True Life: I Have Imposter Syndrome


Imposter (noun): “one that assumes false identity or title for the purpose of deception” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).  

When I entered my first Ph.D. level course in fall 2015, the word “epistemology” was written on the board. It was in that moment that I began to feel as if I didn’t belong. I was 25 years old, had gone through a master’s program, and considered myself “intelligent” for the most part. When one of the professors asked who all knew what the word meant, mostly everyone raised their hand. I sat there…looking around the room and believed that my cohort and the professors were going to look at me and ask me to leave because every doctorate level student should know the definition of “epistemology”.


I soon realized that I was the youngest person in my cohort and I really began to doubt myself. There would be times when I would sit in my apartment reading scholarly articles for a class and cry (that ugly cry when you can’t breathe in between wails) because how was I supposed to one day become Dr. Tristen Brenaé Johnson and I could not comprehend what I was reading? I would go back to class after having to do said readings and my classmates would have so many stories and conversations surrounding them and I could only hope to chime in.


Though my grades reflected nothing less than A’s, I questioned myself and thought my grades were based on luck or God’s blessings because there was no way my professors actually thought I was a good student. There was no way my educators believed that I knew what I was doing. There was no way…there was no way that Tristen, a girl who had to keep Google open to look up meanings of words while writing or reading papers, could actually be excelling in her program.


According to Brems, Baldwin, Davis, & Namyniuk (1994) “imposter syndrome refers to individuals’ feelings of not being as capable or adequate as others perceive or evaluate them to be” (p. 183-184). The authors note that “symptoms of the imposter phenomenon include feelings of phoniness, self-doubt, and inability to take credit for one’s accomplishments” (p. 184). These symptoms were the same feelings I had/have about myself every day in my program. I am two and a half years in and I still do not believe that I belong. I still get nervous when I submit a paper and I receive feedback from my professors. My comprehensive exams are coming up in fall 2018 and I do not feel prepared. Unsure about what I should be reading or who I should talk to about the test. Too scared to ask my classmates questions about assignments anymore. I contemplated dropping out at minimum, fifteen times since I started coursework. Trying to prove myself to my cohort and professors added unnecessary stress to my daily struggle with depression.


Thankfully, I found other avenues that provide me a bit of comfort while I continue on the doctoral journey. I somehow found time to read for fun more-not scholarly readings for class-fiction and non-fiction books by Black authors. I found blogs to read and other Black people in Ph.D. programs who share some of my same feelings. I take traveling very seriously and make an effort to find somewhere to go, monthly.


I know that this doctoral process will continue to challenge my thinking and my strength but I recognize that I am capable and I was made for this… and in my own words, “epistemology” means knowledge and finding the justification and validity of that knowledge.


True Life: I have imposter syndrome--but I'm no one's imposter. 



  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary., (n.d.). Imposter. Retrieved from
  • Brems, C., Baldwin, M., Davis, L., & Namyniuk, L. (1994). The imposter syndrome as related to teaching evaluations and advising relationships of university faculty members. The Journal of Higher Education, 65(2), 183-193. doi:10.2307/2943923

The Power of Your Network

Empowered & Surviving: Reflections of a Graduate Student