Thursday, June 19, 2014

I'm Retired, Not Dead

What do you think when you hear that a scientist has retired? Do you assume that they're no longer contributing to science or to society? Do you imagine them sitting in a rocking chair, staring out the window, and waiting for their pension check? Heading to the nursing home? Do you wonder what retired scientists do all day? Do you wonder what you'll do when you retire?

At a recent conference, my husband and I had dinner with a group of colleague/friends, all of whom could be considered "senior scientists". The topic of retirement came up, which was not unusual given our group's makeup. Rather what struck me was how many of the group had not thought that much about retirement and were fuzzy about what someone in our profession might do in retirement.

Although those of us in science expend a lot of effort planning and building our careers, we give little thought to the last phase—the retirement years, which for some scientists can be as productive as the on-the-job years. Almost no one thinks about retirement when they are just starting out; it is so far in the future and, for some, depressing to ponder. Some say they will never retire; you will have to carry them out feet first. Others have a vague notion that they'll retire at some point but don't make any effort to plan ahead. A (very) few realize that retirement, like any other career stage, benefits from advance planning and will begin to map out their route to retirement as much as ten years before.

When I was in my forties, I could not imagine myself retired and always thought I would do research until I dropped dead. I recall running into an older colleague who announced that he planned to retire the next year when he turned fifty-five and start a Christmas tree farm. I politely congratulated him and said, "That sounds great." Actually, I was thinking, "Is he crazy? How can any self-respecting scientist retire so early….and no longer do science?"

Fast-forward twenty years. I no longer think that the colleague who retired "early" was so crazy. In fact, I decided to retire myself and did so almost two years ago (although I did not make it known on this blog). My husband also retired from his professorship a month later. We did not come to this decision easily; however, once we analyzed our professional and financial situations and what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives, the decision seemed obvious.

Both of us are currently in "emeritus" status with our respective institutions, which means we are still active but doing what we want and when and where we want to do it. Although I'm still writing and publishing scientific papers (I've got a file cabinet full of data that will last me another twenty years at least), I've become more active in science communication and videography, which lets me combine my love of science with my more artistic side. I find this new activity challenging and fun; also, my new focus aligns nicely with the growing emphasis on scientists being better communicators. More importantly, it gives me a sense of purpose and identity, which is something that retirees often struggle with. My husband still has funded projects and students, but those will finish soon or be transferred to colleagues. Both of us regularly receive invitations to participate on panels, to give seminars or plenary talks at conferences, to collaborate/advise research groups in other countries, and similar activities, which we accept or decline depending on our preferences and schedules. In addition, we started a non-profit foundation, which provides travel grants to students in our field. Actually, we set it up six years ago with the idea that it would give us another way to continue contributing directly to science and education in retirement. For us, it was important to continue having a real purpose in life…something to look forward to and be responsible for. Other retired scientists may feel differently and simply wish to spend time with family or doing hobbies. It's a very personal decision, and no one approach is better than another.

What I don't like about retirement is the change in other people's perception of me. It's clear from their comments that some people assume that I have not only retired from my job but have no further interest in research and education. A few are clearly shocked and puzzled that I would retire, even though they offer congratulations and good wishes. These colleagues assume that being retired means that I've quit science altogether, when it just means I've quit working for pay. I guess I shouldn't be surprised given my reaction twenty years ago to my colleague's decision to retire. When I run into someone who knows I've retired, they invariably ask, "How's retirement?", usually in a jovial voice, indicating that they believe I'm spending all my time sipping wine on my back porch. At first, I didn't know how to answer the question; I somehow felt I should correct their misperception and explain that I was still working and contributing. Now, I usually say something like, "I'm really enjoying it. Being able to work on what I'm interested in, on my own schedule, is great." If they ask what I'm working on, I provide more detail.

Now that I have some idea of what "retirement" is like, I thought I would write a series of posts about it. If you are a late-career scientist/professor and thinking about retirement, you may find my experience of interest. If you are early- to mid-career, you may benefit from hearing about how other scientists plan for and conduct their retirement. I wish I had thought about retirement much earlier than I did. There are actually quite a few questions to consider in planning for retirement, which will be the topics of those posts:

How do I decide if and when to retire (and when to announce it)?
Can I afford (financially) to retire?
How can I ease the transition gracefully (wind down projects, deal with students and staff)?
How do I sustain my sense of identity and purpose in retirement?
Do I want to continue making scientific contributions (for example, as emeritus), focus on a new activity, or just kick back and take it easy?

There may be others, but those will do for starters.


JaneB said...

This sounds fascinating! I'm mid-career, but several of the people who were mid-career when I started at NorthernUni retired over the last few years, and I'm feeling a bit bereft - and starting to think hopefully about how I might arrange my life differently to work towards a) surviving to retirement (I have stress-related health issues and definitely don't take enough care of myself when work pressures are on, that's only slight hyperbole) and b) making retirement a time of doing the stuff I like plus something new, as a single person without close family... so I look forward very much to this series!

Anonymous said...

Blogger Andrew Gelman says that being retired is similar to being a professor whithout classes and lists... Do you agree?

DrDoyenne said...

I can't answer your question without seeing exactly what Andrew Gelman said about retirement and the context. If you are asking about an emeritus professor, that would be different from someone who retired and retained no formal affiliation with their university.