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)? 

13 comments

  1. I suggest no tenure after the age of 67. If a faculty is good, dept can keep them. Those who just hang in there because they just can will be easily removed by the dept.

  2. There’s no one right answer. It depends on whether they’re an asset or not. I’ve had times (both as a student and faculty member) when I benefited from the presence of an old but active* faculty member who wasn’t looking to leave. I’ve also come across people who should have left long ago.

    The problem with leaving it to judgment is that those who are most likely to decide responsibly are also likely to be great contributors, and those least likely to decide responsibly are also likely to be burdens. But if you leave it to someone else then administrative short-sightedness and potential for ambitious people to remove someone who might stand in the way of their schemes.

    So there’s no right answer, just a bunch of trade-offs.

    *Sometimes active in research, sometimes less research-active but a good teacher and productive contributor to departmental service.

  3. It depends greatly on specific factors. For example, senior faculty who are nurturing and mentoring can be a tremendous boon to new junior faculty. Other senior faculty are just competing with junior faculty and stunting their growth. And other senior faculty are really just deadwood taking up space. I certainly would not want to see a mandatory retirement age. (In particular, because in my department, we are very dependent on certain very senior faculty to cover some of the administrative knowledge, to teach some of the specific classes, and to help those of us in that mid-range to learn how to be large-lab-managers and how to write program and training grants.)

    Most importantly, I think these discussions are meaningless unless we take into account demographics. And that means the baby boom. Most departments have a bimodal age distribution with senior faculty from the baby boom and junior faculty from their kids, with a gap in the lost generation in between. One of the things this means is that there is going to be a gap in leadership and administrative duties as there are too few mid-range faculty. Saying the senior faculty need to get out of the way so we can hire new junior faculty belies an important gap in that mid-range faculty who can take those leadership positions.

    In my experience, the retirement is not going to be a problem. It was terrible for a few decades, but its going to be fine now. Faculty do retire, even without pressure, and [so far, at least in the departments I can see] there is a steady stream of positions opening up (finally!). We don’t want there to be too many positions too suddenly.

  4. My mentor has just retired from current institution (state school) and has joined the faculty at an ivy league. They spend like 75% of their time mentoring junior investigators – have a large R01 that supports many junior faculty. We have a large research team across the country, and my mentor’s research provides exceptional opportunities for all. If something happened to my mentor, it would have resounding effects on this network we have, and would cause a loss of funding for a lot of people (me included). I hope it is a very long time before they retire for good.

  5. Answering your practical question: at my institution emeritus professors can still apply for grants and hire postdocs, but can’t advise grad students (though they can co-advise joint students). We have several very productive emeritus professors who still have 2-3 major grants and are publishing as much as they ever were. They still serve on committees but don’t teach.

  6. qaz wrote “Faculty do retire, even without pressure, and [so far, at least in the departments I can see] there is a steady stream of positions opening up (finally!). We don’t want there to be too many positions too suddenly.” This has been my observation also. People who are tired of teaching and research generally leave, particularly if the pension package is reasonable. It is very rare that “deadwood” need to be pushed.

    I’ve seen some estimates that something like half our faculty will need to be replaced over the next 10 years (our hiring tends to be more pulsed than many institutions)

  7. A lot of factors here. One of the assumptions of your post is that if a senior person retires the department gets a line to hire a junior person in that field; that simply isn’t the case, at least in my institution.

    We’ve had a few folks retire recently in their early sixties (I’m glad for them, but lost good, vibrant colleagues) and some now in their early seventies. I can think of only one person who stuck around way longer than they really should have, mostly because of greed/high salary.

    None of our hires are ‘replacements,’ even where there are real needs. They represent new directions in the department. And we’re actively trying to hire at the senior level as well as junior.

  8. Seriously I think it matters how positive and influence they are in the dept. Of course this is somewhat subjective, but if they have a history of abusing power and bullying other faculty, students, or postdocs then 65-70 should be an enforced age of retirement. On the other hand if they are contributing to a positive departmental / institutional environment, then by all means keep them around as Tenured faculty OR Emeriti, whichever is amenable to all parties.

  9. I’m fascinated by the assumption that the best place for emeriti is research, not teaching. Sometimes it’s the opposite, IMHO.

  10. I like the idea of stopping tenure after 65 and basically deciding on a 2-5 year basis where their expertise is needed/required and where their input (or exit) should be directed.
    To my opinion, emeriti would and could be most useful in education and mentoring. Mind you, these should not be deadwood faculty (so very important to officially decide this on a case-by-case basis – why not based on a “post-tenure talk” and proposal), but folks with the energy and drive to explore novel developments while passing down that valuable asset that only they are able to pass on: the wisdom (one would hope) and experience that only comes with age. I know someone who did just that: they dropped their active research career (letting go is also a character trait to be admired) and focused on establishing an entire new educational program that also required them to explore new research directions, teaching styles and international developments (and therefore to satisfy their curiosity without the need to publish or write grants – basically what we all got into science for in the first place).

    I am very much against older folks (past 70 or so) still keeping up large, active research programs – mainly because there is so little money to go around in the system and it is hard enough for junior PIs to get funding as it is.
    At the same time, I basically set up my own lab as I was approaching 40 (not too uncommon in my field these days) and so that would leave me with only 25-30 years = 5-6 groundbreaking ideas (if you calculate 1 major new grant direction once every 5 years) for the remainder of my career. That sounds like very little time left to change the world. But to be honest, I cannot imagine still enjoying this rat race in 30 years from now and I am hoping and praying that by then I will be able to step away from the ivory tower and find fulfilment in spending my days walking in nature, reading books and watching movies.

  11. I am not a fan of mandatory retirement. In my experience, people (mostly) retire on their own when they are ready. Getting rid of the 1 or 2 problem people would push out a whole lot more who are productive and helpful. We have several older faculty members in my department who are not very research active, but pick up extra teaching/administrative stuff that helps us all. We’ve been hiring pretty steadily as older folk retire–from my perspective we are in the middle of the wave of retirements that has always been promised. Unfortunately, we are not guaranteed a new line when someone does retire.

    In terms of removing tenure from older folks: I don’t think it will have the effect you are looking for. It is really, really hard to fire people from salaried positions. It will be especially hard to do so if most people still have tenure, because there will be no culture of it. Most large collections of humans have deadwood. It is not unique to academia. Everyone knows who they are (excpet sometimes themselves). In well run places, they are the first to go in a downsizing wave. But firing them it usually not worth the energy so they persist.

  12. To some of the comments suggesting that emeriti/ae be kept in the game for mentoring — proceed with caution. At my university there was a VERY short-lived program pairing junior faculty with emeriti/ae from their departments as mentors, and it was an unqualified disaster. At best, it was a waste of time for the junior faculty while the emeriti waxed poetic about their own days on the tenure track… 40 years ago. At worst, the fogeys were perpetuating old feuds or were blatantly racist and sexist towards their mentees.

    Maybe it’s just the particular mix of personalities that piloted this program at our university, but it really was horrible. We’ve got someone about to retire from my department, and I think he’d be a great mentor — he’s become extremely savvy about university politics during his time here. But he’s also unusual in the sense that he’s planning to retire before 70 and he’s been diligently taking on duties that will help to justify his own replacement when the time comes. I’m learning a lot about how to retire gracefully from watching him.

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