I have a Ph.D. and I’m a “Failure”.

I have a Ph.D. and I’m a “Failure”.

By Irene Sanchez

Xicana Ph.D.

I have a Ph.D. and I’m a “Failure”.

At least this is how it feels for the moment until it didn’t.

I remember when I decided to get a Ph.D. I was on academic probation coming off of academic dismissal (being kicked out of school). I was attending community college again. It was then I had read the statistic that out of all Ph.D. earned in the U.S. every year only .01 percent are earned by Chicana/o/x or those of Mexican decent. I decided right then and there I would defy statistics even though statistically I was already an academic failure.

I defied them, but what did it really mean? Those are things I’m still trying to figure out as I’m constantly reminded:

I’m a failure for finishing and ending up in six digits worth of debt.

Im a failure for not making the right connections, for not doing more to appease my superiors, for not doing enough to basically become something that the institution and all who uphold it wanted me to become.

I’m a failure like I was reminded a year ago at a conference for having a child during graduate school and upon sharing my story told at a supposedly welcome Chicana/Latina space that “this is why you don’t have a kid in grad school”. When the leadership was told I’m a failure because they didn’t care and who would expect them to care about an insignificant person with no title?

I’m a failure like my peers would remind me and I have since isolated myself from most of them or them from me because they considered me “ghetto” and not “academic enough”.

I’m the failure because many of my so called peers don’t even see me a peer even to this day. I knew this when one who knew I struggled, the same one who embarrassed me by slapping my behind at a party in front of our “peers” continued to poke at me years later telling a mutual friend I didn’t get a fellowship like him because the advisor didn’t think I was “academic enough”, him knowing it would get back to me. Years later sitting down for lunch, me, him and my current partner, this “peer” asked me if I had heard from my chair, him knowing darn well I hadn’t not even for a letter of rec proudly exclaims oh he just Skyped into my class last week. He goes on to tell me our advisor we once shared asked how I was doing and she was concerned, I said my email hasn’t changed , she knows that. Thanks for the reminder that you think you’re better and deserved help and I never did. Hope you feel better.

I’m a failure for getting denied to conferences, presentations, and even publications people would sometimes invite me to. Those same people wielding power to be gatekeepers while claiming they weren’t. (Note: even if they say submission is “blind” it isn’t, the evidence is in how you see they publish their friends and people who they attended school with, it’s unfair, it reinforces elitism and that they can keep you out and claim its academic, but you got to try not to take it too personal).

I’m a failure for returning home with no job, no tenure track prospects, trying to make something really anything work so I can take care of my kid.

I’m a failure for losing that job where I beat out over 100 people to fulfill a dream of returning to my community only to be let go two weeks before my probation was over while on stress leave as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and having the man I reported months later suddenly report me for saying “white privilege” (which I didn’t say, but he did when he found out I taught Race and Ethnic Studies before and was trying to provoke me). The employer backed him with an investigator who I reported for being affiliated with the alt-right after he kept turning off his recorder and trying to talk to me about things I was involved with he saw from a simple internet search. Rebels in Mexico in areas I once studied in became derogatory names and when he put it nicely they were agrarian socialists, Black Lives Matter was put on question after seeing I supported it and then of course him leaving out any witnesses from the narrative that would show I did no wrong. The administration backed this, even went so far in a second investigation to say that I made racially charged remarks while in the same report they claimed they rarely interacted with me after I reported it and my main admin blew me off, but I’m the failure because no one cared. No ones cares unless you have something they can use you for (I got the reports that aren’t confidential. So more to follow on this soon as it will be called “I reported sexual harassment and was accused of being racially discriminatory towards a white man”)

I’m a failure for ending up on welfare because my former employer made it hard for me to get unemployment and losing everything in those months. I lost:

The house I rented for me and my son.

The dream of being near family again.

I’m a failure because my stuff has since been in a storage I can barely afford basically since I got a Ph.D.

I’m a failure because I took a job teaching high school doing something I loved unexpectedly as I taught Ethnic Studies under hostile circumstances only to not have enough time and resources financially to keep that job either now (I’m in debt from trying to get the credential).

I’m a failure for ending up as an adjunct again, but since it is term by term I’m a failure for not having a class this fall.

I’m a failure because after Labor Day, I’ll be back where I started when I wrote this a year ago.

I’m a failure to a six year old that I wish sometimes I can give more to, but I can’t no matter how hard I try because yes besides losing the house a year ago we just lost the health insurance again too.

