PhD Dropout

Hi Brains.

I’m a 36 yo man living in Indianapolis. Growing up I was always labelled as smart but lazy. I’d ace tests, but rarely turned in my homework on time. I gravitated toward art and science classes, but barely passed anything to do with English or math… endless grammar exercises and math problems… I barely made it through high school, and began college at a non-traditional, satellite campus of IU.

I was always told I just needed to work harder. So I did. When I got to college I excelled. I tested out of algebra, even though I skipped equivalent courses in high school. English composition was no problem for me. I got straight A’s in my first semester. And continued to do well. Of course, I changed majors from Graphic Design to Biology in my second year. Then moved to the school’s main campus. Did well, but wound up bored with my choice of major and struggled to find a passion in it. I got through, but I was working 2-3 times as hard as other students, I was always working on things, everything, last minute, and barely had a social life, job, or other activities except the gym a couple nights a week. In my fifth and final year, I found a passion for Evolutionary biology. So, when graduation was looming and I had no other ambitions or job prospects (let alone internship experience), I decided I’d continue on to grad school and study evolutionary biology after a two year stint as a lab tech to get some research experience.

The first couple years were great. Exchanging big exciting ideas and socializing with really intelligent people. It was challenging, tons of fun, and really engaging and fulfilling. I picked an advisor and got settled into his lab with a project. Then changed my project at the end of the second year. I pulled so many all-nighters to get things done. I felt like I was really doing well. I was motivated and accomplishing goals. But it still seemed like everyone around me was getting a little more done and living a little more fully. The woman that finished in just four years after giving birth to her first born in her third year… I thought she was competitive and lucky. While my friends were finishing their dissertations in my fifth year. I was starting to deal with anxiety and depression. I started going to therapy. I blamed it on too much socializing and drinking. I was starting to get into financial trouble. My credit cards were maxed out and the grace period on some of my student loans expired and I couldn’t catch up on a grad student stipend. My advisor was getting impatient with my lack of progress. He and I both managed to get funding for my project despite massive budget cuts that year. Yet I was struggling to get things done. I was missing deadlines and meetings. We tried every form of scheduling, goal setting, and organizational tactic while papers just piled up on my desk and was spending more time at home reading, sleeping too late, not coming in. One day I actually made it in, my advisor approached me and asked me if everything was alright. Apparently my mother had called the university to ask my whereabouts because I hadn’t answered any of her texts or phone calls for weeks. I’d go to meet friends at our usual hangouts and they’d ask “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in like two months.”

I was putting all I had into this PhD, but all that happened was I seemed to be getting increasingly depressed, broke, and socially isolated, but really good at sudoku and discovered a deep fondness for fantasy novels.

In the middle of my sixth year, I decided to leave. I stayed on for a few months to tie up some loose ends that never got tied up while I was there. Then at 31, I moved back in with my parents.

After a month of applying to jobs I thought I’d qualify for with my Master’s degree (aka consolation prize) I swallowed a lot of pride and began working at an Amazon warehouse during the peak holiday season. I stayed there for 2.5 years because I couldn’t find a job description that matched an evolutionary geneticist with more experience writing computer programming than working on genetics research. When some hiring manager saw some potential in me and gave me a chance, I’d typically choke in the interview because I wasn’t a good fit for the role, I was carrying around tons of insecurity because I knew about the duties of the roles, but I wasn’t really experienced with them. Let alone, I was doing the dumbest, simplest type of manual labor, and still I constantly made mistakes. Forget that I had a master’s, knew four different computer languages, and could get federal research grants, it seemed like I could barely enter the right numbers into a barcode scanner. Eventually I did move out of my parents’ place… and I can’t even get into how difficult living with them was… but my financial situation was getting way worse.

After 2.5 years of hanging on, grinding it out, and hoping for a breakthrough, I went back to school at a community college to learn to be a machinist. Now my classmates were chain smoking ex-cons (no judgment if you are, some of these guys were alright) instead of the bright ambitious young scientists I knew in grad school. After one semester I landed my current job. It’s not bad. I never show up at the same time every day, but we rarely deal with hard deadlines and I’m valued there. I still make stupid little mistakes when I’m not paying attention (which is often), but I still perform well.

But, I want to be doing so much better. I can be doing so much better. Why am I not doing so much better?

I am pretty sure it’s because I’ve been dealing with undiagnosed ADHD all my life. I think my academic performance masked the reality of what I’ve been dealing with. I think my parents were dismissive of ADD or ADHD as a source of the problem. As have I, especially when I compare my behavior to others I’ve known to have ADHD, those hyperactive, rowdy boys over there… who by the way finished their worksheets way ahead of me. I’m just introverted and I get distracted by my thoughts and imagination, interesting ideas, or books. I get distracted by constructive activities (most of the time) so it looks like I’m doing well. But, to really succeed at anything, you have to get through the drudgery. You have to practice the math problems if you want to answer a big interesting research question. You have to stay organized, and make schedules, and show up on time. You have to respond in a timely manner to texts, emails, and phone calls. But I just can’t, or rarely can.

