I received this question recently from a reader. Here is how I replied. I also made this video if you’d prefer to hear my thoughts that way. This post and the video are not exactly the same.
First of all, I'm only slightly “on the spectrum,” if that’s even a thing in this context. I don’t pretend to know anything about clinical psychology. For instance, I’m not even sure if ADHD is maybe one of those made-up conditions that just medicalizes common difficulties, and then everyone seeks a diagnosis for it. I’m sure Scott Alexander has a post on it somewhere, but I haven’t looked because I’m too lazy and would not want to lose an opportunity to opine (how’s that for an epistemic status?). So if ADHD is just another one of these dubious fabrications of the DSM, then what follows will just be my answer to the question “Can you do a PhD if you are easily distracted and/or struggle to do what you’re told and/or procrastinate badly?” I have struggled with enough ADHD symptoms to know at least a thing or two about them — i.e., I follow the ADHD subreddit and frequently recognize myself in it — but I must admit they’ve never been a major debilitating problem for me… So if you have it bad, then I would not expect my input to help you necessarily. It should be obvious none of this is clinical advice. These are just some personal reflections based on my experience.
I think I've learned to hack my rhythms pretty well. Within a big hard goal (getting a PhD), if you find things that make you enthusiastic, you can trick yourself into being really productive by not doing the things you're supposed to, but doing what makes you enthusiastic instead. I have no idea if this makes sense clinically, but that's the best way I can summarize my method. So in grad school I was constantly slacking on my assignments and required readings, and instead I allowed myself to read and work on whatever I felt like — and the reason this worked (none of my profs would remember me as ever slacking on assignments or readings) was that, since I felt like I was fucking off on my responsibilities, it felt fun. Therefore, I could do like probably 5x more and/or better than what the other students could do by just obeying orders. The trick is cultivating interests and enthusiasms that are just proximate enough to what you’re supposed to be doing, that something within the 5x output of your boondoggles can be wrangled into an impressive completion of the assignment or comment on the assigned readings. (I went to a good but mid-tier public research university; at elite schools this hyperactivity quotient will not be as impressive, relatively, because the median student works way harder than at middle-tier universities; so my strategy might be uniquely effective at mid-tier schools, where there is a big gap between median student performance and what the Ivy-trained profs would like to see). If you can do this strategy, you also have a good chance of cultivating a particularly original trajectory, for obvious reasons. You also benefit from the informal social powers that come from being genuinely interested in your work; you seem more authentically engaged, you’ll speak more energetically, and seem more intense and sophisticated than the other students just obeying orders. Of course, it’s risky, because if you go too far out into orbit, you might just become a crank who all the profs and students roll their eyes at. Which one of these two types was I? Which one am I? The jury is still out on that one, but I was one of the only students in my cohort to get a permanent research-based academic appointment. So I did something right.
In short, you allow the ADHD tendencies to do whatever work they will let you do, and then just fake everything else. But as you go, you organize all your fragmented ADHD enthusiasms into a larger narrative that makes sense out of the work you have been doing. Given that the big challenge of a PhD is precisely this — crafting an original narrative about who you are and what you are working on, why it’s important and why someone should hire you, etc. — I actually think think this hacked ADHD strategy can be a strange advantage. Because you are forced to get good at spinning your absurd distractions into an impressive finished project, from the very beginning, whereas the more conscientious students don’t have to work that muscle until they get ready for the job market. Your very first term paper will already be an audacious feat of self-serving dissimulation, as you’ll be forced to furnish a display of coherent intelligence with nothing more at your disposal than a few months’ worth of chaotic digressions. By the time you’re done with the PhD, you’ll probably have way more practice than the other students.
Another thing I should mention is that my PhD was in the social sciences, and my strategic advice would presumably apply way less in the hard sciences. To be fair, I was trained in the harder wings of the social sciences, by hard social scientists. But still. A Phd in the social sciences or humanities is not rocket science. You have to read tons, or at least be able to talk about books you're supposed to have read, and you need to ultimately write a ~150-400 paged thing with a beginning, middle, and an end. But the truth is, it really doesn't have to be very good, and nobody will ever read it. Mind you, I have supervised PhD students as well. Of course, succeeding in academia is a whole different game than simply completing a PhD; getting an academic job is much, much harder, but doing a PhD in the social science is not very hard so long as you basically like to read anything and can force yourself to write anything in a semi-disciplined way for a few months in a row, a few separate times. This point is crucial for understanding the viability of my strategy. Nobody really cares what your dissertation is about, so long as you can produce a long document that makes decent sense and cites certain people. So as long as you can convert your distracted enthusiasms into text, there will exist some way for you to rearrange that text into a passable dissertation.
I suppose I have many more dubious bits of highly conditional advice on grad school and academia questions, if you want to try me.