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.


  1. I think the ‘had a relatively easy ride early on’ is a major factor. I am not saying they didn’t work hard (I mean: these people were my mentors and they were working all the time – they set a high bar for ‘dedication’), but I think they encountered a lot less demotivating issues along the way (many got a permanent job straight out of their PhD or after a 6-12 months postdoc; money was easier; administrative burden/teaching intensity was less).
    Plus, they established the “system” (not on purpose, but still): they are the ones with the network/the access to money, etc. So they have always felt “in control” because, well, they were.

    I never thought that the tenure track would burn me up like it did. Actually, getting that TT position is what did me in: those were the two most stressful years of my life, where my career had a 50/50 chance of being dead/over/finito depending on one or two major grant awards and/or job offers. It was hell and now my TT is almost (successfully over) and I still haven’t really gotten the joy of research back (mainly because of the administration/teaching burden).
    Even setting up a group is more strenuous because as a young TT you are required/expected to be “successful” as measured by how much money you get in, which then forces you to expand your team way too fast so all of the people managing is also overwhelming.

    So for me, it is mainly a system that eats you up and spits you out when you are young and then something just breaks/energy leaks out and it takes years to recover.

    I do think that investing in a ‘niche’ or ‘safe area’ where colleagues are friendly and you feel like you have a network of friends may keep you going for longer. I for one can definitely not imagine that publications will bring me the satisfaction required. I’m now in early 40s and am really enjoying meeting up with international colleagues at conferences etc. I can see how they can (hopefully) continue to grow into science friends over the next few decades.

  2. I think the key is finding science that interests you. What I notice about the septua- and octo-generian scientists that are still excited about their work is that they are always moving into new territory. I often see these people think about retiring, but then a few minutes or a few days later, it’s “I got a new student, we’re going to work on this new thing!” These people tend to be good collaborators and tend to have exciting interactions with colleagues across a very very broad spectrum.

    I’m not in that super-seniordom yet. But I’m definitely in senior-faculty range (been faculty for 20 years) and have over a dozen collaborations in half a dozen fields. I got a lot of praise early, and I have been relatively successful, particularly recently, but my early days were definitely hard. My tenure decision was on the edge and required department chairs arguing with committees that I would blossom if only they held on. On the other hand, the support was there, which helped, and I had gotten a few internal and external “recognitions”. I didn’t really start getting funded regularly until after tenure.

    On the other hand, I have effectively switched areas three or four times (depending on how you count it). In fact, just last year, a new field opened up where ideas that I’ve been playing with in field A turn out to have huge impact in field B. I’ve got a new student, new collaborators, and am attending new conferences on this new field. We just published a slew of papers on our discoveries in the new field (things I wouldn’t have thought possible five years ago). And I’m just as energized about field B as I was about the first project I did as a new faculty member 20 years ago. Actually, this feels like when I was a new graduate student and switched fields 30 years ago.

    I do agree that the hustle is different now than it was in the previous generation. There are more administrative duties to do than the previous generation. (And it’s going to get worse as the baby boomers retire and the dearth of Gen-X scientists has to fill the roles.) There’s less funding and less nets to catch us when we fall. But my university has been supportive (of both me and my junior colleagues – some of that support I provide in the same way it was provided to me) and we can construct communities to provide that support. On the other hand, there is more available than there was – I can find everything to read in a new field more quickly than the previous generation. I can contact colleagues and create new colleagues and talk to colleagues around the world more quickly and more easily than the previous generation. There are advantages and disadvantages.

    I don’t think it has to do with easy funding early. I think it has to do with having a good community that supports you. I think it has to do with a broad interest base, a willingness to try new things, and a supportive community of scientific friends and colleagues willing to let you try the new thing. But most importantly, I think it is about being open to new ideas and remembering what it was like to discover something new in the first place.

  3. I still feel quite green (just a year after getting tenure), and I am a bit jealous of a colleague who has recently become emeritus. Right now that seems very nice, being able to continue with the research without having to worry about all the service. But I guess that I still have a lot of time to burn out (particularly since I am in a small department, and the service load is not distributed very evenly).

  4. I think tenure year (my materials are due in November) is a natural time to think about this question, or at least to take a step back and evaluate where you are in your career and what you might do if you don’t get tenure.

