This is a guest post by Alex Paquette (he/him), PhD Candidate, in Earth, Energy, and the Environment in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary. Alex works full-time as a Neurodiversity and Work-Integrated Learning Specialist at the Taylor Institute of Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. During his MSc and PhD degrees, Alex was always involved in student leadership as the Co-President of the University of Toronto Mississauga Association of Graduate Students (2016-2017), and the Vice President of Academics of the Graduate Students’ Association at the University of Calgary (2020-2022).

In this blog, I share my story as a late-diagnosed neurodivergent graduate student in STEM navigating academia and also highlight some recent findings from a research team I work with that surveyed thesis-based masters and doctoral students about their experience with supervision at the University of Calgary. In this blog, I include some perspectives from my current role as a Neurodiversity and Work-Integrated Learning Specialist at the University of Calgary. Before going further, I acknowledge that while I identify as neurodivergent and have been formally diagnosed with dyslexia, I can only speak to my experience as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man in the Canadian academic system, and with awareness of the privileges that I have. I recognize that the experiences of other neurodivergent individuals in university may be different.

Let’s start with a little terminology; neurodiversity is a term used to describe differences in the way humans think, learn, and process information. While there may be differences, there is no one way of thinking or processing that is better than another. One of my favourite lines about neurodiversity comes from Harvey Blume (1998) who said in The Atlantic, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?”.

Another prevalent term is neurodivergent, which is sometimes abbreviated as ND. Nick Walker (2021) does a wonderful job explaining this term on her website, stating, “it means having a mind that functions in ways which diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal” (p. 1). Check out Nick’s (2021) awesome book called Neuroqueer Heresies and her website to learn more. The opposite of neurodivergent is neurotypical, abbreviated as NT. Neurotypical is used to describe the neurocognitive functioning that is considered “normal” or commonly expected by society.  Starting from a shared place of understanding about terminology can help as you read through the rest of my blog.

My journey into openly identifying as neurodivergent likely mirrors the experiences of others who grew up feeling different. The realization that my way of thinking may be different from others crystallized for me in second grade when my teacher consistently placed me at the forefront of the spelling bee, only to watch me stumble and become the subject of ridicule. Accusations of cheating and constant relocation within the classroom left me feeling isolated. Elementary school was marked by recurrent parent-teacher interviews where educators predicted, almost casually, that I wouldn’t surpass high school. Instead of succumbing to these low expectations of me, I transformed the negativity into motivation. The kid that teachers said wouldn’t make it beyond high school eventually ended up gaining admission to the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Undergraduate Years

My undergraduate years, pursuing a Life Sciences degree, were marked by silent struggles with reading and writing. Despite a low GPA, I chose to conceal my difficulties and avoid student accessibility services to blend in. I believed it was better to mask my difficulties because I thought, “Who would want to study with a person who struggled with reading and writing?” The turning point for me came in my fourth year when I recognized that my desired career path hinged on my willingness to seek help.

With trepidation, I took off my mask and decided to talk to a psychologist about what was going on with me. It was no surprise to me when I was told that I was dyslexic. I chose to enroll with accessibility services on campus. The revelation that I was dyslexic opened doors to accommodations like having tests read aloud and utilizing speech-to-text tools. The impact of these supports on my learning was transformative. In my fourth and fifth years, I emerged as a top student, achieving 4.0 GPAs in most courses.

Also during my undergraduate studies, I was able to navigate a research lab opportunity, bypassing the traditional GPA requirement. At the end of one of my classes, I approached a professor, but initially concealed my struggles. The professor hesitated to take me on, but my willingness to start from the bottom—cleaning glassware and preparing media—earned me a place. It wasn’t until I had settled into the lab that I disclosed that I was dyslexic. The professor wasn’t surprised since he could see my level of writing was much lower compared to other students in the lab. However, unmasking had its challenges. In one research project, my honesty backfired when a co-supervisor refused to read my thesis, citing concerns about writing quality. It was moments like these, where I felt misunderstood, that I regretted unmasking.

Graduate Studies

When I transitioned into a thesis-based master’s program, I continued my academic journey with the same professor from my undergrad, now accompanied by an additional co-supervisor. During my graduate program, I found myself conforming to the unspoken expectations of graduate school—a realm of excellence in reading, writing, and research. Despite having disclosed my neurodivergence to one supervisor, I felt compelled to share this aspect of myself with the other supervisor. Little did I know that this decision would prove to open the most challenging chapter of my academic journey. Throughout my time as a graduate student in this person’s lab, I endured relentless mockery concerning my writing and reading capabilities. I was repeatedly told, and I quote, that I “should go back to high school” due to what they perceived as “petty high school mistakes” in my writing.

Simultaneously, within this tumultuous academic environment, I forged a meaningful connection with my life partner. Together, we undertook the initiative of creating instructional lab videos for biology and chemistry courses—a resource aimed at aiding students in their studies. This instructional resource, born out of my undergraduate study habits, became a valuable asset for these lab courses. By the conclusion of my master’s degree, my partner and I had produced over 40 lab videos for both departments.

Doctoral Studies

As I bid farewell to my master’s program, the same professor who had belittled my writing abilities wished me luck with a parting shot, asserting that I would never achieve what he had during his Ph.D. journey. Undeterred, I embraced a new chapter in my academic journey, commencing my Ph.D. at the University of Calgary. Fueled by the lingering words of my master’s supervisor, I decided to shed the mask completely. I became my own advocate, with renewed determination to let everyone know about the authentic me. My decision to unmask marked the beginning of a journey where authenticity and self-advocacy would play pivotal roles in shaping my academic and professional path. I was determined to prove the former masters co-supervisor wrong.

