WTF: Executive Function

Executive function is the set of cognitive functions that enables you to do things.

In broad terms, executive function covers three areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). Together, these three areas make up a lot of what we do. If you haven’t heard the term “executive function” before you might have heard of some of it’s most popular side effects like:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Starting tasks
  • Staying focused on tasks until they’re done
  • Keeping track of what you’re doing

We know that ADHD, OCD, ASD, Anxiety, and Bipolar are all entangled with decreases in executive function.

Many of the most talented academics I know are plagued by executive dysfunction either on its own or as a symptom of one of the above. As a result, we spend a lot of time yelling at our brains to

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In fact, problems with executive function are why I spent ten (10) minutes looking for the *perfect* gif for this piece when a search instantly revealed half a dozen gifs that would be just fine.

While problems with executive function might be part of neurodiversity on your part I’ve long thought that the current structure of PhD programs in the humanities breeds executive dysfunction. After all, part of executive function is being able to prioritize tasks but every humanities PhD student I know feels torn between prioritizing their teaching, research, writing, activism, and self-care. So many of us are doing too much with too little it’s not at all surprising that deciding what to focus on for the hour or the day or the week can seem so challenging.

That is why we are so excited to debut our two-part series for December!

The first part of the series will take place here on the website, with articles about how executive function might be impacting your progress towards your PhD.

The second half of our series will take place on Instagram (search abd2phd) where we are having a Productivity Advent. Every day we will post one small, easily doable goal designed to move you towards measurable progress on your dissertation by Christmas.

Join us!

Surviving Summer: Grow Things

Let me start with something we all know to be true: Graduate students in the humanities are not paid well.

While everyone who has ever talked to a graduate student in the humanities knows that this is true finding the data to back this up is incredibly difficult for a lot of reasons. To get a qualitative sense of how little humanities students are paid check out the comments on this unbearable piece from Chronicle Vitae.

While not paid well at the best of times, many graduate students aren’t paid at all over the summer. Summers in grad school can be hard to survive leaving PhD students with a range of options from ok to awful. I was always very lucky in that I could count on family support in a real pinch. Many people don’t have this option. Some PhD students take out student loans to cover the summer. Still other students take summer jobs to make ends meet. However, these summer jobs often cut into critical research and writing time extending one’s overall time in grad school.

In this series, I’m going to focus on the things that helped make summers as a PhD student better. I had a lot of privileges as a PhD student (I’m white, I’m cis, I was able to buy a house and I had recourse to some family financial support for starters). While I can share a few limited tips I would be grateful to readers who contribute their own tips in the comments!

Finally, I’ll posting a summer survival tip the day after I post something in our ongoing series about abusive advisors. Let’s begin!

Summer Survival Tip 1: Grow Something

Grow whatever you can. Maybe you have the money to invest in a raised bed (if you live near an Aldi they sell a great raised bed kit for $40). Maybe you can put a few containers on your apartment balcony. Maybe you can put a basil plant in a window.

Whatever you can grow, grow it.

It will make a huge difference to your quality of life over the summer. In the beginning of August, when you haven’t been paid in a month or two and you’re living on ramen adding a little fresh basil in there will make your life feel better.

Community gardens have gotten increasingly popular so if you don’t have the space or resources to grow something yourself check the internet to see what churches or community centers have gardens where you can put in a little bit of work to get some fresh produce. No one wants that grad school scurvy.

The town I did my PhD in usually planted edible plants in the decorative planters around downtown. In the middle of summer they would have these huge kale plants and you could steal a few leaves as long as you didn’t decimate one plant–you gotta hit up different planters for your salad. I mean it’s kale, but desperate times and all that.

I’ll just end with this tidbit–all parts of a dandelion are edible and those things are everywhere. Just make sure you wash it thoroughly if you get it from someone else’s property since you don’t know what chemicals they used in their lawn or if their dog peed on it yesterday.