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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Disabled in Grad School: Flexibility

Navigating a flexible schedule as someone with a disability in graduate school.


May 8, 2018

Alyssa is an Autistic doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

In grad school, students tend to have fairly flexible schedules, which can be both good and bad. For example, it can mean we have more time to get ourselves to conferences, which is nice. However, it's not unusual for graduate students to work (or at least be at work) more than 40 hours per week. That's neither efficient nor particularly sustainable.

Getting into disability-related issues, there are even more reasons that a flexible schedule can be both good and bad.

Advantage: If something goes wrong, I can probably just go home. I'm autistic, and I've got sensory processing issues. If there is construction going on next to my lab, I can't be there. I really, really can't. Thankfully, no one's going to argue if I go home early, as long as I get my work done when it needs to be done.

Disadvantage: That flexibility means there's less pressure to prevent future issues. I'm still going to do my best to avoid problems before they happen. Sure, I can go home if there's construction going on next to my lab. I can go home if there's explosion testing downstairs from the classroom where I'm teaching. Sometimes (not always), I can even get out before I'm completely fried. Then I'll get work done at home. This means, however, other people aren't seeing the full effects of whatever caused my problem, and they may not fully understand just how important it is to not expose me to inaccessible environments in the first place. They also may help me avoid the inaccessible environment rather than making it more accessible to me.

Advantage: If I can get the work done in shorter bursts, that's OK. No one really checks which hours we're working, usually. If I can maintain my focus for a few hours and get a lot done in that time and then rest, that's great! Being efficient with the time I spend working and therefore spending less time working overall is basically how I manage graduate school.

Disadvantage: There's less structure and therefore fewer checks on my executive dysfunction. Putting me in a situation where the easiest thing for me to do is work increases the likelihood that I'll get work done. So, stick me in a library where I don't have internet access for a couple hours between classes, and my homework will get done. (This is something that actually helped me when I studied in Tianjin.) Without this sort of structure, maintaining my focus for a few good hours is hard. It's probably hard for all graduate students, whether or not we also have executive functioning issues. I do, though, so if you don't, multiply your difficulties staying on task by needing several tries to make tea (which is a task they're apparently looking at as a measure of executive functioning now. Oops!) In any case, without classes to structure my day or deadlines to give me adrenaline-fueled bursts of good focus, I could be in trouble.

How has flexibility in your schedule made your life easier? Harder?

[Image courtesy of Raw Pixel under a Creative Commons license]


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