It was only a couple of days ago I came across a youtube video with a psychiatrist who described ADHD in more detail and with better nuance than the mayo clinic’s ADHD pages or psychology today or whatever simple list of traits described in simple language vaguely defines the disorder. And for the first time I considered ADHD as the source of my problems seriously, and realized “Yes, that describes me.” While I was at work that night, I snuck away to a computer to request an appointment with a psychiatrist who works with ADHD in adults.

I have a preliminary visit with a counsellor scheduled for one month from now. I want to verify this self-diagnosis and see if knowledge, medication, and therapy can help me turn my life back to the path I was on before, and do it right. In the mean time, I want to meet others with experience dealing with ADHD and learn about the path to diagnosis, treatment, and beyond.

If you’re still with me thanks for reading. I was supposed to get on my exercise bike an hour ago.

PS. Where are all the cat gifs? Are they banned from this forum? :laughing:


I think being bright can mask ADHD through childhood.

I did really well in elementary and high school, because I could get things done quickly at the last minute. In university where I had a lot more responsibility I started struggling badly. Now a rather large portion of my friends and acquaintances are getting diagnosed in their 30s.

Good luck with your appointment!

ETA: I ended up working as a programmer even though that isn’t what I took at university. Programming seems to attract ADHD types. Quite a few of my coworkers seem like they might have it.


Wow that’s quite a story. I skimmed through it to be honest. I’m way past my bedtime. Looks like you’re spot on with that self assessment so far! Congrats on that! I hope things will clear up for you!

I quit my programming job a couple of years ago for something completely different. (I’m a dental technician now) I still fool around working on mods for Farming Simulator in my spare time.


I think programming computers could be like a therapy for people with ADHD because it forces you to learn to break problems into logical chunks. And then you have an organized list of steps that become satisfying to check off.

I think the hardest part with me was learning to program. Some languages have a really high learning curve. I managed to learn enough C++ (one such language) during grad school but my solution for getting motivation and momentum to get started was to learn about video game programming. Ha. Then later on while trying to get my research done I sidetracked myself by reading books about game development, I got interested in that as a potential alternative career path and it became a distracting hobby… I acutally tried to develop a couple of small puzzle games during that period.

A week ago, I’d be beating myself up… “What was I thinking? Developing games in the middle of a PhD… Idiot! No wonder you couldn’t finish.” Now that I can frame this as a person with ADHD not realizing what’s going on I can laugh at myself and forgive it as just a mistake.

These days I’m working on an online course in electrical engineering to try to use some of those old coding skills and computer knowledge and reboot my career. A few minutes ago I was watching a video lecture and while the prof. was talking over a slide with schematics and equations, mostly I just heard the birds chirping outside and the neighbors talking on the other side of the wall. The solution for this is to pause the video, copy the slide and take all the notes I can in as much time as I want. Which is what I should be doing right now instead of writing a four paragraph response to a post on an ADHD forum.

Okay. I’ll be back later.


I have a tip based on personal experience: when you get your diagnosis (OK, I’m not a doctor do I should say IF, but hey, personal experience again😅), anyway:

Use it to get any counselling and or coaching that may be covered by your insurance. Not all of these ‘mistakes’ were mistakes. Understanding and acceptance of how you have operated in the past will help you to move forward with more control over your future.

One of the ‘mistakes’ I made early on in life was reading books from a gay bookshop when I was supposed to be revising for my o- levels (major national exams at the age of 15/16 in the UK, since replaced by gcse exams). One of those books was a first hand account of (a gay man) living through the Nazi concentration camps. It made a deep impression on me and has been useful many many times since. Even the timing of when I read it turned out good.

Probably partially because I was in the class, asking questions all the time, our history teacher didn’t get us to the end of the (huge) syllabus. We only got as far as the causes of WWII, not the war years and the camps. The exam paper always had tons of optional questions, so no big deal in terms of how prepared we were for the exam. My teacher asked us after the exam which optional questions we had chosen, and was shocked, horrified even, when I told her I had done the one on the legal framework for the Holocaust.

‘But we haven’t DONE the Holocaust!’ she said, with panic starting to show. ‘I know,’ I said, ‘but when everyone else was revising, I read this brilliant book about the camps, which went into detail of how it all happened and what the consequences were. I put in loads of quotes and everything’. The results came in 3 months later, and I got an A. The teacher was still surprised.

So, the moral of this story is:

  1. You’ll find a use for those abandoned studies etc when you’re least expecting it. Nothing’s a waste of time. Even the sudokus were somehow necessary, and the dropping out. It’s all helped to make you who you are today, ergo it can’t be bad.