    Would I stay in academia after a big upset like a tenure denial? I’m honestly not sure. Probably not at an institution like my current one, and certainly not at an R1. I like my job an awful lot — some days I even love it — but it’s far from the only thing I can imagine myself doing. Sometimes I think that a tenure denial might be a blessing in disguise, because it would give me permission to reimagine my career and try something new.

    Perhaps it’s because I generally don’t know them personally, but I actually find it quite fascinating when our provost reads obituaries of deceased emeritus faculty members at faculty meetings. I listen to the summary of their lives and of course can’t help but occasionally wonder about what my obituary might sound like. While I have deep admiration for the accomplished faculty who clearly were deeply engaged in their discipline for their entire lives and well into retirement, I don’t strongly identify with them. I was particularly taken recently with one who had a long career in I think German studies, but then an enormous litany of unrelated accomplishments like leading the board of the state leukemia/lymphoma society, leading the state academy of humanities, organizing in the community, etc. It just sounded like he’d had such a deep and broad impact across so many different areas of life, and it resonated with things I think I might want to do someday.

    It reminds me of when I was in grad school at Harvard, and one of my professors reminisced about a friend of hers from grad school — she said he was just as talented as she was, but he really wanted three kids and a golden retriever. He went to work at a liberal arts college, had a lower-profile but satisfying academic career with his three kids and a golden retriever, while she punched through glass ceilings at Harvard, had an internationally acclaimed academic career, all while having one kid and a divorce along the way. I remember thinking, “I’d rather be that guy.” And here I am, at a liberal arts college, with one kid here, one kid on the way, and a golden retriever mix, and very, very happy that I turned down my R1 offer to come here. So, I am trying to listen to my gut as I hear those obituaries at faculty meetings. I suspect I will not be the septuagenarian still in the lab every day, and I’m totally OK with that.

  5. I’m on the cusp of retirement (2 or 3 more years, I think), and so I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll do in my late 60s and early 70s. I won’t be one of the research-active emeriti who continue to bring in grants and supervise grad students—I gave up on writing grant proposals a few years ago to concentrate my scholarship on teaching and writing a textbook.

    I do hope to continue a connection with my department and university, though, doing things that I do well (like curriculum planning and undergraduate advising). Perhaps they’ll be willing to recall me part time to be undergrad director or serve on Academic Senate committees. I don’t think I’ll want to continue teaching my current courses on recall, though, as the course is more than a full-time job to teach, at least they way that I’ve been teaching it.

    I did not have it unusually hard in my early years, but not unusually easy either. I got my first tenure-track job directly after my PhD (still standard practice in computer science)—in fact, I had to spend my first winter break revising my thesis and adding new results to satisfy the thesis committee. But my first appointment was a joint appointment between two departments, neither of which provided much support (no startup money, high teaching load with inadequate equipment, …). As predicted by my thesis adviser, the joint appointment did not work out, and I was on the job market again 3–4 years later, where I got an appointment with a brand-new department at the university I still work for. I was the first person in my department to go up for tenure, and no one knew exactly how it worked (the senior faculty had been hired from industry directly with tenure). So I ended up being an assistant professor for 11 years (between the two jobs). Promotion was a bit slow after that also, so it took me much longer than usual at this campus to reach full professor.

    About the time I got tenure, one of my results that had been rejected from a journal appeared at conference without my name on it with the journal editor as one of the co-authors. I complained to the journal, which just handed my complaint to the editor. Since that editor controlled all the journals that were publishing in that subfield, I felt that I had no choice but to change fields. So I started from scratch in a completely different field, and helped found a new program and a new department (which is where I am currently).

    I burn out on research topics about every 10–15 years and have to start something completely different. I’ve been using 1-quarter sabbaticals for the past few years to work on my textbook and look for a new research field, but so far I’ve found only topics that might interest me as a hobbyist, not ones that would excite me enough to suffer the pain of grant writing.

  6. qaz: I think I agree that switching fields is a key to remaining stimulated. However, in my experience, which seems very much at odds with yours, switching fields is quite difficult, in the sense that in order to get funding in a new field, get your papers accepted, and get recognition for the work it takes a lot (A LOT!) of time and energy. I have always faced dismissal and pushback when trying to enter a new field, because in addition to being a newcomer, which leads to suspicion, I get to be an unknown female (thus incompetent and untrustworthy) entity all over again.

