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Acing Grad School with ADHD: Strategies for Success

Pursuing a master’s or PhD is often an intimidating prospect for graduate students with ADHD, as they face unique challenges that can hinder learning. Use this guide to choose the right program, better understand the obstacles you may face, and develop healthy habits to guide you through grad school.

Acing Grad School with ADHD: Strategies for Success

As someone diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may be intimated by the demands of a rigorous graduate school program. If so, you are not alone — a study by CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD) found that only 0.06% of ADHD participants held a graduate degree compared to 5.4% of the control group.

The idea of juggling homework and classes on top of managing your energy, emotions, and daily tasks may have you questioning whether pursuing a master’s degree or PhD is a worthwhile endeavor. Considering the intense cognitive load of graduate school — along with the fact that most students are simultaneously balancing a career, family, and other obligations — your hesitation is completely valid.

However, by choosing a program that fits your lifestyle, selecting an area of study that you find interesting/novel, understanding how your ADHD manifests, and preemptively identifying your main challenges, you can succeed in higher education. Use this guide to prepare for graduate school and the challenges you may face, so you can overcome these obstacles and build a better future for yourself.

Types of ADHD

ADHD is primarily a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to transmit dopamine, which acts as your brain’s “reward center” and affects many body functions, including memory, movement, motivation, mood, attention, and more. ADHD can range in severity and manifest differently among individuals, which has led to three main diagnoses: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or combined type.

Inattentive Type

While some refer to inattentive type as ADD, the term is no longer medically recognized. Those with inattentive ADHD often have trouble finishing schoolwork, staying organized, and remembering routine tasks like doing chores or attending class. Symptoms of inattentive ADHD include, but are not limited to:

  • “Spacing out” or becoming lost in thought.
  • Lacking organization and/or losing things that are needed to complete tasks.
  • Experiencing difficulty focusing on tasks perceived as uninteresting.
  • Having trouble paying close attention to details.
  • Getting distracted often and easily.
  • Failing to follow through on assignments and work tasks.
  • Avoiding tasks that require a lot of focus.
  • Interrupting or speaking over others.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a patient can be diagnosed with inattentive ADHD when five or more symptoms are present for at least six months and these symptoms interrupt school, work, or life in a significant way.

Hyperactive/Impulsive Type

Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD is when someone fidgets more often than usual or moves constantly, even when it’s not appropriate for the situation. According to the American Psychiatric Association, five or more symptoms must be present to be diagnosed with this type. These symptoms include:

  • Inability to stay seated, even during class or at an internship.
  • Fidgeting with hands or handheld objects.
  • Inability to focus on quieter hobbies that involve focus.
  • Constantly on the go.
  • Talking too much.
  • Impatience or difficulty waiting.

Combined Type

While some symptoms naturally overlap, people who experience symptoms in both categories could be diagnosed with ADHD combined type. For example, someone with a combined type may find it difficult to focus and might always be on the go. As a college student, this could manifest as both a difficulty paying attention in classes that aren’t of personal interest and having trouble sitting still through all classes.

Because people with combined type experience more symptoms, it can be harder for them to manage their ADHD. However, the Attention Deficit Disorder Association outlines many solutions those with this type can seek, such as medication, mindfulness therapy, or an ADHD support group.

ADHD and Graduate School: Choosing the Right Program

As ADHD manifests differently in each individual, a graduate program that works for one person may not work for another. For example, someone who struggles with deadlines might find an asynchronous learning format challenging to maintain, while another student with sensory issues might find in-person learning more difficult than online graduate programs. Below are a few things to consider when choosing your graduate program.

Picking Your Area of Study

A common misconception about people with ADHD is that they cannot pay attention. In reality, they are highly attentive to topics they find interesting. As a graduate student, you can use this hidden strength to your advantage.

Instead of signing up for a graduate program you “should” enroll in, consider what you’re most passionate about. It could also help to choose a graduate program with many electives instead of a program with a fixed agenda. With electives, you can explore topics interesting to you, which can help you pay better attention.

Finding the Right Learning Modality

Online programs offer more flexibility and control over how many people with ADHD learn. The CDC found students with ADHD benefitted from online learning because they were distracted less by classmates and could create their own routine to stay focused without judgment from others.

