Doing a PHD with Dyslexia


Know how your brain functions, and what makes it click.  That’s the advice of Dr Kyle Whitfield –  once labelled “slow” and “dumb” as he floundered with dyslexia at school.  Kyle eventually loved learning so much he went on to do a PHD. Here’s his amazing story.

Ex SPELD NZ student, Dr Kyle Whitfield, now works as a manager at the Ministry of Justice in Wellington. He began his academic journey with a Bachelor of Business Studies and went on to do two postgraduate diplomas, two master’s degrees and finally a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) at the University of Otago.

I found primary school extremely challenging. I don’t think teachers were equipped to deal with dyslexic students and didn’t have the time or resources ‘back in the day’ to provide more specialised help. By the time I was in Year 5, I was teased about being slow and dumb when completing my classwork and failing spelling and language tests. This has had a significant impact on me. I still get the feeling that I’m inadequate and can feel like an imposter in my work and academic life. It’s something that I think I’ll need to work on for the rest of my life. With SPELD support, things were improving by the time I went to high school and I was determined to better myself – whatever that meant.

I entered the SPELD programme in 1991/92 when I was around nine years old. I had an excellent SPELD teacher, the late Susan Mclean of Whanganui. I went to Susan each week right up till I was 17 years old. I had a lovely friendship with Susan right to the end of her life. She even proofread my first master’s degree thesis. We formed a very special bond, and she always encouraged me to do my best. I’m extremely supportive of organisations like SPELD in helping those with learning difficulties. They do make a difference in people’s lives.

I love tertiary study. You pick a qualification/area of interest that you want to know more about and go study it. Being 18, living away from home for the first time, being an introvert, I found my bachelor’s degree years very challenging. My grade average for my bachelor’s degree was C+. Everyone used to say ‘Cs get degrees’, but for me, passing a paper and getting a C was a big deal. Moving into postgraduate studies, my grades improved. I think that was because I was really interested in what I was studying. It’s amazing to know how much of a difference this makes. The reading and writing demands do increase – quite substantially when you’re doing postgraduate. I had a good friend who used to proofread my assignments, which helped enormously.

To my absolute detriment, I didn’t ask for extra help

To my absolute detriment, I didn’t ask for extra help (readers/writers/notetakers/extra time) at any stage while at university. In hindsight, I should have, but I wanted to do this by myself. I do not recommend this to budding students. Seek and accept the help. That’s what it’s there for. Don’t be stubborn like me. I was a management and politics tutor while I was undertaking my doctorate and I experienced first-hand how much the learning service at Otago University helped students. Otago offers a fantastic service to students with learning difficulties, and I always gave extra attention to students who told me they had learning difficulties.

I always wanted to get to the top of the academic tree and complete a doctorate but never felt that I could research and write a thesis of 60,000 to 100,000 words! Ahh, words! Also, it’s not like writing an email; it’s a doctoral thesis that has to be perfectly written, with sentence structures and big words. Moving to a doctorate is another massive step up in your learning experience. I’d been employed pretty much through all of my postgrad and doctoral studies, so I had gained ‘real world’ experience, which I wanted to put into ‘academic world’ language. In a lot of ways, it’s like placing a square peg in a round hole. For me, stepping into this new world, organisation was the key. Being upfront with my supervisors from day one was also essential. Before they took on the doctoral challenge, they also needed to know the learning issues I faced. Neither of them seemed concerned. They were extremely supportive and encouraging, and I never felt that I wasn’t worthy of studying at this level – they even made it an enjoyable experience (for the most part).

Even now, I can still have issues spelling and writing. I can get very flustered – I call these my ‘brain fart days’ – when things just don’t seem to compute or connect in my head. Why I chose a career that requires me to do writing I’ll never know. I am very open with my employers about being dyslexic; some are happy to help, offer support, and provide workarounds. Others are less willing.

My brain works differently than a lot of people. I’m a sponge, I soak up information. I love learning new and exciting things, but I have to take my time to absorb it all. Knowing your individual learning style is important. Know how your brain functions, and what makes it click.

I would tell my younger self, don’t ever give up. You might have to work that extra bit more and study longer for the exam, but you can do it. You can be the person you want to be. You can have the career you want. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, probably more hard work than your friends and siblings, but it’s worth it. It’s also important not to measure yourself against your peers. We’re all individuals and being dyslexic is no different; it makes you you!