    I have been a faculty member for 14 years and have switched fields three times already. I now have a pretty broad portfolio and seek funding in all these directions. But except for my core community to which I’ve belonged since I was a grad student, I would not consider any of these communities welcoming or supportive. In contrast, they are quite cliquish, with several big groups citing one another and completely ignoring anything not produced within them. It is extremely hard to penetrate to the inner sanctum and even start getting papers published in good journals.

    Also, my attention span for a subfield is about 5-6 years, and by then I am ready for something new. Also (warning: horn tooting ahead), based on experiences, what I consider switching fields appears to be more drastic than what many other people consider as switching fields. I will tell you that in proposal review I often get “There is no way the PI is an expert in all these techniques” but the truth is that yes, I actually am. Most people have a small set of techniques which they apply to various problems, and perhaps across subareas. My group has acquired expertise in a much broader set of techniques than is common and we work on a much wider array of problems than usually encountered.

    I want to keep learning more and branching even further out. The problem is: it takes so long to train students to follow me where I want to go, it’s hard to get money for what I want to do, it’s disheartening to constantly have to re-convince new and new people that I am not a blithering idiot but an accomplished midcareer scientist with, yes, actually more breadth than they are used to seeing. My department is supportive and shows me institutional love (intramural funds etc.), but outside, it’s a very unsupportive world, with very competitive people who have no problem ignoring or actively expunging outsiders (i.e., anyone not part of the in-crowd). I can’t say I don’t understand them; money is tight and they have their own groups to protect. But for instance it breaks my heart to see some excellent early-career faculty unable to get grants at all despite phenomenal publication records because they don’t have the right pedigree and the gate keepers just won’t allow them in.

    So, qaz, I must admit I don’t really understand how your experience of moving into new fields has been so rosy. Maybe it’s a difference between your and my fields, or between bio and physical sciences, or between how one is greeted as a man versus a woman in a new field, or something idiosyncratic (maybe you’re a nice person everyone likes to have around and I’m just awful and repugnant). But what I see everywhere is lots and lots of friction; definitely no support. It’s far from enough to have cool ideas; getting the work funded and done and published is just so laborious that by the time the work is out there is no joy left. So yes, I do switch fields, and once I manage to get some cool papers out in a new field, people from my core area are all gaga about it and even the new field starts citing them, but for me right now getting into a new field means mostly dread because of all the boulders I have to move, again, which overshadows the excitement over new topics. Yet, not switching fields means certain boredom… So it’s between a rock (practical difficulty tackling topics in a new field) and a hard place (boredom).

  7. “And it’s going to get worse as the baby boomers retire and the dearth of Gen-X scientists has to fill the roles.”

    OH yes, this is a huge problem for several institutions I know of, including my own. There are a zillion “about to retires” and a zillion untenured and like… 2-3 people in between. The “about to retires” don’t want to do any committee work, and there’s almost no leverage to make them, whereas the untenured people can’t do much of the work as it requires you to have tenure (about half our committees).

    So the Gen X’ers are basically required to do 10x as much service work as everyone else. I can definitely understand if they get burnt out.

  8. I am almost 40 and at a very different career stage than you are (one year into tenure), and my field is more theoretical. I do have students, but only a few (3 or 4) at a time, and if needed, I could still do half the work we do in my lab without any students.

    The part of my job that I find the most exhausting is the constant foraging for funding. If funding weren’t a concern, I would keep working well into my 70s. But like you, I don’t envision myself playing the funding game for too much longer — certainly not longer than my 60s. At this point, I envision myself retiring gradually — in my 60s, I will still keep teaching and writing single author theory papers or theory papers with collaborators, but get out of the active funding game. One of my senior colleagues (who is super-famous!) recently retired, but still keeps writing single author math journal papers. If I am lucky, perhaps this will be my fate as well.

  9. xyq – I’ve definitely noticed that some fields are more welcoming than others.

    The fields I’ve successfully come into have been welcoming and have known that they’ve had open problems they’ve never been able to solve until I (and my colleagues) showed up with a different toolbox. In those fields, I’m definitely still an outsider, but I’ve been welcomed in as someone with a different toolbox to contribute. In all of those cases, what has happened is that I’ve found someone to collaborate with who is inside those fields who can bring me across the line.