However, the same study also outlined some difficulties. Online learning can feel monotonous, meaning some students with ADHD may become more easily bored. It may also be hard for them to meet deadlines without in-person reminders.

Of course, the challenges and benefits will differ from student to student. Because of this, it’s best to find the learning style that works best for you. The first step toward this is to define how you like to learn:

  • Do you prefer structure given by others or creating your own?
  • Are you more distracted during online or in-person classes?
  • Do you prefer strict class times and deadlines or learning on your own timeline?
  • When do you feel the most mentally sharp or focused: in a physical classroom, in a Zoom class, or when you learn on your own?

After you answer these questions, refer to the chart below to decide what learning type is right for you.

Students Learn On Campus Students Learn Virtually Synchronous Learning Asynchronous Learning

IN-PERSON

ONLINE

HYBRID/BLENDED

Researching School Accommodations

Along with choosing a study area of interest and the right learning modality, you want to make sure your institution has the right accommodations. The Attention Deficit Disorder Association outlines different accommodations a university should have for students. These include:

  • Extended time on tests and other timed assignments.
  • Free tutoring or mentorship programs for those with ADHD.
  • An ADHD grad student support group.
  • Ability to record lectures.
  • Note-taking service.
  • Written instructions from professors when possible.

To understand what ADHD graduate student accommodations might look like, check out the ones offered by the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin.

Additional Considerations

Along with accommodations from the university, there are some additional steps you can take to set yourself up for success:

  • Choose a graduate program at a university with accommodation services and ADHD specialists.
  • Disclose your ADHD diagnosis to professors and mentors.
  • Use your school’s writing center and tutoring services as needed.
  • Find a study buddy or group to keep you on track.
  • Learn effective time management skills.

When in doubt or struggling, reach out to your institution. Collaborate with your professors, academic advisor, and institutional disability services to come up with a customized learning style that works for you.

Academic Challenges of ADHD Grad Students

It’s normal for graduate students with ADHD to struggle academically at one point or another. In fact, a 2022 study found those with ADHD struggled more than their peers due to difficulty paying attention in class. Fortunately, the same study found students with ADHD could be just as successful as their peers with the right resources.

Challenge #1: Increased Cognitive Load

Graduate school can be demanding. Over time, the demands of courses, a thesis or capstone project, and/or being a TA or research assistant can mentally drain you. As a student with ADHD, it is possible that you’ll have a harder time bouncing back once drained. But recovery is not impossible. By taking breaks as needed and maintaining productive study and health routines, you can beat cognitive overload.

Strategy:

Want to improve your study routine? Check out these ADHD-specific study routines from a therapist.

Challenge #2: Staying Focused

As we’ve discussed, graduate students with ADHD may find it more difficult to focus on things they find uninteresting. This is an important factor to overcome, as research suggests it’s most closely related to dropping out of graduate school. To focus while you’re studying, create a routine where you study or work in smaller spurts. One common method is the Pomodoro technique, in which you work in 25-minute intervals with five-minute rests between.

Strategy:

Want to try the Pomodoro technique in a supportive environment? Check out the Pomodoro virtual support group from the Attention Deficit Disorders Association.

Challenge #3: Developing Healthy Study Skills

While people with ADHD thrive on routine, they often display an inability to stick to one. To create successful study habits, consider when, where, and how you work best. For one student, this might mean working in a library while using the Pomodoro technique every morning. For another, this could be working for two hours each evening in a dedicated at-home study space.

Strategy:

Curious which study style is right for you? This free online learning style quiz gauges whether you are an auditory, visual, or tactile learner.

Challenge #4: Managing Time Wisely

As a graduate student, you not only have to manage your workload but your time as well. To develop better time management skills, guess how long each routine task takes, such as reading for the next class, and then time yourself. After you do the task, gauge your estimate to determine your time blindness. You can adjust your time expectations and create a realistic schedule from there.

Strategy:

As you create a realistic schedule, consider time blocking. Neurodivergent Insights has a great guide to time blocking with ADHD.

