Day: June 21, 2018

Eternal Scientific Youth

Academic blogosphere, I have a ponderable issue for you.

We all know there are academics, age 70 or 80 or more, who seem to be as passionate about their work as ever, getting grants, running huge labs, showing no sign of slowing down.

When I started on the tenure track, I thought that would be me; I thought I would never retire. I don’t think that any more. Assuming I stay healthy for the next few decades, I believe I will retire not too long after 65 (so 20+ years to go), and when I retire I won’t look back.

I started a lengthy post on why I feel how I feel, but I got bored and ran out of steam (telling, innit). Instead, here’s a concise bullet-point list of some of the reasons (reasons other than personality) which might explain why Prof. Silverback keeps chugging along while others run out of steam.

Peppy octogenarian Prof. Silverback:

  • Relatively smooth career trajectory with ample funding + early and consistent recognition + family run by someone else so most energy reliably devoted to science. Silverback never had his heart broken by his job and never fell out of love with it.

Low-enthusiasm middle-aged likes of me (or maybe just me):

  • Lots of energy dispensed daily on emotional and mental labor for family.¬† After 20 years, the reserves of peppiness are significantly depleted.
  • In the fields with few women, constant energy seepage owing to background bias that acts as head wind: forever being incompetent until proven otherwise, which necessitates constantly having to prove to every new colleague everywhere, no matter how young and wet behind the ears the colleague is, that we’re actually experts in something and not just a fat decoration or someone’s significant other or a diversity token.
  • For men and women in STEM at research schools today, the hustle never stops. As we get more senior, we’re supposed to maintain or exceed tenure-track research momentum, while also taking on more professional service and service to the institution. Becoming an admin or dropping research to do more teaching+service are considered failure or treason, and often mean research-career suicide, even though they are likely perfectly legitimate ways to fulfill a natural need for a change in our jobs. [Clarissa has a couple of interesting posts (here and here) on the issue from the standpoint of a research-active humanities faculty at an undergraduate institution — i.e., where raising grants not necessary.] STEM faculty at research schools are trapped in perpetual tenure-trackdom, but with ever more non-research obligations. Even without the additions, it might be hard to maintain motivation to do the same job the same way for decades.¬†Does your 100th paper really excite you just as much as your 1st or even your 10th? How about your 200th or 500th paper? Now, how do you feel about your 100th grant proposal vs your 1st or even your 10th? I personally need a lot of variety and change, but I know there are others who contentedly work on a niche area for decades. Maybe the latter is key to staying motivated?
  • Less support all around (staff, state support, intramural funds) than was common even just 20 years ago; loss of time and energy on doing and filing all sorts of paperwork that (travel reservations and reimbursements, grant budgeting)

What say you, blogosphere? What am I missing? What are the reasons behind some people’s boundless interest in their science well into old age? If we can identify it, maybe be can bottle it and sell it.