    On the other hand, there have definitely been fields where I’ve tried to talk to them and been spurned as “untrained in the correct magic”. Truthfully, in those fields, what I’m seeing is that they have no idea of the freight train that is coming for their basic assumptions. And I think they are in denial.

    Funding definitely takes time. In my experience, the first papers take about 5 years and are often published in weak journals first, sometimes in the wrong journals, but with time, I can start to publish in the more consistent journals in the field. Overall, funding takes a very long time. I’ve been very lucky that I have a supportive university with lots of training and seed grants that like collaborations. My funding in these new fields is almost always collaborative. I certainly have never been successful getting funding in a new field on my own. In fact, most of my lab funding is still in the field that I did my graduate and postdoctoral work in. (Although I’m now on lots of collaborative grants in these other fields.)

    One of the things, for example, that I’ve seen in a large part of the field I live in, is that adding my part to another grant makes that grant stronger, but trying to fund a grant solely on that aspect of my field never gets funded.

    But at this point, I’ve got a track record of being collaborative and coming into a new field and helping, so people in new fields (like the most recent one) are actually seeking me out. (Which is really fun.)

    I don’t know the difference. I suspect that it is a combination of specifics of contribution, of field, and lots of other things. Unfortunately, without breaking the handles we use, I can’t explore in more detail what the differences are. (Although it would be interesting to see whether it’s field-specific [are we breaking into different fields?], toolbox-specific [is the toolbox I’m bringing differently useful to them than yours?], personality or gender-specific [?], or something else.)

    PS. The fields I’m switching between are *very* different – cutting across not just departments but colleges within universities.

  10. qaz, this is interesting. Based on your comments over the years, I think we can safely posit that you are nicer and more patient than me; I’m a pain in the ass. Having said that, here are some other differences that seem to hold:

    Funding definitely takes time. In my experience, the first papers take about 5 years and are often published in weak journals first, sometimes in the wrong journals, but with time, I can start to publish in the more consistent journals in the field. Overall, funding takes a very long time.

    It does, but in my field there are few safery nets. And the timescales for high-visibility publication are shorter; within five years, a fad has come and gone. I exaggerate a little, but not much.

    I’ve been very lucky that I have a supportive university with lots of training and seed grants that like collaborations.

    We have nothing like that. Most incoming students are supported from the get-go as research assistants. We have a very small number of one-year fellowships and a small number of TAs that are far from guaranteed. Now that I’m senior there is a bit of flexible money, but moving into new fields is generally challenging because there is little money to support these maneuvers.

    My funding in these new fields is almost always collaborative. I certainly have never been successful getting funding in a new field on my own. In fact, most of my lab funding is still in the field that I did my graduate and postdoctoral work in. (Although I’m now on lots of collaborative grants in these other fields.)

    I have single-PI money in all the different fields I work in, but in some it took a while (lots of papers) to start being competitive for single-PI funds. I still get “I am concerend the PI doesn’t have a track record in this field” even though I have 10-15 relevant papers.

    One of the things, for example, that I’ve seen in a large part of the field I live in, is that adding my part to another grant makes that grant stronger, but trying to fund a grant solely on that aspect of my field never gets funded.

    This has been the bane of my existence, too. I do theory and everyone likes me on their proposals, as it makes proposals stronger. They also love having a female collaborator on paper, especially for NSF; in reality, I routinely get stiffed for funds and am always expected to be in a supporting role (do what they tell me to do) rather than as a partner. I didn’t get into this job to have a boss. My long-term collaborations are those where I’m not treated as a gun/computer for hire but as an equal. However, that generally means (80% of the time) that I get my money and the experimentalist get theirs, and then we work more or less in parallel, with some consultation.

    But at this point, I’ve got a track record of being collaborative and coming into a new field and helping, so people in new fields (like the most recent one) are actually seeking me out. (Which is really fun.)

    People seek me out too, but it’s often them having this ‘great’ idea about this complicated calculation I could do, but with my own money, of course. People don’t seem to think that my students need to eat or pay the rent. This drives me up the wall. At this point in my career I typically say fuck to the no, politely, to these unpaid collaboration suggestions where I’m supposed to do something out of the left field with no funds because someone else needs a theorist, thereby spending my own hard-won monies that were meant for something else. (I am sure at least some would say that makes me seem uncollaborative and difficult. Whatever.)

