Modafinil Niche Series, Part 1: College Students and Academics

This is the first blog post in a three-part sequence called the ‘Modafinil Niche Series.’ In the previous post, an introduction to the series, I mentioned that nootropics in general, and Modafinil in particular, have come to flourish within three particular communities: (1) among college students and academics, (2) among business executives and entrepreneurs, and (3) among biohackers. In today’s post, we will be taking a closer look into the first category with the goal of answering the following questions:

  • Why are college students and academics attracted to Modafinil in the first place?
  • How, if at all, has Modafinil improved their quality of life (both generally and with respect to academic performance in particular)?

The academic and research community is perhaps the most well-known category of Modafinil users. Many undergraduate and graduate students, college professors, and other academics are rather outspoken when it comes to the topic of cognitive enhancement. It may not surprise you, then, to know that many of the highest achievers in academia are also nootropic users. I remember when I discovered this for myself.

As a graduate student in Boston, I spent quite a bit of time around extremely smart people. (Boston is home to about 35 colleges and universities, including Harvard and MIT, in case you didn’t know.) During my first year in graduate school, shortly after I had discovered Modafinil and began taking it, I started to wonder how many of my brainy colleagues were also using smart drugs. So, I designed a survey and distributed it to about 600 undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard and MIT. To my surprise, I received 438 responses. Here’s what I found:

  1. 21% of Harvard and MIT students said they had used at least one cognitive enhancing drug or supplement before.
    2. Of those students, 87% said they had used or would use the same cognitive enhancing drug or supplement again.
    3. 28 of the 438 participants said they had taken Modafinil in the past.
    4. All 28 of those students said they had taken Modafinil multiple times.

Although I didn’t ask how many of the Modafinil users were still taking Modafinil at the time, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ratio was also one-hundred percent.

Possibly the most astonishing finding was that nearly 1 out of 4 students at two of the top universities in the U.S. stated that they had taken nootropics before. As it turns out, maybe there’s more to being accepted by a prestigious university than possessing natural intellect. Perhaps a person’s intelligence can be augmented to the extent that they, too, can study alongside the best of the best.*

Some time after conducting the survey in Boston, I did some more research on smart drug usage among college students. In my reading, I came across several studies, conducted in both the U.S. and England, the results of which closely paralleled my own. In particular, other surveys have confirmed my original finding that at least 1 out of 4 college students are taking smart drugs. That number is apparently much higher in the UK, where the number of Modafinil users alone totals 25% or more on college campuses.

One survey, reported in the UK newspaper The Telegraph, showed that 26% of students at Oxford University said they had used Modafinil. Comparatively, 25% of students at Newcastle and Leeds claimed to have tried the drug, and around 20%, on average, at universities like Imperial, Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester said the same. [1] One participant, named Jack, was studying at Cambridge when he first heard about Modafinil and started using it. “It was my third year and it [Modafinil] suddenly appeared, and people were like, ‘It’s amazing. It allows you to concentrate,’” he recounts. “[I]t was very useful for mechanical academic work when [I was] just trying to do a lot of notes or something.” [2]

I later discovered a blog post  in which Jack described his experience with Modafinil in more detail: “It gives you a kind of tunnel vision. You can concentrate for hours on reading a book, taking meticulous notes, not looking up once… . [G]enerally you will feel akin to some kind of super-human, ploughing through work like a fully-functioning Stephen Hawking.” [3] Jack’s testimony is not unlike that of many other students, who use Modafinil to avoid distractions while reading, studying or writing (See, for example, this user’s .

According to another survey, which was conducted by the Oxford student newspaper, Cherwell and received 662 responses, about 16% of Oxford students admitted to having taken Modafinil or another smart drug while studying at university. [4] Of those, nearly half (43%) said they had taken Modafinil sporadically throughout their academic career, while about one-fourth (26%) had taken it only before important deadlines, such as in preparation for exams. Based on Cherwell’s survey, it appears that while only some college students know about smart drugs, the topic is openly discussed among the student body, since over half of the respondents (53%) answered that they knew other people studying at Oxford who had taken nootropics. [4]

This brings us back to our original intuition that Modafinil is much less of a ‘niche drug’ than it is sometimes made out to be. In addition to the surveys that I mentioned, several other questionnaires, such as one carried out by the Cambridge University student website The Tab, [5] have proven that smart drug usage is relatively widespread across all universities and departments: Modafinil usage within more than 70 departments at 10 different universities was 17% or higher. Nevertheless, these same questionnaires have also shown that the highest levels of usage are in the top ranking universities – Oxford and Cambridge topped the list – and students of subjects with the highest workloads (e.g. math, law) tended to show the highest usage.

In contrast to the U.S. and U.K. polls, a survey of smart drug usage among college students in the Netherlands [6] revealed that none of the students reported having ever taken Modafinil (52% reported using methylphenidate, and 36% said they had used beta blockers). This suggests that there is a need for educating people about the superior cognitive enhancing effects of Modafinil – ‘superior,’ because unlike methylphenidate and other potentially harmful substances, Modafinil has no serious side effects. [7] It is difficult to say whether the lack of Modafinil usage among college students in the Netherlands has any measurable effect on their academic performance or not, although it is probably not a coincidence that Dutch universities have considerably lower retention rates on average compared to other European countries (e.g. 94% in the UK, compared to 72% in the Netherlands [8]).

In fact, this is the view of Nicole Vincent, PhD, whose own research on in the field of bioethics has led her to conclude that college students and academics are better off with access to performance enhancing drugs. [9] Nicole, an unequivocal advocate of smart drugs, is herself a Modafinil user, and has talked about her experience with Modafinil on public television. [10] “By taking [Modafinil],” Nicole said, “I set up a certain precedent for what people can expect of me.” She went on to state that Modafinil allows her to complete twice as many academic projects per year as she normally would. Yet, Nicole also noted that Modafinil has benefits outside of work, including improving her social life by giving her more energy and freeing up time to spend with her friends and family. [10]

Other academics and researchers are caching onto the idea that Modafinil not only increases productivity but also enhances quality of life in general. In an interview on SBS’s The Feed Forum, Jason Mazanov, PhD  a sports nutrition and performance enhancement specialist at the University of New South Wales, said that he expects future research to continue to uncover favorable effects of smart drugs as the general public becomes more open about nootropics. Jason pointed out that “medicine has a long history of people trying things on themselves that have [led to] great discoveries,” and that “we can use this new technology [smart drugs] to make the human condition better.” [10]

*Note: The idea that a person’s IQ, or Intelligence Quotient, can be increased via supplements and drugs is supported by empirical evidence. [11], [12] This topic has been discussed extensively by Dave Asprey, Dana Dovey, and others. I will also cover this research in a later post.


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