Earning a PHD is hard. REALLY hard. My advisor recently told me that if I ever met someone who had an easy time writing their dissertation, they were lying.
This is a process that is supposed to fundamentally alter your thought processes. You become a scientist. It is exhilarating. It is hard. And if you have dyslexia it is even tougher. Though not impossible.
I wrote about my dyslexia story here. But for this discussion it is important to note that I was never identified as a Dyslexic in school, and I never had enough money to go to the doctor in order to justify receiving accommodations. Therefore, all the things I have done in grad school to survive have been done without access to my school’s Disability Services, and without disclosing my neurodiversity to my advisors.
Here are some strategies I have found useful in order to survive.
1. Be Self-Aware
Before you start your PhD (or as you are completing your degree), you need to take time to understand yourself. Are you the type of person that requires a lot of structure in order to focus? Do you need a lot of flexibility?
Yes – writing and reading can be challenging. But, how much does it cost you to be involved in these activities? Does it deplete you and do you require days to recover? Does it give you a headache but otherwise you are fine?
Not all PhDs require as much writing and reading as those in the social sciences. There are plenty of PhDs that have a stronger focus on quantitative analyses or physical experiments. But they will all require you to write a dissertation.
You must take time to know yourself and think about what you will need to succeed. Because at the end of the day, it is you who will have to do all the work and who will have to seek out help. It is very rare that resources will be handed to you without asking.
2. Understand the Environment
Not all schools are created equal. Some you will find are reluctantly acceptant (as mandated by law), and others truly embrace neurodiversity. Others might have the best of intentions, but fail in understanding and executing how to help people like you and me.
It is absolutely crucial that you understand the kind of institution you are in. But most importantly, the type of department you belong to. They have the greatest impact in your journey as a PhD Student.
You must understand your environment in order to make an informed decision about if or how to disclose your neurodiversity. Failure to do this can put you in a difficult situation.
3. Understand Your Fit
In a perfect world, as you apply for a PhD you will have a few choices. Then you will talk with students and faculty, and decide if the program is a good fit.
If you are in a program that is not the right fit, then you will have to make some adjustments in how you seek resources and manage your work.
4. Seek Campus Resources
If you have paperwork, reach out to your University’s disability office. They will help you get the accommodations that you need and deserve. Most of these resources are at the University level. There are usually no specialized offices in Schools/Colleges or their departments.
If, like me, you do not have paperwork, you may still be able to reach out to your office. However, some of the accommodations might not be available to you.
Another common campus resource is the writing center. While they usually cannot copyedit your work, they can help you make sure your writing is clear. If you are the type of person that needs external structure, writing centers usually have writing groups you can join.
5. Get the Tools you Need
In general, you want to make sure that you have the tools that can accomplish the following things:
- Scan books and articles to make them into PDF files
- Run an Optical Character Recognition on the PDF files
- Use text-to-speech on those PDF files
I accomplish all of those with my Mac. It has a simple text-to-speech interface, different voices, and different speeds. The main limitation is that the speed is a bit slow. But I am a poor student – no money for fancy software.
I also use, on occasion, dictation included on my Mac. This is difficult for me since I have an accent (as I was born and raised in Mexico).
6. Be Prepared to Work & Manage Up
My general rule of thumb is that I have to work twice as hard for twice as long in order to accomplish my assignments.
When I meet with faculty members, they have ideas as to how long an assignment should take. I am always careful to manage their expectations. I am realistic in how long something will take to complete and when they will have new things from me.
7. Stay Up-to-Date
In business as in real life, deciding on a course of action and following through are not the only requirements for success. You must continue to be self-aware and seek out new or more resources as you embark on this journey.
You must also continue to understand your environment so that you may respond accordingly. Has your situation changed? Do you need different kinds of support? Has your department changed? Are there new faculty members? Do you disclose to them too?
Only by keeping up with steps one and two can you continue to update your strategies to make it through the PhD!
8. Be Kind to Yourself
As I said at the beginning, EVERYONE has a difficult time doing a PhD. Celebrate the small victories and remember that everyone who has a PhD now once was exactly where you are.
Yes – this is hard (for everyone). Yes – this will be challenging for you (in particular). But YOU CAN DO IT!