    I have colleagues who happily have 100% of their funds as collaborative and all of their students as coadvised. They are nice and patient people.
    That setup is not for me. I know what I want to do and, over time, I’ve found out that I am happiest when I am the PI and when I don’t interact with collaborators too frequently. My long-term collaborations tend to be productive but less joined at the hip than many others. (I said I’m a pain in the ass. 😉 )

  11. My PhD advisor exactly fits your description of Prof. Silverback.
    He is in his mid 70s, very active and publishes a lot, was recognized by the community very early on (he published his first book a couple of years after his PhD and it’s a classic in my sub-area of applied mathematics), no family, and yes he’s a white male.

    He has an interesting model though. Since he’s super famous and well sought after, he is rarely a PI on a grant – basically let other people do the tedious job of arranging funds and he would focus on the interesting aspects of science. Hence he usually has just one or two grad students at a time, but several collaborations running in all parts of the world where he frequently travels. The man loves his science and even now his eyes light up while discussing any interesting problem.

    I’m definitely in awe of his professional success but I guess it comes at a huge cost of neglecting the personal life and family. I personally prefer a more balanced approach – moderate success in career and comfortable personal life. Anyway, to each their own.

    This is from UK, by the way.

  12. What a great post and discussion.

    BioBrains’s comment read like sweet validation. I’ve been completely wiped out getting to this stage too. Apparently I almost have tenure, but (as lyra writes), part of me has wondered if I’d be happier without it.

    What worries me is that I don’t feel like I’m thinking deeply or doing science anymore. I’m managing, strategizing how to write papers and grants most efficiently for acceptance, and probably placating too often collaborators who see me as a quant for hire rather than a scientist in my own right. (I find those collaborators are key to my getting funding and data too, so I indulge them statistically, but probably more than I should. I am not sure I am seen as independent.) I am barely reading papers. At its max, my lab had four grad students and two postdocs, and I couldn’t handle all the “training” required… fixing their writing, pointing out bugs and logic errors, reminding them of papers. What does that say? I’m worried I can’t multitask to a profound degree.

    I’m forgetting how to program, I’m barely learning new techniques, I’m barely reading… I’m simultaneously getting a deeper perspective in some areas and initiating exciting new projects, but this doesn’t feel satisfying or sustainable.

    I’m considering jumping ship to a R1 with lower expectations (although they’d hire me with tenure) but more teaching. I’m worried the teaching would do me in. Or maybe I can stay here, deliberately shrink my lab (or increase the independence of current and new hires, but I am still junior and have little luck with this), and set aside a few hours for me to analyze and read deeply, not just help other people all the time. Other faculty, how do you balance these things?

  13. I think we get into science to do science and in academia so we can do science without being worried about the profit motive. The grants stuff is one of the few thing that upsets me. I’m mid or late career depending on how you think about it, I’m 49, a faculty for 21 years, and most would say on paper I’m successful: 150 publications, NIH-funded, received lots of awards, my postdoc mentor won the Nobel 13 years after I finished work in his lab, etc. I have some of the best and brightest students working with me and I appreciate that a lot. I’ve had my share of ups and downs however, and in particular I went through a period of burnout after working intensely and getting early tenure and publishing 15-20 papers a year with a large research group. I started developing health issues and then had to slow down and find balance which I have. However, this “balanced life” while personally satisfying I can see isn’t at the same level it was in my 30s. Sometimes I wonder why I bother doing stuff I don’t like, like writing grants (actually I don’t mind writing grants, but it’s the reviewers that drive me nuts). My grad school mentor would say if you’re doing something innovative you’ll walk a lonely path.

    I did sort of change fields and switched institutions which is one of the best decisions I could’ve made. Since I’m in informatics the sky is really the limit. But because it is informatics, we have to work with collaborators to do the validation which is fine – this all works. But then putting grants together is like herding cats and successes are few and far in between. Still, they are trickling in and better than nothing I think. It just takes a LONG time I find.

    In my view you have to enjoy the process, not the outcomes whatever they are (good or bad). This isn’t about the publications, grants, awards, promotions, etc. though it’s easy to forget and I’m writing this down to remind myself of that. This is about the science so we get more dopamine from doing the science, then we’ll be on the right path and not ego driven. But if we focus on the outcomes and derive more dopamine from that, then the process will get tiring and boring.

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