5 PhD Students Reveal How They Combat Impostor Syndrome

Workin' Girl

"You're not good enough."

"You can't do this."

"You are way in over your head."

Those were just some of the negative statements and thoughts I would say and think to myself as I walked into class. As a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Howard University, my journey in academia has been both exciting and fulfilling yet at the same time, emotionally and spiritually grueling. If the pressure that comes along with being the first in my family to graduate from undergrad, to receive a Master's degree, and pursue a doctorate was not hard enough, the constant feeling of self-doubt and chronic self-criticism of whether or not I "belonged" in higher education was a weight that was too much to bear –– despite my academic and professional accomplishments.

Not being able to put a name to this dark feeling of doubt that consumed me and too intimidated to share my feelings with my other Black female colleagues, I started to do research on what I was going through. After reading the article "For Colored Girls Who Are Unsure" on Sister PhD, I realized what I was battling with. It was called "Impostor Syndrome."

For those of you unfamiliar, Impostor Syndrome is the psychological phenomenon affecting individuals who find themseleves incapable of interanlizing their accomplishments. Instead they view themselves as failures or inadequates, and are living in a constant state of anxiety that they will be found out for the "fraud" that they believe themselves to be. It's quite common among women and people of color.

And unfortunately for us, Impostor Syndrome among Black women academics is a pervasive and debilitating issue that too many of us are suffering in silence with. Following in Audre Lorde's revolutionary charge to "transform silence into language and action," I interviewed five Black women Ph.D. students and they shared with me their experiences with Impostor Syndrome, how they cope with internalized perceptions of inadequacy; and some advice they would give to other Black women doctoral students who too are dealing with inclinations of unworthiness.

Erin Berry-McCrea, 33

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)


How has imposter syndrome impacted you and your Ph.D. journey?

"I think as a Black person, you are always battling with what W.E.B. DuBois describes as 'double consciousness.' You are so used to surviving and dealing with the duality that you become a master at 'saving face.' I was so accustomed to dealing with covert and overt racism; so, I thought dealing with it in the academy was simply part of the territory. I really had an "ah-ha!" moment when a friend from my hometown was killed by the police; my step-father passed suddenly in 2013; and I was taking a research methods class. I felt like I needed to perform some function of myself that I could not as a young scholar because I lost a parent. Death is permanent, and I was not prepared to include that in my life during my second semester as a doctoral student. That is when I realized that my imposter syndrome was bigger than me and almost crippling. I literally had anxiety attacks once a week and thought about moving back to Durham and quitting my program."

What advice would you give to other Black women Ph.D. students who may be dealing with Impostor Syndrome as well?

"I encourage Black women Ph.D. students to be transparent. Keep it 'a band' with yourself and those around you. The SBW (Strong Black Woman) trope is dangerous and it will kill you. Don't fall for it.

Stand in your truth. Do what you can and what you need to do for you and if you need help, ask for it.

Articulate it to those who say that they love you and be specific in what you need. Practice self-care. Prioritize self-care and knowledge of self in the same way that you prioritize meetings with advisors, trips to the library, dissertation writing, and any other academic task. I'd also suggest that you locate a 'tribe' of other 'Ph.D.ers' ––whether it be in person or digitally —so that you can have systems of support."

Ashley Daniels, 32

Howard University


How has Impostor Syndrome impacted you and your Ph.D. journey?

"I remember 2012 being a bittersweet year for me: I was getting settled into living in my first apartment by myself; I scored a great permanent job; and I was starting my first year as a Ph.D. student at one of my dream schools, Howard University. Things were looking good until my fall semester. Thinking that my new work-school balance was going to be like my old work-school balance, I kept my same full-time hours at my new job and took a full load of coursework at Howard. Because of the terrible school-life balance I struggled to maintain, I began to doubt myself and my position in life at the time.

Perhaps Howard and my job made a mistake in taking a chance on me? Was I really as smart as I thought I was?

This kind of thinking did a lot of damage in my first year. I finished my first year on academic suspension; was unconfident in my job performance; and feeling completely beaten down."

What are some ways in which you challenge, overcome and/or cope with your Impostor Syndrome?