Challenge #5: Fighting Procrastination

Waiting until the last minute to do things might give you the rush of dopamine needed to finish tasks, but it can also lead to unnecessary stress and falling behind on other coursework. Try to fend off procrastination by building out a reasonable timeline for each assignment. This is especially important for larger projects, such as a thesis or capstone.

Strategy:

Eat the frog” is a great method to fight procrastination. There are no frogs necessary for this productivity hack, only the drive to complete the hardest task first each day.

Challenge #6: Working Under a Structured Routine

Many people with ADHD thrive with structure, though they can struggle to create it for themselves. To help, consider choosing a structured graduate program with set deadlines.

Strategy:

As a graduate student, you are part of a larger community. Use this community to hold yourself accountable–and to make study buddies. Consider joining or starting a study group in your program.

Lifestyle Challenges of ADHD Grad Students

ADHD doesn’t only affect your schoolwork. It can also make routine and mundane tasks — such as paying bills, looking after the house, or developing stable social relationships — challenging. Fortunately, there are some basic steps that you can take to help minimize or better manage your symptoms.

Challenge #1: Getting Enough Sleep

An often-forgotten pillar of health is sleep. When you get enough ZZZs, your melatonin and dopamine levels dip normally. When you don’t, these levels are disrupted, and it can be more difficult to wake up in the morning and stay focused throughout the day. As you might expect, a lack of sleep impacts academic performance, mood, and overall quality of life.

Strategy:

To improve your sleep, turn off screens an hour before bed. You can also try this free sleep meditation from Calm’s YouTube channel.

Challenge #2: Maintaining Healthy Eating Habits

Graduate students with ADHD often forget to eat or struggle with a lack of appetite due to the side effects of ADHD medications. Eating three nutritious meals a day and high-protein snacks as needed improves concentration and executive functioning. To make sure you get the benefits of eating right, prep healthy lunches and dinners and set timers to remember to eat.

Strategy:

When you plan out your meals, you’re more likely to eat. Using a meal planning app like Intent can help you schedule meals (and leftovers), create a shopping list, and even order groceries, alleviating the cognitive burden of meal planning.

Challenge #3: Staying Organized

When you find it difficult to concentrate or feel the urge to move constantly, it can be hard to take care of household chores and pay the bills. Throw in the busy schedule associated with graduate school, and it’s often next to impossible. To combat this, be proactive. Track chores and set reminders in your calendar about essential bills, such as your monthly rent.

Strategy:

Need help tracking your chores? Consider downloading a chore-tracking app, such as the free Spotless app.

Challenge #4: Incorporating Movement

Moving your body is a great way to increase your dopamine naturally and improve your concentration. However, it can be hard for graduate students to find the time for an hour-long workout class or two hours at the gym. Instead, find small ways to add more movement into your routine, such as walking to campus instead of driving or exploring the campus gym.

Strategy:

Looking for movement that can be done anywhere? Consider free workout channels, such as Yoga with Adrienne or Move With Nicole.

Challenge #5: Avoiding Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

People with ADHD are more likely to struggle with addiction or to create unhealthy coping mechanisms. Several studies found that about 25% of adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse had ADHD. To make sure you develop healthy coping mechanisms instead of addictions, monitor your habits.

Strategy:

You can observe how often you drink or partake in other unhealthy habits, but you should also focus on the positive. Brainstorm a few healthy coping mechanisms, such as journaling or therapy, and track how often you do each.

Emotional Challenges of ADHD Grad Students

ADHD can impact how you navigate social situations, process criticism and feedback, regulate your emotions, and respond to everyday situations. For example, a 2020 study estimated that up to 70% of adults who have ADHD have issues with emotional regulation. As a graduate student with ADHD, there are multiple emotional challenges you may encounter. Fortunately, there are solutions to each.

Challenge #1: Regulating Emotions

People with ADHD often have trouble regulating emotions because they become overwhelmed with the intensity of those feelings. It’s a challenge you can overcome if you learn how to be in touch with your emotions and control your thoughts. Breathwork, journaling, and meditation are three tools that allow you to detach from your thoughts and emotions and regulate how you feel daily. Some clinicians are also suggesting therapy as part of a treatment plan for those with ADHD who experience difficulty regulating emotions.

