Pen writing with ink

Learning difficulties and PhD life

Shortly after I started my PhD, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, or Developmental Co-ordination Disorder. It’s something I had wondered if I had for a while – I’d always been clumsy, and my handwriting so terrible that I was told by a teacher at school that I would fail my GCSEs if it didn’t improve. At one point, I had to have a brain scan because I couldn’t get my words out correctly – I would have them in the right order in my head, but couldn’t translate them into my speech.

My diagnosis came about because I had recently started a new job cataloguing books at my university’s special collections department, where the majority of my job was reading the title page of a book, and inputting the information on library software programme. But I was finding this difficult, especially with numbers – I’d read a date, say 1865, but I couldn’t make the numbers on the page translate in my head, to put them onto the screen. I’d end up typing something completely different.

Jigsaw puzzle pieces

I found this scary not least because my job depended on my ability to process things I’d read and then input them on the computer, but also because my brain is essentially my office – if something wasn’t right, how could I do my PhD? So, I took the steps needed to get an assessment with my university’s support centre. During this two-hour long session, I had to perform many tasks, but it quickly became apparent that some of them I just couldn’t do. I’d be asked to repeat back a list, but despite hearing the words fine, I couldn’t put them in the right order in my head, or get them out when I had to say them. I was also asked to do one of those exercises you often find on IQ tests, where you’re given a pattern and have to pick from a list what the next logical step in the pattern would be – but they all looked the same to me. After that session, I got the results. Learning that I had dyspraxia was something of a light bulb moment, as it explained so much of what I struggled with.

Once it sunk in, I realised just how much this condition had been affecting me and my PhD – how my ‘normal’ was not the same as everyone else’s. I struggle to write neatly and quickly, so either I write fast and my notes are illegible, or I write slowly and neatly but can’t finish before the thought is on paper. But I have to write things down, because my memory is so poor – often a friend will speak about a conversation or an activity that we did, but I just can’t remember it. I struggle focussing, my thoughts wandering off, or finding distraction in anything other than the thing I’m trying to do. I’m also incredibly anxious, which I’ve realised is strongly related to my inability to speak the words that I’m thinking, and a fear of sounding stupid as a result.

Once I found out what the problem was, though, I could take steps to mediate it. I learnt to focus on the things that I was good at instead. I’m good at organising, so I’ve developed systems to ensure that I don’t forget important things. I type my notes as it’s quicker (not to mention more legible), than writing by hand; I’m poor at verbal communication, but can convey my thoughts much better over text, so I try to do so more often; if I have to speak to a group, or a person I’m not comfortable with, I’ll practice first; if I have to process information given to me verbally, I’ll double check that I’m getting it right.

Sunset over St Andrews Castle

Knowing what it was that was causing me these difficulties was a hugely important step in being able to cope with the challenges that dyspraxia poses, especially in terms of my research, and I’m incredibly thankful that my university had the provision to be able to give me an assessment, and put things in place to reflect my specific needs. It’s a good reminder that, even for lesser-known conditions, support is available, and I encourage everyone who is experiencing difficulties which they think may have an underlying cause, or has a known learning difficulty, to reach out for support. Dyspraxia is something that isn’t often diagnosed in adults, but it’s never too late, as I found out, to get the help you need. Learning difficulties, whether diagnosed or not, shouldn’t stop anyone from reaching their academic potential.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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