"I can clearly remember the times I would walk the hallways of Howard or sit at my office desk and try to fake as many smiles as I could. It wasn't until I came to work one day the summer of 2013 looking as defeated as I felt. My boss — whom I had only known for a few months but was very supportive of my education since we met –– asked me what was going on. I finally broke down and told her everything that I was going through for the past year. However, that was the moment where things began to change. The breaking of my silence led to an adjustment in my work schedule; better advisement on how to be a successful working Ph.D. student; and eventually going to therapy to treat a plethora of issues including anxiety and depression. Six years later, I am proud of the long way I've come to the better physical, mental, and emotional space I am in."

Latoya Haynes-Thoby, 37

Penn State University


How has Impostor Syndrome impacted you and your Ph.D journey?

"Impostor Syndrome was really hard in the beginning to deal with and sometimes it creeps up even now. One of the things that has helped me with my Impostor Syndrome is considering the consequences of not speaking up and talking about it. As a first-generation college student, I have seen how my peers have the support system and can reach out to their family members and close friends who have doctorates; whereas that is not the case for me. I also remember that I am here for a reason and my silence on certain issues won't further the reasons and causes that I am fighting for. I have to remind myself daily that the ideas and things that are important to the groups I belong to won't be heard unless I speak up."

What advice would you give to other Black women Ph.D. students who may be dealing with Impostor Syndrome as well?

"I remember highlighting someone for a project I did for my graduate research and one of the statements he said was, 'Always remember that your voice is important and what you have to say is important.' It wasn't until very recently that I was able to digest that. I hope that other Black women in doctoral programs remember that our voices are important and what we have to say is important. If we risk silencing ourselves, we risk silencing the communities and families we represent. We risk silencing new ideas and people that we are trying to highlight in our work."

Dominiqua M. Griffin, 28

Penn State University


How has Imposter Syndrome impacted you and your Ph.D journey?

"In the beginning of the program and even now, it just feels like 'do I really even matter?' or 'will my work really make a difference?' I always feel as if I am the only person advocating for certain issues, especially in a predominantly white space such as Penn State. I've constantly questioned myself about whether or not I am good enough to be here but I also know that I am not the only person in this predicament either. I recognize there were Black women before me who felt this way and there are going to be Black women after me who will feel this way too –– and they feel imposter syndrome whether they attend predominantly white institutions or historically black colleges and universities. With this, I really have conversations with myself and say, 'I can definitely do this.'"

What are some ways in which you challenge, overcome and/or cope with your Imposter Syndrome?

"While I was at Penn State, I was a part of the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and the Commission on Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity. That was really helpful. Being able to advocate for students of color; students with disabilities; and advocating for mental health and wellness and how Black students need counselors of color on campus, really helped me because I felt heard and valued. It was great to be around fellow graduate students who looked like me and who also were going through the same issues as me and being able to talk about our issues collectively really encouraged me."

Ree Botts, 25

UC Berkeley

@reeciology + @theselfologymovement

How has Impostor Syndrome impacted you and your Ph.D. journey?

"My Impostor Syndrome started when I was an undergraduate at Spelman. My sophomore year, I was in a program called the Mellon-Mays Fellowship, which is a program that serves as a pipeline for undergraduate students who are interested in getting their Ph.D. At the time, I did not know if the program was what I wanted to do but with the encouragement of one of my favorite professors, I applied. I was so surprised that I was accepted into the program because I did not think I was smart enough. I felt like I didn't belong. I remember the first day of the program when everyone was making their introductions and I was really nervous because I was afraid they would judge me because of my Philly accent. I did not want people to think that I was 'ghetto' or 'stupid' because I did not talk the way they did. I used to question myself and wonder how can I be a scholar and yet an 'around-the-way' Philly girl and try to exert my confidence? I thought I had to pick a world to belong to but then I realized that I can be and do both."

What advice would you give to other Black women Ph.D. students who may be dealing with Impostor Syndrome as well?

"You deserve everything you worked hard for. Nobody made a mistake on you. Nobody accidentally let you slip in. There are a lot of unqualified people with doctorates, who have gotten through their programs because of their privilege. You have the power to create the life you want to live. Don't let your professors or these institutions have power over you.

Stay true to yourself and know that you don't have to put up with the bullshit.

You are a student at your institution and you have rights. You do not have to endure pain and trauma to get a degree. The moment you start making decisions for you and the moment you realize there is more to life –– your life –– outside these institutions and a degree is the moment you will be set free."

Have you ever encountered Impostor Syndrome? What steps are you taking to overcome those feelings?

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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