seek out support from a therapist or counselor who specializes in working with individuals with ADHD. They can provide targeted guidance and additional strategies for managing symptoms and coping with the unique challenges of graduate school. For some of my clients, ADHD medication has been a game changer.

Finally, it can be helpful for doctoral students with ADHD to be open with their university advisors and professors about their condition. Often, universities provide accommodations or offer extra support to help students succeed. Dissertation coaching can also provide the additional mentorship and guidance needed to get organized and progress through to graduation.

Interested in finding out how I can help you move through your dissertation process with greater ease? Contact me and we’ll chat!



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