  2. Teachers and school are not the only places to acquire knowledge. I know we all know that, but in later life I became a teacher, and if there’s one group of people who are most likely to forget this, it’s teachers. So I like to remind myself of this often, just in case I am stupid enough to forget.

I could give heaps more examples of how mistakes I have made have led me, ultimately, to great things, but I’ll stop here and go and go some work :sweat_smile:

Welcome to the tribe!


Thank you . . .


i wish i could here more of your story about the struggles and how you overcame them at the university doing your masters.
i’m doing my masters and i’m facing the same problems doing my thesis. my instructors think that i’m lazy even though i would be staying all day working but never get it done.



I can share my story, but I’m not sure it will help.

First, I was in a PhD program, and that was the end goal. The program was structured so that if you passed your prelims (we had two), but decided it wasn’t for you you could take a Master’s and leave. So, I’m not sure if coping with that would be the same as doing a Master’s thesis… it might depend on how your program is structured.


I just had the story written out, then realized it didn’t answer your question at all, and the reality is I didn’t overcome anything. For the Master’s I just worked really fucking hard at the end of every deadline because i procrastinated on everything and that happened to be enough to get me through. But, there is no way I could sustain using those tactics in the long run, because the career would have just required more of the same and at no point does it get easier (I went for a PhD because I wanted to be a professor, that might be different for other careers).

What I wish I had:
a proper ADHD diagnosis
working ADHD meds
the self awareness and coaching to help me do what I knew I needed to do on time

And with that, I probably could have gotten my doctorate.


One woman in our program had pretty severe ADHD and she finished her PhD. She had all three of those.


It could. I mean, the analytical skills are very valuable indeed. What I tend to notice is that I myself am inclined to help others with their problems before I tend to my own issues. A bad habit to not have to deal with myself.

So for me, having a hyperfocus on a modding or programming job is also a way to stay away from working on a strategy for my ADHD. And if I look at what my goals are, my efforts should go into adjusting my strategies! And that means, setting a timer to do modding/programming, so it doesn’t get out of hand. (thanks for that lesson @HTADHD Jessica!)

(Again, that’s specifically what I notice in my own behaviour! It’s not what I think you SHOULD be doing perse!) I’m still fumbling and tripping over my own feet at this all the time. Trial and error!

It’s a great way to find a moment to have some structure in my thoughts, when I’m overwhelmed for instance, but for me it’s a major pitfall at the same time.

You may be able to do so too. I switched careers at age… 40+ and I went back to school to learn a completely new skill. (from programmer to dental technician) It was soooooo much fun to be back in school and being able to study and to practice… well okay. to study… practicing was a bit of an issue! (never old enough)

But I made it through! And in those four years… I didn’t fail a single test!
If you have it in you to get that PhD, first step is to get your strategies set up!

GO @chris_tarly GO

ooh I just remembered, when I went to university (I dropped out first year) there were two retired notaries in my class! They had finished their working careers and thought: “let’s learn something new!” How awesome is that?


same here i tend to help other with their problems but not getting my work done. is there an coping mechanisms youd advice me to do.

j tried the timer thing gratefully it gave me a sense of time but i never stick to the time frame and felt it didn’t woke well form me.

now i’m on my meds i hope it will be easier. any advice of your experience would be helpful.


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i do agree with @Carrivs Never too late!
if you’re passionate about it don’t give up yet. one thing my psychiatrist told me and keeps telling me that people whom diagnosed with adhd are high achievers, they are the people of everything and are capable of a lot of things. its just the mater of us wanting it.



Hi @Memi,

With the timer. I have two strategies for that
One is to set a timer about ten minutes before I want to start doing something else. That way, it’s not as forceful and it’s more of an attempt to pry the focus loose before transitioning.

This one came from one of Jessica’s videos:
The other is to set a timer to 25 minutes, and then have 5 minutes to S.T.O.P. (<-- another video of Jessica’s, I’m combining)
(stop, take a breath, observe what your doing, proceed to next (or same) activity) And I repeat that throughout the day. It slowly creates a sense of time. I start realising how long some things take, and it stops me from getting sucked into something. This one especially works when I’m feeling “cloudy/foggy” to begin with.

I’m just experimenting. And it works on some days. (increasingly successful, i’m noticing)




I don’t think I’d bother with another PhD. Not that it’s too late, but there’s nothing I want to do that requires a PhD to do. Worse even, I think part of the big deal with trying for one was just my ego and feeling like I had something to prove… like I’m not lazy and stupid.

So if I put my ego aside, I think I’d be better off doing something else. Another Master’s seems reasonable tho.

I’d narrowed it down recently to electrical engineering, because that seems like a logical overlap of current skills and interests. Now that I’m pursuing an ADHD diagnosis, if meds and therapy help me focus while getting through things that I find too boring, I might have to reconsider some of the options I’ve scratched off the list previously.

Also, @Memi see also the Pomodoro technique for the timer technique.