Strategy:

Are you new to mindfulness? There’s plenty of free resources to help you learn to meditate, journal, or do breathwork. This free beginner meditation from the YouTube channel Great Meditation is a good place to start.

Challenge #2: Overcoming Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)

Those with ADHD are suspected to have a brain structure that can make processing negative emotions challenging. As a result, they’re more likely to have rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). Folks with RSD experience intense emotional pain whenever they face rejection or failure. To combat RSD, you want to develop habits that create a positive mindset, such as gratitude journaling, and creating a routine to self soothe when rejection or failure occurs.

Strategy:

Dealing with rejection or failure is a normal part of adulthood, and it can be a productive step toward your goals. To reframe setbacks, check out how successful people use failures to accomplish their goals.

Challenge #3: Refining Social Skills

ADHD can impact your social skills. Whether it’s interrupting others, talking too much, forgetting about plans, or constantly arriving late, there are some struggles to overcome if graduate students with ADHD want to build their network and friendship in graduate school. It helps to build a support system. Accountability from those who understand the struggles associated with being neurodivergent can go a long way in helping you feel connected to your peers.

Strategy:

Find a virtual or in-person support group. When considering groups, look for ones with other neurodivergent students.

Challenge #4: Avoiding Burnout

Burnout is a real threat to any graduate student. Those with ADHD may be more at risk since they often find it harder to balance multiple projects, chores, and life admin work than students without ADHD. To avoid burnout, make time for self-care.

Strategy:

Often, it’s not enough to mark time for self-care in your calendar. You also have to find a self-care habit or hobby that works for you. To find your self-care routine, explore this giant list of self-care tips for graduate students.

Challenge #5: Coping with Comorbid Disorders

Did you know that 58% of college students with ADHD identify as having one or more comorbid disorder like anxiety, depression, or a mood disorder?As you might imagine, this can lead to additional challenges, but these aren’t challenges you need to overcome alone. Explore the mental health resources offered by your university. These could include free or discounted counseling services, a free mental health mobile app or online course, or student support groups.

Strategy:

It can be overwhelming to navigate the many resources available for students with comorbid disorders. To combat this, focus on resources for graduate students exclusively.

Resources for Graduate Students with ADHD

ADHD can be tricky to manage, and while this guide is a great place to start, it’s not the only resource available. As you navigate grad school, you can refer back to the free resources below whenever you need help. Together, they give a comprehensive look at strategies, resources, and tips for grad students with ADHD.

  • ADHD Doctoral Student – Getting a doctoral degree or considering getting it after finishing your master’s? Check out this Instagram page with free insight and advice from a doctoral student with ADHD.
  • ADHD Overview – The American Psychiatric Association gives an overview of the causes, symptoms, and treatments available for all types of ADHD.
  • ADHD Support Group – The Attention Deficit Disorder Association offers a number of virtual support groups, including ones for young adults who are “adulting” for the first time. These 90-minute sessions occur biweekly.
  • ADDA Webinars – Those who want to learn from experts about managing their symptoms should check out the free webinars from the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. Topics of interest including Five Ways to Overcome Underachievement at Work (or School) and Adulting with ADHD.
  • Adult Learners and ADHD – If you’re an adult learner, it can be trickier to manage your ADHD. This guide from the University of Pennsylvania provides tactical steps to better manage your ADHD.
  • Female ADHD Graduate Student Guide – ADHD in females is less studied and often underdiagnosed. The University of Tennessee provides this anecdotal guide about how some female graduate students with ADHD are succeeding.
  • Focus and Organization Hacks – As a graduate student, staying focused and organized is important. Luckily, there’s productivity hacks designed specifically for students with ADHD, such as the ones highlighted in this blog.
  • Focus Meditation – A common struggle for many with ADHD is staying focused. This free, ten-minute beginner meditation helps cultivate this skill.
  • How to Take Notes with ADHD – Curious how other students with ADHD take notes? Check out this Youtuber’s method.
  • Law School and ADHD – If you are currently navigating law school or considering getting your law degree, check out this guide from Oklahoma City University School of Law.
  • Long-term Projects and ADHD – As a graduate student, you most likely will have to complete semester-long projects or multi-semester projects. This video offers tips on how to successfully manage these projects with ADHD.
  • Resources for Grad Students with Disabilities – To learn more about services and programs available at most institutions, check out our giant list of resources for grad students with disabilities.
  • Study Methods for Students with ADHD – Want to improve your graduate school study routine? Check out these study methods that are therapist-approved.
  • Study Strategies for ADHD – As a graduate student with ADHD, it’s always nice to learn methods from other students with neurodiversity. Check out this YouTuber’s study strategies and tips.
  • Time Blocking for ADHD – Interested in learning more about this time management strategy? Check out how to make it work as a graduate student with ADHD.

