Having an academic midlife crisis? Don’t just coast to retirement

Too many academics who have lost their motivation mid-career abuse a system that is often unable or unwilling to confront them, says Brian Bloch

June 19, 2024
Unproductive senior office worker sitting at desk and building a card castle instead of working
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At some point, generally in their forties, many academics have simply had enough of the game and want out. However, many stay on until retirement anyway, either because of a lack of alternative options or simply because it is the path of least resistance. The consequences can be dire for everyone around them.

That motivation is fundamental to working effectively is no secret, especially to those with a business and management background. But the particular propensity of academia to incubate demotivation and “internal resignation” is rarely acknowledged.

One of my university friends had a tenured position at a top US institution but it always bothered him that, even there, many colleagues “did not teach well, did no research themselves and were hanging around waiting to retire”.

After a couple of decades, he too was tired of being forced to teach more or less the same material year after year and to devote huge tracts of time to tedious work on articles that seemed to have little impact on anything beyond his CV. He told me that he could not continue on this treadmill for the rest of his career.

But he had a positive route out. He was already doing some lucrative consulting and financing start-ups, so he moved into this full-time, with considerable success and high motivation.

In a similar vein, I know a successful and charismatic professor of business administration who resigned in his forties to set up a management consulting company. This developed into a major international success and the former professor is still regarded as a leader of managerial thinking.

Others move into university administration. One former arts professor I know, desperate for a change of scene, found that she “liked university politics” and moved into senior management full-time. It took several institutional moves to get to the very top, but she got there in the end.

Others find ethically and academically problematic solutions to their mid-career crises, however. Some of them stop doing the job properly or evade parts of it altogether – while concealing this reality by exploiting both the system and those who depend on them. An extreme case was a professor who openly told his doctoral students that, now that he had a chair, he “was going to enjoy life”. These hapless PhD candidates not only had to do all his research (which he presented in his CV as his own work), but also all the administration for his teaching, as well as formulate his PowerPoint slides and set and mark his exams.

Meanwhile, the professor spent most of his time working hard on setting up a research institute in another country. The institute was grateful, awarding him an honorary doctorate, but one of his colleagues described his activities to me as “a complete perversion of what a professor is supposed to do”.

Another negative solution was found by a formally full-time business professor who ignored research entirely apart from a bit of supervision and appeared on campus only for teaching or meetings, spending more than half his time in his office at a management consultancy firm. When an equal-ranking professor broached this subject with him, he turned nasty, and the hostility did not cease for 20 years.

How common are such demotivated “dead wood” academics? A colleague in languages once told me that, at her university, “half the academic staff would resign tomorrow if they could afford to”, in part because of their sense that promotion was nepotistic and that, not being in with the right people, they stood no chance. She and her professor husband eventually moved back to their home country and retired, aided no doubt by an inheritance or two. But too many feel they have no choice but to linger on.

For instance, I know of a professor who was outstanding but whose extremely narrow field of expertise became progressively less attractive to students and journals over time. Eventually, the university could no longer justify keeping her on and suggested early retirement. She would have gone but calculated that her pension would be higher if she remained until the usual retirement age. So, for a decade, she kept more or less busy with committee work, the occasional abstruse article and some guest lecturing here and there within the university.

At least she was aware that she had become a liability to her department, as she admitted to me. Others, though, appear to rationalise their unethical practice as beyond their control. One of the people mentioned above, for instance, once justified his attitude by explaining to me that he “cannot change the system”.

I agree that the problem is with the system, but not in the sense he intended. Universities are full of outstanding professors dedicated to their subject, students and institutions, some of whom continue to deliver even after retirement. But those who go stale – and who in other industries would be pushed out – are permitted to remain by an academic system that is all too often unable or unwilling to confront them.

By resigning only internally, they block the progress of younger colleagues better able to do a good job, short-change students and, in turn, demotivate their colleagues.

The problem, in short, is a system that too easily permits itself to be abused.

Brian Bloch is a journalist, academic editor and lecturer in English for academic research at the University of Münster.


Print headline: Having a midlife crisis? Don’t just hang around waiting to retire

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Reader's comments (4)

This hit piece reads like a Tom Sharpe novel- full of cliches and stereotypes. I don't think this author understands academia, has much respect for it, and it's not an 'industry'. Yes, there is some 'deadwood', but also specialisation, tenure, and collegiality are essential for research. Market forces, by contrast, have sent UK Universities to the brink and morale is terrible. Research (and teaching) is not a business but a public good.
I’ve seen this too often and even have to manage some of these clowns. Hopefully the coming downturn might solve the problem as they’ll be top of my list should redundancies occur.
There's two sides to every story and, while I'm not disputing the cases in this piece, we have to look at the fact that many if not most institutions, in the UK anyway, provide limited incentive for staff not to work strictly to contract. I went through the promotion process once and, while successful, it was so degrading that I have no desire to repeat the experience. I have colleagues who gave above and beyond to the Dean, with promises of promotion to Chair strongly suggested but never formalised with the prospect snatched away when they were no longer of use to him. Then there's the fast declining quality of students - mainly from overseas markets, from undergrad to PhD - who are sent to our office doors as if they have any academic ability at all. There's the demands to turn around large quantities of marking in less than a week to satisfy student satisfaction scores. I know colleagues who've simply given up and just give failing students 52 because the alternative is they'll haunt us with resits until we buckle. If there's widespread staff malaise, universities must take much of the blame.
I am glad it is all this simple. Good girls / guys and then bad girls / guys. Their personality and personal circumstances play no role in any of it, nor does the nature of the institution or the way they are being managed. If they do one thing badly, they apparently do everything badly. A very refreshing perspective!