Over the past 6.5 years of my Ph.D. journey, my focus has shifted from self-advocacy to advocating for all graduate students and neurodivergent individuals. I’ve engaged with neurodivergent students in various capacities, including by taking on student leadership positions on campus.  Currently, I work full-time as part of the Work-Integrated Learning for Neurodiverse Students Initiative at the Office of Experiential Learning at the University of Calgary. In this role, I am privileged to collaborate with exceptional individuals on campus to foster a welcoming, safe, and accessible environment for neurodivergent students. The students I work with daily are either enrolled in, or are considering work-integrated learning experiences, such as internships, co-ops, practicums, field placements, or capstone projects. Transitioning to the workplace can present numerous challenges for any individual, but for those who identify as neurodivergent, these hurdles can be even greater. A recent article by Naomi Azrieli published in the Toronto Star (Friday, November 25, 2022) highlighted a stark reality:  “About 6.2 million people in Canada over the age of 15 live with a disability. Yet only 59 percent of working-age adults with a disability are employed, compared to 80 percent of those without a disability. For the hundreds of thousands in Canada with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism, intellectual disabilities, and other neurodivergent conditions, the rate of employment drops to a mere 26 percent” (Azrieli, 2022, p. 1).

These statistics are not surprising, considering that many neurodivergent students opt out of work-integrated learning opportunities. Many workplaces are ill-equipped to support neurodivergent individuals, and many people are unfamiliar with the concept of neurodiversity. Throughout my tenure in this role, I’ve consistently heard from neurodivergent students who feel compelled to mask their true selves to increase their chances of success in job applications or participation in work-integrated learning programs.

This sentiment about hiding one’s neurodivergence resonates with what I have learned from University of Calgary thesis-based graduate students who identify as having a disability. I’m fortunate to collaborate with three remarkable individuals on a survey of thesis-based masters and doctoral students about their supervisory experiences at the University of Calgary (Jacobsen, Shandro, Paquette, Johnston, 2022-2024). In our most recent Graduate Students Experience Survey (GSES) from 2023, of the over 700 thesis-based students who participated, 120 identified as having a disability. Among this group, when asked if they had disclosed their disability to their supervisor, 45% stated that they had not made their supervisor aware and preferred not to.

To some, our survey result may be shocking, but to me, it is not. Upon entering graduate school, students face an implicit set of expectations regarding one’s abilities and behaviors. One such expectation revolves around proficiency in writing and reading. It is presumed that all graduate students are adept academic writers and readers. However, for individuals like me who grapple with reading and writing, the daily experience with peers who appear to effortlessly excel in these areas can be disheartening. It becomes challenging for a graduate student to admit to any struggles and many choose to feign proficiency by pretending to have read as many papers as their peers, and to read as quickly. Moreover, within the academic setting, there is a notable power dynamic between supervisors and graduate students. For graduate students, the fear that by disclosing one’s neurodivergence they may be seen as ‘less than’ in the eyes of their supervisor, leads many people to mask their neurodivergence. Students fear disclosure will alter their supervisor’s perception of their capabilities and dedication.

A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology sheds light on the masking issue (Syharat et al., 2023). The authors conducted focus groups with a total of 18 STEM graduate students who self-identified as neurodivergent. Findings indicate these neurodivergent students often resorted to self-silencing to maintain rapport with their advisors and conform to perceived neurotypical standards, thus avoiding negative perceptions. Additionally, study findings indicate these students bear a heavy cognitive and emotional burden from concealing neurodivergent traits, and from grappling with decisions regarding the disclosure of their neurodivergence; ultimately, students end up facing significant mental health challenges and burnout from masking their neurodivergence.

My own experiences and review of the literature leads me to question, “where should we go from here?”. The first step begins with increasing understanding. By understanding, I mean educating supervisors about neurodiversity. This educational step doesn’t require supervisors to become experts but rather we can provide them with a foundational understanding of neurodiversity and what neurodivergent students’ experiences are like in graduate school. Second, it is important to ask students about their experiences, like our team does with the Graduate Student Experience Survey (GSES). It is crucial to create avenues for neurodivergent students to share their experiences, express any struggles they are having with coursework, and ways that they are relating to and engaging with their supervisors.

Next, post-secondary educators and leaders must evaluate our internal systems and policies to identify any that create barriers for neurodivergent students. Those in leadership roles need to support the development of resources on campus that outline how candidacy/thesis exams and other requirements (thesis, courses, etc.) for completing graduate school can be adjusted to allow anyone to succeed by using supports that help them showcase their strengths. In my opinion, graduate students should have access to all accommodations and support without the requirement of a formal diagnosis; self-identification should be sufficient. Universities should also consider the physical spaces in which graduate students work and focus on making those spaces sensory-friendly, or at least adaptable to becoming sensory-friendly.

Finally, and most importantly, all of us in post-secondary education must question and expand the expectations of what a graduate student is supposed to be and focus on recognizing and celebrating the diversity within our graduate student populations. As an academic community, we should create conditions in which students feel safe to remove their masks, spread their wings, and fly. I envision a campus community that lets students be their true selves and helps them succeed as who they are, not as someone who feels forced to wear a mask.

(CFREB approved research: Jacobsen, Shandro, Paquette, Johnston, 2022-2024, REB 22-0374-MOD3)


Azrieli, N. (2022, November 25). Embracing neurodiversity will build a more prosperous Canada — but the onus on inclusivity falls upon all of us. The Toronto Star [URL].

Blume, H. (1998, September). Neurodiversity: On the underpinnings of geekdom. [URL]

Syharat, C. M., Hain, A., Zaghi, A. E., Gabriel, R., & Berdanier, C. G. P. (2023). Experiences of neurodivergent students in graduate STEM programs. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.

Walter, N. (2023). Personal Blog. [URL]

This Supervision Blog is part of the Quality Graduate Supervision project website.