Monday, June 30, 2014
Retirement of a Scientist: Do I Want To Stop Working?
In the last post, I considered some of the financial aspects of retirement and how to determine one's monetary readiness to quit working. Once I knew that I could retire comfortably, I had to decide if I wanted to stop working. This was a very difficult question for me to answer, whereas my husband seemed to have less trouble. However, we initially had no idea how to go about making such a life-changing decision. There were so many unknowns. If we delayed retirement, would we continue to enjoy our work as much as in the past? Would leaving our jobs mean a loss of identity and purpose? Were there ways to continue doing science outside of a regular job if we wanted to continue contributing? Were there other things we wanted to do that our jobs would prevent or interfere with? Does retirement lead to increased mortality (a few of our colleagues had dropped dead or developed serious illness within a year of retirement)? On the other hand, if we continued working, would the stress be increasingly unhealthful as we aged? We made a list of such questions and tried to answer them as best we could. For some questions, there were no clear answers; however, by asking them, we became more aware of all the various ways our lives might change and even to plan ahead for them.
As I hinted above, job satisfaction ended up playing a big role in our decision. Both of us were experiencing changes in the workplace that we did not like and that increasingly interfered with our capacity to do what we enjoyed--science. I'm sure those readers who have been doing research and/or teaching for a while know what I'm talking about. And there were signs that things were going to get much worse for scientific researchers and educators down the road. This situation was a bit worse for me in a government position with endless regulations, forms to fill out, and required training. I was also getting burned out and frustrated finding research funds, especially since as an employee of a Federal science agency I was barred from applying to other government grant sources (e.g., NSF). I was even beginning to tire of doing research, writing it up, and running the review gauntlet. My husband was probably going to have to teach even more if he continued working, but he was tired of teaching. In other words, our workplaces had changed, and we had changed.
We both could have continued working and been successful at juggling all the administrative stuff along with the research and teaching obligations—as we always had. The question finally boiled down to whether we wanted to spend the next ten or twenty (if we were lucky) years doing a lot of stuff we simply did not enjoy and enduring all the stress that goes along with it….or doing only what we enjoyed. In the end, we chose the latter. By retiring we could avoid most if not all of the undesirable tasks required in our jobs but continue doing those activities we did enjoy.
In an emeritus status, one can often retain an office (and possibly lab space) and continue writing and conducting research (while no longer having to teach, attend meetings, or advise students). An emeritus professor or scientist can basically do whatever they want, work or not, or travel whenever the mood strikes. In one fell swoop, it's possible to rid yourself of all the onerous tasks you dreaded on a day-to-day basis and be left with only those activities you love to do.
Life is too short. And as you age, that remaining time seems to fly past faster and faster.
The decision may be different for you, depending on your specific situation and preferences. Some scientists never want to stop working; they love research or teaching and want to continue as long as possible. A few scientists retire from one job and take another in a related or entirely new field. I have a colleague who retired from a government research position to take a teaching job at a small college. For other scientists, retirement offers the opportunity to do those things they didn't have time for while working and building a career. I decided to pursue my interests in science videography as well as continue my interests in science communication and blogging.
In the end, the realization that I could quit working and still be an active participant in science (in some capacity) convinced me that I was ready to retire. My personal view is that retirement need not involve stagnation and boredom. I see it as a new adventure, one with more freedom and opportunity than when I was younger.
In the next posts, I'll discuss when to retire and when to tell others you plan to retire.