Graduate School Productivity Support Club

by Melissa Smith - Wed, 15 Mar 2023

Graduate school is hard.

Of course, it's designed to be rigorous and intense and requires mastery of a massive chunk of prerequisite knowledge.

But it is not just academically difficult. It requires a level of focus, self-direction, self-management, and discipline that many students have not yet encountered. And there are new, more demanding roles that graduate students must learn to perform while juggling each role: student, TA, researcher, writer, advisee, spouse, partner, and/or parent.

Many neurodivergent students love the intensity and subject matter but grapple with these increased demands on executive functioning skills. Many of us thrived in the structure of grade school, high school, and undergrad, only to be in a free fall in the vacuum of graduate school. It can become a vicious cycle: the pressure of graduate school builds stress that saps what executive functioning skills we do have, which of course creates more stress.

Worse yet, some students don’t fully understand that they’ve had lifelong struggles with executive functioning issues until they are mired in problems. Perhaps they are incredibly smart, which has always been enough to get them through their undergraduate exams, papers, and projects (sometimes with an extension or three). But graduate school brings these high pressure, competing roles that make prioritization so much more complicated.

Here are some examples of how executive functioning difficulties can impact graduate life:

Executive Functioning Skill
Example challenge for graduate students
Planning and prioritizing Difficulty balancing the roles and vague deadlines of advanced coursework, TA duties, independent research, and paper submissions.
Organization of materials Gets buried under a massive pile of source materials or undergraduate requests for help.
Time Management Starts the day intending to work on their thesis, but it somehow never happens.
Motivation Trouble starting work for the day.
Self-Monitoring and metacognition Explores research rabbit holes that are fascinating but not especially useful.
Inhibition and impulse control Gets distracted by every single office visitor and interruption.
Emotional control Difficulty managing frustration and shame around lack of perceived progress.
Sustained attention Struggles to slog through tedious parts of research.
Task Initiation Very hard to open the thesis document. So hard.
Flexibility May struggle to pivot when a research idea fizzles out or advisor recommends a different direction.
Goal-Directed persistence Can’t… keep… thesising…
Stress tolerance May melt down because progress seems hopeless.

All too often it can feel like we "just aren't cut out for graduate school" or like it is a personal failure that we struggle so much with the calculus of competing roles and priorities. But scaffolding and support can decrease the pressure and make the challenges less isolating and more manageable. Connecting with other students with similar struggles can be incredibly reassuring, especially if it feels like all the other students in your program are time management wizards.

Neurodivergent students are not deliberately self-sabotaging. We just need instruction and support to learn the unique tools and strategies that suit our magnificent, creative, and insightful brains.

During my own miserable graduate school experience, I didn’t know I was autistic and had ADHD. I struggled and ultimately exited the program with a master's degree instead of being able to pursue a PhD. The experience rattled my self confidence, and my career has suffered for it. In the decades since, I’ve learned so much about my neurology and habits that could have helped.

I want to help other neurodivergent students succeed where I failed, so I am launching an online support program to share useful productivity strategies, provide structure and mini-commitments to make huge long-term goals manageable, and actively listen to help the current generation of students tackle today's problems.

If you are currently in graduate school or completing post graduate work, you are invited to participate in a free pilot version of an online support program for neurodivergent students. If you’re a professor or administrator who knows struggling students, please share this opportunity directly with your students. And please connect with me to build support for strugglng students across your university. My program will include:

  • Regularly scheduled co-working hours with built-in rewards and opportunities to ask for help.
  • An online Discord community where neurodivergent graduate students can connect with their peers to feel less alone in their struggles.
  • Articles that teach useful strategies for navigating executive functioning problems.
  • Support and tools for switching between the roles and rhythms of studying, researching, handling TA duties, writing, and sustaining a personal life.
  • Strategies for reverse engineering your looming thesis project into manageable chunks that are easy to tackle each day.
  • Presentations and support sessions including experimenting with different time management tools and learning emotional regulation skills that underpin executive functioning.

The pilot will run from Spring 2023 through the end of summer. If you are interested, please email Please include the degree you are pursuing and describe one or two of the specific struggles you have.

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