Saturday, October 10, 2009

Retirement Fantasies

Continuing on the theme of self-funded scientists, I wonder why more scientists don’t pursue science in retirement? Especially biologists and ecologists who can conduct a lot of research inexpensively. In retirement, one has a lot of time and no job responsibilities. Being older and experienced, a retiree is also presumably pretty knowledgeable. You don’t have to worry about fumbling around trying to figure out how to design an experiment or what would be the proper method to use in a new situation—as you likely did early in your career. You probably have a file full of ideas for experiments that you never got around to or that funding agencies didn’t like. Even better is that you don’t have to bother with all the egregious bureaucracy that employed scientists have to put up with.

I find it difficult to imagine not doing science. I also know that a lot of people don’t live very long after they retire. This may be especially true of people who either enjoyed what they did (and would miss doing it) or whose identity was tied up with their career. Not having goals or something to get out of bed for is deadly at any age, but particularly so in old age. The newly retired are one of the most vulnerable groups to depression. Of course, most people fantasize about retirement as a time to kick back, play golf, drink wine, spend time with family, etc. The last thing they want to do is work—or anything resembling work. I know once-dedicated scientists who walked away from their labs upon retirement and never looked back.

As for me, I cannot think of any leisure activity that would be as stimulating or interesting as science. I also detest the idea of frittering away my time playing golf or lying on a beach. I could imagine viewing science in retirement the same way 19th century naturalists viewed it: an intellectual hobby. These “gentleman scientists” were typically wealthy and did not have to work, but still pursued their scientific interests with zeal and produced major works (Darwin, for example). Interestingly, the concept of retirement was introduced in the late 19th century.

If you plan to travel in retirement, why not collect some data or specimens, write, or do whatever is most enjoyable to you (science-wise) along the way? If your science while employed involved high-tech, expensive equipment, then you could do something more affordable—and possibly more interesting--after retirement. Delve into a new field. Some retirees volunteer for science expeditions--often in remote and interesting settings. That would be a great way to learn about something new; and because you are already an experienced scientist, you would be an asset to the project. Or you could continue to collaborate with working scientists who have labs and grants and who would like to have you participate (and not have to pay you a salary). You would not have to deal with the administrative tasks, but just show up and do what you enjoy.

Even if you are not close to retirement, it is a good idea to be thinking about what you might like to do in retirement and to begin planning for it.

The time I most enjoyed nature and science was when I was a child, free to follow my whims, with no one to criticize my ideas, with no pressures to meet some deadline. I set up a corner of my bedroom as a laboratory, saved up to purchase collecting equipment and a microscope, and was my own boss. I’d like to experience that again.

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