7 mins read 14 Apr 2021

Learning to live with my ADHD in Academia

Across the Australian space community, academics play a large role in our research fields, which often demand long hours, time away from family and sacrifices made across our mental health care. Now, Curtin University Ph.D student, Kat Ross, shares her own experience dealing with ADHD in her astrophysics academic journey.

Credit: ADDitude.

The unruly boy in class, distracting others, class clown, won’t sit down and work. 

This was the view of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) I always held and I do not relate to it at all, so I was shocked to learn I have ADHD.

In high school, I was always described as a “gifted student”, passionate about learning, great at balancing many extracurriculars and always an active member in clubs and sports. I couldn’t have been further from the ADHD stereotype.

In my undergraduate days, all of a sudden I found it impossible to keep up. Forgetting assignments, missing deadlines, unable to schedule around multiple different subjects, constantly losing focus in a lecture no matter how hard I tried and unable to catch up when I zone back in. 

I always felt like I was hypercharged, running around so fast and still only barely keeping up with everyone. 

In my PhD, I’ve had debilitating feelings of shame and guilt almost every day because I just couldn’t seem to pick a task and stick to it.

But here’s the thing, I’ve always wanted to do the task, but just couldn’t.

For me, ADHD feels like having 20 different TV’s on all at once and then trying to pick one and ignore the rest.  

My late diagnosis has meant I internalised all my struggles and blamed myself for it. Looking around and seeing no one else having the same struggle just confirmed my worst fears and fueled my Imposter Syndrome. I could tell something was wrong, something was broken, but the only explanation was that I must be the cause.

I learned that the way I felt was common for people with ADHD - especially women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB). On the other hand, men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB)  often exhibit the “typical” set of symptoms (poor concentration, disruptive in class, etc)  are more likely to get diagnosed early and therefore treated early. But women and AFAB with inattentive symptoms get pigeonholed as gifted, or well-mannered, or any array of traits that are allowed for women to be. And then diagnosis doesn’t happen until much later, usually when life has spiralled out of control.

My first reaction to getting a diagnosis was overwhelming anger. Anger that there was another thing I have to overcome in my PhD. Anger that I spent so long believing that the problem was me, not a system made by (and for) neurotypical people. Anger that a career in academia now just seemed unattainable because I’d been medically diagnosed as having “poor focus wild child syndrome”. 

As it turns out, this perception of ADHD--being an uncontrollable boy in class--is steeped in sexism and incorrect stereotypes. 

The more I learn about how my ADHD works, the more I realise many of the struggles I’ve had in my career have been self-inflicted. They came from a perception that there is “one mould” of scientist, there is one way to approach problems and find solutions, one way to think and work as a scientist. When I looked around and saw everyone behaving in the same way, I assumed I had to do the same to succeed. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

So many of my ADHD traits actually help to make me a better scientist. I am able to remember absurd amounts of facts and details relating to a specific topic, I often make obscure seemingly unrelated connections, have creative problem-solving skills, love learning new techniques and skills, and working on multiple projects. 

Most of all, I have a huge passion for everything I do and will devote everything I have to a project I’m interested in and care about.

For so long, I’ve done things against my natural instincts and struggled as a result. Getting a diagnosis for ADHD has finally explained why the “mould” didn’t work for me, and I am now learning to accept my differences and embrace the unique way my brain works. 

I cannot wait to see just what I can achieve when I work with my ADHD. 

Finding Your Best Solution

ADHD can present differently from person to person, not to mention, there are 3 main categories of ADHD: hyperactive, inattentive and a combination. While ADHD for me feels like a constant crowd or swarm of bees in my head, this may not be the case for others. Not to mention, there is also a lot of overlap with other neurodivergent conditions, like Autism, which can show similar signs. If this article sounds similar to your personal experience, here are a few other symptoms I have personally identified with: 

  • Impulsiveness: Saying yes to more projects than I can handle because I am too excited about the project to say no and don’t consider the consequences until it’s too late.

  • Environment irritation: Bright or flickering lights or loud keyboards can be overwhelming and sometimes physically painful. Sometimes whether I want to or not, my brain has decided to pay attention to a conversation on the other side of the office rather than my own work and it’s impossible to switch tasks. 

  • Zoning out: Listening to talks and getting carried away with your own train of thoughts (often they’re even related to the topic) then “zoning back” unsure of how long you weren’t paying attention

  • Organisation: Either a severe “over-organisation” or complete “lack of organisation”. I constantly try new tools or programmes meant to help keep track of tasks and prioritise projects but forget about the programme the second I find a new one. Ultimately, I end up with most of my notes and To-Do lists spread around 5 different systems. Likewise, using things like sticky notes to remind you of things otherwise you may completely forget when you can’t see a constant visual reminder.

  • Auditory processing: I really struggle to process auditory information. I always use subtitles, prefer instructions being written down rather than verbally explained, and often find myself repeating “what?”, “huh?” “sorry, I missed that, could you repeat it, please?”. 

Self-diagnosis is a large part of late ADHD diagnosis. Reading online about common symptoms and personal experiences can be incredibly useful to help someone determine if it is something they relate to. If you are interested in pursuing whether you may have ADHD, talking with your GP or therapist about the next steps is always the best way to start, and is where I started my ADHD diagnosis journey. I also recommend talking with supervisors and coming up with an action plan about how you can accommodate your brain and advocate for the things that will help you the most. 

A good place to start reading more

If you, or anyone you know, would like to seek further assistance with a professional organisation with matters relating (but not limited) to this article, please see this comprehensive list of health services across Australia for further contact information.

Kathryn Ross

Growing up, Kat used to watch the International Space Station going overhead with her family. Until she learned people live inside it and she became forever terrified of poop falling on her head from space. Thankfully, today Kat’s skills at staring up into the Universe have improved significantly.

She is now a Ph.D. candidate at Curtin University studying the baby black holes in the centres of distant galaxies trying to understand galaxy evolution and the history of our Universe. Kat has a background in optical interferometry of red giant stars, dark matter content of galaxies and physics education research. She is an activist for Women In STEM and works as a science communicator when not staring at distant baby black holes or fleeing from space poop.

Twitter: @astro_katross