Why I believe securing a happy academically active retirement is a lottery

November 4, 2005

You know the kind of conversation academics have: they are generally littered with bitter complaints about excessive workloads, the growth of audit culture, lack of resources and not enough time to do research and writing. And they often end with the remark "can't wait to retire".

But how do academics deal with retirement? Most discussion on planning for that phase of life seems to centre on money, whereas, as my own retirement approached, I began to wonder what this change of status would mean. How do people define and redefine themselves, and how are they seen by other academics?

It had first dawned on me how problematic the status of being retired is for some academics when I came across two who had taken early retirement but kept this a deadly secret from their colleagues (except their heads of department). To all intents and purposes, both continued to work as before.

The reason was, apparently, worry about becoming a "has-been". And yet everyone I know who has retired - whether early or not - claims to "love it", "have no regrets", "have never been so busy" or be "really enjoying" themselves.

These two views seemed rather contradictory, so I decided to investigate further.

My straw poll of academic friends and colleagues who have taken the plunge was revealing; apparently there is no universal script for academic retirement. Most of them wished, at least initially, to retain affiliation with their departments. However, the designations and facilities they were given varied enormously, ranging from keeping one's room to being offered nothing more than a library card.

One colleague is very happy with his situation. "I wanted to remain academically active, and my department did not want to lose me, so they gave me the title of 'research professor'. I kept my room and still do things for the department, but they don't have to pay me a salary. A win-win situation," he says.

But his is a rare case. Another colleague told me: "I requested the title of research professor, but it was refused on the grounds that 'everyone would want one'." Or even worse: "I was told that I could use the fellows'

room. When I investigated it, I found that it had no facilities and was used mainly for people to store their sports gear, so it smelt awful."

Most retired academics do not expect to retain a room, but other markers of attachment can also be significant such as a mention on the faculty website, a place in the departmental picture gallery, retaining one's e-mail address, or even just a pigeon-hole for post.

One told me: "I came in one day and found that my pigeonhole had disappeared. On investigation, I learnt that it had been given to a postgraduate whom I had previously taught."

The replies I received to my questions indicated that many academics welcome the opportunity on retirement to take up new activities and, after a time, may even begin to redefine themselves. But this tends not to happen immediately.

Many wish to continue, at least initially, to consider themselves as members of their discipline, and to read, write, attend conferences and seminars and perhaps continue to teach part time and supervise their remaining PhD students, as well as completing projects under way.

It is clear, however, that the feasibility of such plans depends to a large extent on the co-operation of institutions - most of which seem to have no formal policies on how they deal with their retired staff. This seems a pity for both parties and perhaps merits more discussion in the academic community.

Pat Caplan is a formally 'retired' but 'academically active' academic, thanks to a supportive anthropology department at Goldsmiths, University of London

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