Eight Tips for Navigating Graduate School with Adult ADHD

Written by Susan Helmick, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College

overwhelmed man covered in sticky notes

Graduate school can be a rewarding though demanding endeavor, requiring management of multiple obligations, from coursework and research to teaching and personal commitments. For those with Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), these challenges can be amplified.  

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder often diagnosed in grade school, but for many the signs and symptoms only become apparent in later life as problems with attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity mount in tandem with increasing roles and responsibilities. It’s important to recognize that many adults struggle with ADHD symptoms, which can manifest differently in a high-pressure academic setting.

October is ADHD Awareness Month, an opportunity to encourage open discussions, reduce stigma and underscore the importance of appropriate treatment and support for individuals with ADHD. While ADHD is often associated with challenges in focus, attention, and organization, it can also inspire unique strengths, creativity, and resilience when managed effectively with the right tools. 

Challenges Faced by Graduate Students with ADHD

Graduate students with ADHD confront specific challenges that can frustrate their academic success. Common difficulties include:

  • Time Management: Balancing numerous deadlines can be tough for anyone, but for those with ADHD, who have more difficulty prioritizing tasks and managing time effectively, time management can be overwhelming.

  • Organization: Organizing research materials, class notes, and schedules can be a Herculean task. Grad students with ADHD may find themselves buried under piles of papers or digital clutter, making it difficult to locate critical information when needed.

  • Procrastination: Procrastination is a common coping mechanism for those with ADHD, and it can lead to increased stress as deadlines approach.

  • Distractions: The graduate school environment can be rife with distractions, from busy labs to noisy classrooms. These distractions can exacerbate difficulties with attention and focus.

  • Stress and Anxiety: The constant juggling of tasks can lead to heightened levels of stress and anxiety, which can worsen ADHD symptoms.

Management Techniques for Graduate Students with ADHD

Fortunately, there are numerous strategies and resources that can help graduate students with ADHD succeed academically. Here are eight empowering and effective ways to manage ADHD, whether you're personally impacted or providing support to someone who is:

  1. Time Management Tools: Utilize time management tools and apps such as calendars, to-do lists, and task organizers. Set specific and achievable goals, and break down larger tasks into smaller, manageable steps. Task manager apps like Todoist can help keep track of projects, tasks and lists while productivity trackers like RescueTime can provide insight into personal productivity to boost focus and block distractions.
  2. Prioritization: Determine the most critical tasks and tackle them first. Creating a clear list of priorities can help you stay focused on what truly matters. Apps like Finish categorize tasks into short term, medium term and long-term categories and remind users to complete them based on prioritization, automatically moving them into new categories as deadlines approach.
  3. Mindfulness and Meditation: Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help improve attention and reduce anxiety. Regular mindfulness exercises can also aid in controlling impulsivity. UC students have access to Calm, a mindfulness app offering guided meditations, among other relaxation techniques. Simply log in with your current username and password to take advantage of the free subscription.You can create an account by using your UC (6+2) email.
  4. Minimize Distractions: Identify your primary distractions and develop strategies to minimize them. This might involve studying in a quiet space, using noise-canceling headphones, or setting specific times for focused work.  Focus@will, developed in conjunction with neuroscientists, utilizes uniquely engineered audio to help improve focus during work or study. Need a more drastic solution? The Freedom app can block specific websites, apps or the internet across all devices during times you need to work or study. 
  5. Body Doubling: Body doubling involves working with another individual, a kind of “accountability buddy,” in-person or remotely, to improve concentration and task motivation. Apps and services like Flow Club, FLOWN, and Focusmate all offer virtual options to help you stay focused and get things done.
  6. Academic Support and Counseling Services: Accessibility Resources offers services and accommodations for University of Cincinnati students with ADHD and other specific support needs. Students can also schedule time with a UC CAPS counselor to discuss ADHD challenges and develop personalized strategies.
  7. ADHD Coaches: Consider working with an ADHD coach, a professional who specializes in helping individuals with ADHD develop strategies for success. Web sites like Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), the ADHD Coaches Organization, and the A.D.D. Resource Center can help identify coaching professionals with specific training and expertise.
  8. Medication Management: Medication management is often included as a component of a comprehensive ADHD treatment plan to help manage the symptoms of ADHD. It’s typically monitored and performed by a healthcare provider, such as a psychiatrist pr psychologist, who specializes in ADHD treatment. University Health Services can help find the right referral or treatment plan for your particular needs.

Navigating graduate school can be a tremendous undertaking, with or without ADHD. By recognizing the unique challenges, implementing effective management techniques, and utilizing available resources, graduate students with ADHD can excel. Remember that seeking help and support is a sign of strength and success is possible with just a little initiative and the right game plan.