Interview with an Expert on ADHD

Linsey Knerl

Linsey Knerl is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and online education consultant. She has 15 years of experience creating content that helps students get more out of their educational journey.

How does graduate school differ from undergraduate studies for students with ADHD, and what adjustments may be necessary to succeed at this higher level of education?

While undergraduate studies still require a high degree of independence, in my opinion this increases in graduate and then doctoral programs. There tends to be less structure provided by professors and the framework of the class. Often there are no quizzes, midterms, etc. and students are expected to plan and execute semester-long projects and papers completely independently.

In my experience, a number of students don’t even realize they have ADHD until graduate school. I’ve worked with a number of students really understanding their learning profile only in grad school having somehow managed through the earlier years. For some this is a relief, but still a lot to process and navigate.

How can graduate students with ADHD navigate the demands of research projects and assignments that require sustained attention and organization?

My recommendation is to get help. This tends to be especially challenging because by this stage the expectation is that we are fully in adulthood and don’t need help. I find undergraduate students still have more willingness to access support available on campus, but the graduate experience is far more isolating, and students have more stigma about being in graduate school but needing help managing themselves. My recommendation is to work against this stigma, advocate for yourself, and seek support.

How can graduate students with ADHD establish effective communication with their professors and mentors to ensure they receive the support they need?

The best thing to do, whether you have official accommodations or not, is to ask to meet with your professor at the start of class and put yourself on their radar. A face-to-face meeting is far more effective than an email or even an accommodation letter. Professors have a lot going on, so it helps to connect your name and face for them. Tell them what you struggle with and ask them how you can ensure success in their class.

If you don’t have official accommodations, you have to “feel out” the professor. If you feel their attitudes around learning disabilities are not supportive or are ableist, consider switching to a different class. It often takes more energy trying to change someone’s beliefs and attitudes so don’t spend your energy there. Protect yourself.

What are some potential career paths or fields of study that may be more suitable for individuals with ADHD in graduate school?

I don’t believe in limiting yourself by your disability. Students should study what interests them but educate themselves about the history, culture, and norms of a field so they can manage expectations. Obviously more structured fields are easier. Sending a student off to do a self-faced dissertation, for example, can become an impossible task. In cases like that, working to build structures the program doesn’t provide on your own is important.

What should graduate students with ADHD consider when selecting an academic advisor or mentor to ensure a supportive and understanding relationship?

This is the most key factor in my opinion. Selecting the right person who can build a neurodivergent affirming and supportive relationship with you will often go further than any “strategy.” Higher education is inherently hierarchical and ableist. Spend the time to find the right people and where possible, program.

Are there any networking opportunities or support groups specifically tailored to graduate students with ADHD?

I don’t know of any specific to graduate students, though it is worth asking the disability services office most universities have. Organizations like CHADD could be another resource. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone. This is a challenge for many students. Try to find others and build your own community.

What advice would you give to a graduate student with ADHD who is struggling to balance academic responsibilities with personal life and self-care?

Where possible, seek support. A therapist who can help you and others in your life with this balance can be a life changer. An educational therapist or executive function coach can also help. Also, it’s important to realize that graduate school is an incredibly stressful time, even for neurotypical people. It’s okay if things slip. Be patient and forgiving with yourself if you have to let some things go. What I mean is give yourself permission to be out of balance for a while. For many, the pressure to have it all together can itself be paralyzing.