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Tips: Tips for PhD students with dyslexia

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Tips for PhD students with dyslexia

Dyslexia is considered to be an invisible learning disability which is estimated to affect one in six people in the UK. Traditionally associated with bad spelling, dyslexia can also affect areas such as time management and transferring complex ideas to paper. Even mild dyslexia can be a big obstacle for PhD students, since they need to process a large number of research papers and produce a lot of written work.

I have compiled a list of pointers which I hope will be useful for PhD students with dyslexia.

Possible symptoms of dyslexia

People with dyslexia tend to have a varied set of symptoms. Some of these might be:

  • You find it difficult or are slow to put anything regarding your research into writing.
  • You are either a slow reader or don't like reading for pleasure.
  • You are bad at reading aloud.
  • Your spelling can be very bad on some days.
  • You sometimes get muddled with words (eg. “mechanical gardens” instead of “botanical gardens”).
  • You are bad at managing your time or find it difficult to stay within deadlines.
  • You hate filling in forms.
  • You are not very good at project management.
  • You are left-handed.
  • You might suffer from bad hand-foot coordination.
  • You are a very visual person.
  • If you agree with more than 4 points there is a good chance that you might have dyslexia. In this case I suggest arranging to see an educational psychologist who would be able to run some tests.

Support for PhD students with dyslexia

Your first port of call should be your university's disability office. Dyslexia is the most common disability at university, so they will be very experienced. They will be able to refer you to an educational psychologist for testing and tell you what support the university can provide. This might also include a grant that covers the cost of a laptop, special software and proofreading fees.

Some of the support offered might be tailored towards undergraduate students, since dyslexia is rarer amongst postgraduate students. You therefore might need to do some extra research into what support is available. If you are receiving funding from a research council, then they might also be able to provide you with advice.

Many universities also provide workshops on writing a thesis, project management and time management. Although these are not specifically for people with dyslexia, they are nonetheless very helpful.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping is a powerful technique for bringing ideas together in a structured manner. If you find it difficult to put your ideas down on paper, then you might find this useful. The idea originated from Tony Buzan and his book The Mind Map Book.

There are also many free tools out there for drawing mind maps on a computer. Two of these are Freemind and VYM. Inspirations is a commercial product worth mentioning.

Use a proofreader

If spelling is an issue, then asking someone to check over your written work is a very good idea. This can be done by friends, family or a professional. Using a professional proofreader is advisable because you will have peace of mind that the work is free of mistakes. The cost for this is reasonable and can often be covered by funding, a dyslexia grant or by your research group. You can talk to your supervisor about this.

Time management

Dyslexia doesn't need to affect the quality of your research, but it can mean that you need more time to prepare your notes and papers. Time management is a good starting point to get more hours out of the day. A book which has been recommended by one of my dyslexic clients is Time Gym: Give me Time.

Choosing the right attitude

Doing a PhD is a daunting prospect even without having dyslexia. What attitude you adopt can play a big part in how well you manage with this additional obstacle.

Every person is different, but here is a generalised sequence of emotional states:

  • Shock: If you've only just found out that you have dyslexia, then a lot in your past might start making sense. There might be regret that you didn't realise this earlier. You might feel disadvantaged or frustrated. You might find it unfair or even feel isolated because it is difficult for others to fully understand why you find some simple things difficult.
  • Embracement: Dyslexia is only one side of a coin. The other side is that you might be very creative, and have a different way of viewing the world.
  • Acceptance: Having dyslexia can be frustrating, embarrassing or painful, particularly at a young age. This can result in a dislike for reading or spelling. There is a stage of making peace with all these things before moving on to the next stage.
  • Moving forward: Once you have got over having dyslexic tendencies (notice the choice in words), you can truly get on with things. This means focusing on getting things done and working out what works for you.

Advice for supervisors

If one of your students has dyslexia, then these might be some things you can help them with:

  • Make sure they are getting all the support the university can offer them.
  • Offer to help fill in the forms to apply for additional dyslexia grants, or delegate this task to the research group's administrative staff.
  • Encourage the student to use a professional proofreader.
  • You can help your student by giving them a comprehensive overview of the research field. Try to avoid giving them a big stack of papers to read through.
  • A student with dyslexia might struggle to understand what they need to do to get their work published by merely reading published work. Try to encourage your student to attend a conference as soon as possible. Not only will this help them put faces to papers, but they will also get a better 'feel' for what it takes to make a contribution to research.
  • Many dyslexic students benefit from subtle changes in their working environment. This could be a quieter space to work in or access to their own white board. A good value option is Magic Whiteboard.

The bottom line

Dyslexia can be an annoying handicap when working towards a PhD, however the sooner you tackle it head on, the sooner you will be able to make progress. I hope some of the pointers in the article were helpful.

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