How to Earn a Ph.D. with ADHD
I pursued my dream, lost my way, but I am back on track, thanks to a medication I didn’t know about.
I’m a doctoral candidate in history, just a dissertation away from putting Dr. in front of my name. I’m married to an intimidatingly competent woman, and we have a bright, precocious three-year-old. I have ADHD.
I was diagnosed when I was 11, and was medicated for seven years. I did well in school, and I cannot imagine, and have no wish to imagine, trying to make it through school without my medication. But late in my senior year, I decided that, the side effects of my stimulants were outweighing their usefulness.
So far, the result has been 12 years of uncertainty, swinging back and forth between incredible accomplishments and bouts of crippling apathy. I made it through my undergrad years OK, finishing my history and English double major in five years. Of course, by that time, my wife had her first master’s degree, and was off and running in her career of choice.
Me? I went to work at a grocery store. It wasn’t all that bad. My inability to remember my schedule almost got me fired, but I hung in. It didn’t take long, though, for the monotony to get to me. My ADHD brain craved stimulus that a grocery store couldn’t provide.
My brain soon got more stimulus than it could handle, as I got a master’s in history, then went on to a Ph.D. program. I did well, but it was difficult. I missed important meetings, I forgot to do assignments, and I often found myself sitting in the library, homework spread out around me, playing a game on my laptop. I couldn’t talk my traitorous brain into engaging in sustained higher-level thinking.
I’ve had extended periods in which I felt, if not in complete control of myself and my cognitive abilities, at least sufficiently in control to feel optimistic about the work I was doing. I felt that everything might work out for me. These positive periods have been checkered with extended periods in which it was a daily struggle to complete the bare minimum to keep me moving forward. These “funks” have lasted entire semesters and longer.
Most recently, I had a semester off. I was done with my coursework, and I got off from teaching. It was a special chance to conduct research and to spend an extended period working on nothing but my dissertation.
I accomplished almost nothing. Or at least it felt that way. My “funk” was so bad that I gave myself a deadline: get it together and get productive by this arbitrary date or set an appointment at the health center to get back on medication.
I made the appointment. And, boy, have things changed, not because I’m back on ADHD meds. My doctor listened to me, and said that, if I’ve gotten this far controlling my symptoms myself, what makes me think they are suddenly the problem?
I didn’t have an answer. So, rather than putting me back on stimulants that I didn’t want to be on, that may or may not solve the problem, he suggested I start taking Effexor, even though he’d ruled out depression. That changed everything. I’m not sure what was/is wrong with me — all I know is that the Effexor fixes it.
At the same time that I started treatment, I also taught a class for the first time — the fulfillment of a goal I’ve had for more than 10 years. So in my academic career, I’ve gone from ready to quit and walk away, to being re-energized, re-motivated, and recommitted to the dream of earning a Ph.D., which I’ve been working toward for six years now.
I have one more year to go. Let’s hope I can ride this wave I’m on right up to graduation and beyond, into a job that I’ll love and a life that I’ll feel proud to live.
Updated on April 28, 2021