Monday, June 30, 2014

Retirement of a Scientist: Do I Want To Stop Working?

Visitors who have stumbled upon this website through a Google search for retirement information may be flummoxed at the question posed in the title of this post. Is she kidding? Who doesn't want to stop working? Well, the answer is: those people who love their work. And scientists often adore doing their research—thinking of an important question, designing a rigorous experiment to answer it, meticulously conducting the study, poring over the data, and putting it all together in a brilliantly-written article. It's just all the other stuff they dislike and that makes them dream about being free of arcane bureaucratic regulations, short deadlines, interminable office meetings, pompous or toadying colleagues, bullying or incompetent bosses, laggardly graduate students/post-docs, increasing pressure to publish, dwindling grant funds, scathing journal reviews, and many other annoyances (insert yours here) that one experiences over a scientific career. I'm not complaining, you understand. Just trying to describe the Satisfaction Balance Sheet that ultimately determines whether a scientist continues working or voluntarily calls it quits. As one progresses through a career, the balance sheet changes, tipping one way or another. Also, as we age, our tolerance for the annoyances declines (faster for some of us than others). If scientists were able to do their research without the irritations, I doubt many would retire. Alas, that is never the case.

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.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Retirement of a Scientist: Can I Afford To Quit Working?

In this series of posts, I'm talking about retirement. In the next few posts, I'll consider some questions that a scientist contemplating retirement needs to answer. Even if you are early- or mid-career, it's important to ponder these questions because they will help you plan ahead for this important stage in your life.

Science is unique, I think, in that many (most?) of its practitioners actually enjoy what they do and would continue doing science even with little or no pay. At least, that is how I've always personally viewed scientific research. This attitude is unlike that of someone who has worked in retail or in a factory making widgets and who cannot wait to retire and never handle another sale or build another widget. Loving what you do makes the decision to retire difficult for some of us in science. Whereas the sales person or factory worker wants to retire as early as it is financially feasible, the scientist may never want to retire…at least not completely.

So what should you consider in making the decision to retire?

Obviously, finances need to be taken into account. When can you afford to stop working? How do you determine this? How do you plan for it? My husband and I began planning and saving as soon as we left graduate school and got jobs—toward the time when one or both of us could no longer work. We weren't really thinking in terms of voluntary retirement back then because we planned to continue working as long as possible. We were young, enthusiastic, and loved doing science. It never occurred to us at the beginning of our careers that we might change our minds about retirement as we got older. We set up the usual savings, investment, and pension plans. Then we didn't think about it much over the next thirty years (although we did make periodic adjustments as our circumstances changed).

As I'll explain more fully in the next post, our attitude toward retirement changed as we aged. Whenever a colleague retired, we would discuss the possibility of our own retirement. When we began talking seriously about retirement, our first step was to see a financial planner who could tell us if and when it would be feasible for us to retire. We did this about six years before the date we tentatively targeted. At this point, we had not yet made the final decision to retire. We just wanted to see if it was feasible to stop working. The answer was that yes, we could retire on that date and live comfortably for the rest of our lives. It's probably much wiser to do this check at least ten years before retirement so that you will have time to make adjustments: increase savings, decrease spending, or delay retirement to get a larger pension. As your situation changes, it's wise to revisit your retirement plan—at least every five years or so. You also want to have a good idea of what level of retirement income you will need to be comfortable. For example, someone who plans to travel extensively in retirement will need more than someone who will stay home and play with the grandkids. There are lots of other considerations such as what the stock market is doing…you may need to delay retirement if markets fall. Also, it's wise to look at your portfolio and revise it as you approach retirement. A financial planner can help with all of this, especially if you are not very good at financial matters.

Here is a good list of (mostly financial) signs that you are ready to retire:

1. You can follow your targeted retirement budget for at least six months (do a trial run to find out).
2. You have reliable health insurance coverage (keep in mind that Medicare (U.S.) won't be available until age 65).
3. Your children are financially independent.
4. You have little debt or are close to it.
5. Your investment portfolio is large and sufficiently diverse to weather a market downturn.
6. You are emotionally ready to quit working (more about this in the next post).

Anyway, our planning exercise told us that finances were not an impediment if we wanted to stop working. Even if the answer had been that we needed to work a bit longer, the financial planner would have been able to tell us when we could retire at our desired retirement income level. In any case, knowing that earliest retirement date is very helpful in planning. You don't necessarily have to select that date; you may decide to delay retirement for other reasons than financial.

Once we knew we could afford to retire, we then had to decide whether to retire. And that wasn't easy.

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.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Presentation Myths: Hand-wringing and Other Nervous Hand Gestures

Samantha was nervous as she looked out at the audience. She thanked the organizer of the symposium and began her talk. Nothing in her delivery or sound of her voice gave away the fact that she was not only uncomfortable being on stage but was uncertain about how her paper would be received. She had carefully practiced her talk and so was able to articulate her points with a steady voice and only minor stumbles. A few minutes into her talk, however, she began wringing her hands. She did this unconsciously in between other nervous hand gestures: Wring, wring….wave at screen….wring, wring….push back hair…wring, wring….straighten blouse….wring, wring…. The audience for the most part did not "see" the hand-wringing and other fidgety gestures but sensed that Samantha was nervous and uncertain. A few people squirmed in their seats and looked at their watches, hoping it would soon be over.

I attended a conference a week ago and saw all the usual mistakes that presenters make, some of which I've talked about before here, here, and here. One issue that I've not addressed is what do you do with your hands while presenting? As my fictional example above indicates, your hand gestures can totally undermine an otherwise good speech and make the audience wish they had gone to that other talk in a competing session. I've heard people suggest clasping your hands or the podium to avoid fidgeting (the myth), but that prevents natural hand gestures, which can help you appear calm and confident.

Hand-wringing is a gesture that people engage in because it is a self-soothing behavior. Other people rock in place or jingle the change in their pockets (although I've not seen this one in years). If you tend to be a hand-wringer, then one easy solution is to hold something (the remote, for example) in one hand, which makes it more difficult to rub your hands together. However, this won't work if you fidget with whatever you are holding—another bad habit to avoid.

I know it's difficult to think about your hands and what you are doing with them while giving a talk, but paying attention to how and when you gesture can pay off. Most experts advise varying your gestures and then letting your arms fall to your sides (avoid smacking them, however). Here are a few more dos and don'ts:

1. Gesture with both hands, together and alternately, in a natural rhythm.
2. Vary how "broad" your gestures are, but don't overdo the arm-waving.
3. Avoid fidgeting with pens, laser-pointers, paper, phones, the remote, or other objects.
4. Don't touch your face, hair, or other body parts (!).
5. Don't cross your arms over your chest, clasp your hands in a "fig-leaf" posture, or keep your hands in your pockets.
6. Don't flap your hands unnecessarily; remain aware of why you are gesturing.
7. Practice gesturing in front of a mirror, particularly how it looks and feels to drop your hands at the end of a gesture.

Finally, here's a good video that shows how to manage your gestures when speaking: