Day: May 11, 2017

On Academic Retirement

In the context of university-level service, I came across the record of a superb senior woman scientist. She is in her 80’s and not showing signs of slowing down.

A few months ago, a different superb octogenarian scientist died, to everyone’s disbelief. Millie Dresselhaus was 86, larger than life and working as hard as ever. If you ever met her, she likely blew you away with her sharp wit and energy levels dwarfing those of a college kid on half-a-dozen Red Bulls.

My former PhD advisor is nearing 80, and while his funding level isn’t what it used to be, he’s still teaching a full load and co-advising students.

On the one hand, I don’t think people should be told when they have to retire. If people still have a lot to give to science, they should be able to do so.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as having been in a job for far too long. No matter how excellent a person is, there is something to be said for bringing in new people, with fresh ideas. It’s good for students, it’s good for science.

I am not sure how to make peace between the two. From the standpoint of cost, a senior person is drastically more expensive than a junior one, or even a couple of junior ones. However, a successful senior person has established connections that help bring in grants, awards, and endowments that benefit the institution.

Requiring retirement at 65 or 67 seems too blunt, especially for knowledge workers whose bodies aren’t as worn out as those of the people working physically strenuous jobs. But is it still okay to have people who push 9o as full-time faculty? I am not sure why, but that strikes me as wrong for some reason that I can’t articulate. If dozens of your former graduate students retired before you, I feel that something isn’t right.

Is it that, when people become emeriti/emeritae, no one takes them seriously? They can’t apply for grants or advise students? I would imagine neither is true or could be negotiated. Why won’t some people retire?

I used to say I’d never retire, but maybe I will. It certainly wouldn’t suck not having to write grants any more, I will tell you that. Maybe not in my 60s, but likely no later than sometime in my 70s… Who knows; maybe earlier, if I am healthy and find something else to fully occupy me. At the end of an exhausting semester, like this one was for me, I can’t imagine wanting to do this job for another 40 years… But on a good day, I can.

Readers, what do you think? Is there really something wrong with elderly faculty refusing to retire? Is their remaining in the academic workforce deep into their golden years a net positive or a net negative for everyone involved (themselves, the students, up-and-coming junior academics, science in general)?