Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Psychology and Research

Major Professor

Qi Sun

Committee Members

Qi Sun, Mitsunori Misawa, Merilee McCurdy, Sandra Thomas


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) rates have been increasing, and while adult learners with ADHD have maintained some success to get to college, they still underperform their non-ADHD peers despite having normal intelligence. There is some research on the impact ADHD has on adult learners as they enter college, but there is little research on how ADHD impacts graduate students seeking to continue their education. Given the fact that this population of adult learner is still struggling, it begs the question, why? And what can be done about it? The purpose of this study was to understand the essence of the lived experiences of graduate students with ADHD as they navigate their way through their graduate programs. Using a phenomenological approach, open-ended interviews were conducted with nine female participants via Zoom. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and then analyzed utilizing the phenomenological method used at the University of Tennessee and defined by Thomas and Pollio. This method is based on the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and looks at participant experience through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of world, body, others, and time. Three global themes emerged from the study: Just a little bit extra, I always felt I was going to fail, and they don’t understand. Findings revealed that despite most participants maintaining high GPAs, the level of struggle they face is not evident through academic measurements. This was not previously known in the research about what it’s like to be a female graduate student with ADHD. The pressure of graduate school appears to be overloading their ability to cope; causing emotional distress, impairment, and poor quality of life; and fear of disclosing their ADHD and seeking support. Despite this, all nine participants have chosen their degree programs to help others in similar situations. This study offers a window into the struggles and perseverance of these participants and others like them, and has implications for higher education, university disability services, policy makers at all levels, and research in how adult learners with ADHD can successfully obtain a graduate education.

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