I’m a failure because I didn’t follow the rules, the path I should’ve taken. I’m a failure and that is precisely why I wrote about redefining achievement and success in academia because you see I am and I have learned we are whatever we decide we are, but it’s more than that. This isn’t a pull yourself up narrative, this is the system is set up for us to fail. It is capitalism and white supremacy that defines what is successful and what isn’t and as long as we keep reinforcing that what some folks are doing in the academy is neither radical nor revolutionary. So don’t come talking about social justice to me.

I’m a poor/working class Xicana. I’m an award winning writer and poet and dare I say scholar because forget the people who don’t want to recognize your brilliance anyways. I was a scholar before the degrees. The school system beats the brilliance out of us from the moment we enter. I’m a Xicana who has survived the impossible and keeps moving because what other choice is there? I’m tired and as much as I wanted to give up at every single heavy challenge, I haven’t. Surviving in this system isn’t the success either, but maybe it is?

I have to see it in the daily things we do. It gives me the strength to keep moving forward. That is what I wrote about to get the darn degree to being with. Despite people trying to direct me to write about something else. I wrote about community college students and success. No one thinks that can really go together. I saw though how it can be found in a domestic violence survivor buying her first bed on her own. How it can be found in a former alcoholic conquering his demons to return to community college to become a mechanic, how it is the 50 year old returning to school to expand his knowledge, how it is the young woman raised by a single mom working at the local market while handling her business to transfer and make a better life. Success is found in the waking up to face another day head on, ready, set go. Never mind the journal where they don’t want to hear the words you write raising a question claiming you may be reinforcing “grit” something I don’t promote but knowing darn well what they’re really saying. I will never beg for your approval. Success is the young woman I was and sometimes still am not caring what you think I can or can’t do. If I say I’m going to do it, watch.

I’m a failure like I am reminded everyday until I remember I’m what some folks and the system said I or really we could never be.


And guess what? I’m not trying to be it in your way.

I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere.

Who let this Xicana in the ivory tower?

All of you who have loved and supported me did. You made a path and continue to shine light. Together we light up the darkness,

No test score, diploma, or CV will tell you that part. So on this night I could very well easily slip into despair again, I know I won’t and that I’m not really a failure and if I am to you, well you weren’t and aren’t who I was trying to write for anyways.

8 thoughts on “I have a Ph.D. and I’m a “Failure”.

  1. I love, love, love this pieceI You are speaking right to the heart of myself: 45 year old, 9 years out of an almost-ivy Ph.D., Xicana queer single mom with PTSD, back to adjuncting after 5 years full-time, brimming with creative writing about survivorship while still having nightmares about incest and domestic violence, feeling okay about myself until I remember that I’m struggling economically and my son chose to live with his dad. Thank you for sharing your testimonio. It makes all the difference in my struggle today – 10 hours of prep for an 85 minute lecture because after 9 years of teaching, I’m in my 4rd department at a 3rd college, duking it out with my 13th from-scratch course in less than a decade. It is what it is, but it helps to know I’m not alone.


  2. We deserve better. And we have always been enough. I send you good thoughts and energy.

    From another Chicana with a PhD and a six -digit debt.


  3. I am a college teacher in Australia. We need such brilliant, amazing, visionary ppl as this in higher education the world over. The litany of screaming injustices documented here make me so mad I can’t describe it. Where are the mentors and senior scholars who responsible for supporting and enabling the next generation? We must enrol, graduate and recruit future faculty who reflect our student body and our cimmunities. I am so sorry the cowards let you down and betrayed you. They are the failures. Your success is replete in every line of this profoundly important article, but we must reward and support this. The courage shown here is inestimable. Women like me must do better for young scholars and I will. I will. I promise.


  4. Failure is when no PhD admission committee will let you into their program because your transcripts brightly reflect compounded effects you reaped in earlier stages of your education such the ongoing degrading remarks and discrimination you faced in your masters program.

    While I know im not a failure, the fact remains that as long as no one will let me in, the journeys there even though it shouldn’t stop there.


  5. omg this is soo woow. Failure is graduating from an Ivy league school and having jealous advisor feel that you need no real advising because you are “such a hard worker” but yet calling you out during other gatherings that you are not “socializing /connecting/nwtworking enough”. Failure is people treating you like a brainless two headed monster after you have a baby, but other students in similar situations somehow have garnered or show themselves deserving of resources. Then receive negative commentary or feel slighted when you bust your ass to get funding outside rhe dept because your advisor felt like you didnt deserve any more support.


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