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Mapping the Route to Retirement

CREDIT: Pleuntje/Flickr

Zalman Amit, a woodturner, performs his craft from a 220-year-old house overlooking the ocean in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, a place he describes as "one of the most beautiful spots on Earth." But Amit, 76, hasn't always been a rural craftsman. Until 11 years ago, he was a psychology professor at the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology at Concordia University in Montreal. He decided to retire after undergoing major cardiac surgery at 62. He asked himself, "Do I want to be an academic until they take me out in a box?" he says. "Me and my wife concluded there were other things we wanted to do."

"When you're working, you have a sense of mission and purpose. What's going to keep you engaged in life when you leave?" - Nancy Schlossberg

Amit chose to retire from science in his 60s. Others choose to stay on long after the traditional retirement age. Today, more of them have a choice: In April 2011, the United Kingdom scrapped its default retirement age, which gave employers the right to force retirement on employees 65 or older. U.K. scientists joined scientists in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada who have the right to decide for themselves when, and how, to retire.

Peter Harper (Credit: Cardiff University Media Resources)


Like any career step, retirement benefits from early planning. "People ought to think about retirement up to 10 years before," says Caroline Lodge, a retired senior lecturer at the Institute of Education at the University of London. Professor emeritus Marcus Pembrey, a 68-year-old clinical geneticist at University College London's Institute of Child Health, did exactly that: He decided when he was 45 that he wanted to retire in 10 years' time.

"People should step down before they have to," advises Peter Harper, a 72-year-old professor emeritus at Cardiff University. Senior scientists who remain in posts, Harper says, "can get stale, and it blocks the way for younger people coming up." Harper gave up the leadership of his medical genetics department in 2004, 5 years before his planned retirement at 65, the U.K.'s default retirement age until this year. Over those next 5 years, he wound down his research and switched from medical genetics to science history, which he thought would be a pleasant part-time retirement activity.

Feature Special on Retirement

Like any other career step, retirement benefits from early planning. In this article freelance writer Vivienne Raper gives a low-down on how to map the route to retirement. In a second article freelancer Lucas Laursen describes the solutions some senior researchers have found around mandatory retirement ages.

Some scientists time their retirement to allow them to fulfill a lifelong dream. Stanley Falkow, professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, decided to retire "to pursue opportunities in life I'd ... never had time" for before, he says. "I did something I've wanted to do since I was a boy, and that is to fly airplanes." But Falkow didn't retire early. He retired last year, at 76.

Financial planning

Money is, of course, an important consideration in deciding when (and whether) to retire. Irene Little, a former astronomy professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and her astronomer husband, Stephen, moved in 1990 to the cabin they'd built a decade before in Estes Park, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park, but they couldn't afford to retire fully until 1997. Before then, Irene rented an apartment and continued to work at Wellesley, and Stephen taught an honors course at the University of Colorado, Boulder, until their children graduated from high school. After that, they continued to teach as adjunct professors and ran workshops. "Ultimately, when you can retire is a question of money," she says.

Dan Keady, director of financial planning at TIAA-CREF, which provides pension plans to many U.S. university employees, recommends a wealth check to estimate how much income is needed to retire. This will allow scientists to assess whether they need to ramp up their savings, dial down their spending plans, delay retirement to get a larger pension, or go for a part-time job.

Keady recommends planning to have at least 80% of your late-career salary after retirement. Check how much income you'll receive from pensions in your home country. Also investigate what other pensions you may qualify for if, like many scientists, you've worked internationally. European scientists can claim a retirement pension from each E.U. country they've worked in for more than a year once they reach their national pensionable age. Check what pension rules apply to your home country or institution and how much leeway you have to choose, with your employer's agreement, your retirement age.

Especially in the United States, scientists need to decide how much of their pension fund to take out as an annuity. An annuity is a sort of insurance policy that guarantees a certain income for life. The downside is the insurer keeps unused annuity payments when you die. "Many of our participants will annuitize," Keady says about TIAA-CREF plan holders. "Here in the U.S., it's important because [while] most people in the university system have a social security check, ... it's probably not enough."

Often investments constitute another income source; in fact, retirement decisions may be delayed when stock markets fall. For this reason, Keady recommends examining your mix of stock funds, interest-bearing accounts, and other investment schemes. As you get closer to retirement, you may think differently about the amount of risk you're willing to take," he says. Issues can get complex quickly, so seek financial advice early in the planning process.

Winding down

For academic scientists, retirement often needs to be gradual so that research projects and junior careers are not derailed. Some scientists wind down their research by passing their projects on to colleagues. When applying for grants in his early 70s, Falkow designated two tenure-track colleagues as co–principal investigators. "They took over the supervision of students and put their own stamp and direction on the research," Falkow says. "My role was increasingly advisory and supportive." He waited until his last grant expired to retire officially.

Stanley Falkow (CREDIT: Manuel Amieva)

Pembrey stopped taking Ph.D. students 5 years before his retirement. One year before, Amit gave his remaining students a choice: find a new supervisor or continue with him, remotely. "With the Internet, it's not difficult to communicate even if I wasn't full time at the university," he says. Falkow helped his assistant and his electron microscopist find new jobs.

One complication of winding down your career -- especially when you do it early -- is managing the expectations of colleagues and bosses. Pembrey negotiated early retirement with his dean 9 years before he turned 55. At first the dean was skeptical, Pembrey says, because he "expected me to take on senior administrative positions at age 55 to give back to the institute. I said I'd try to do it ahead of time, which I did."

Marcus Pembrey (CREDIT: Ben Jones/The Progress Educational Trust)

A sense of purpose

Retiring isn't just a professional and financial decision. Retirement can also affect your identity and sense of purpose, says Nancy Schlossberg, a professor emerita in counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "How do you see yourself if you're not a professor? For most people that's a major thing," she says. "When you're working, you have a sense of mission and purpose. What's going to keep you engaged in life when you leave?"

One way of holding on to your identity is to keep doing your job, even if you're officially retired. For a decade after he retired, Pembrey worked 3 or 4 days a week as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a large health-research project for which he previously was director of genetics. The Institute for Child Health paid him 10% of his previous salary on top of his university pension. Falkow taught an unpaid undergraduate course on how infectious diseases influence the course of history, with his wife, an associate dean at Stanford's School of Medicine . Even if you keep working, retirement lets you decide when and how much. "The question is, do we teach it again, or do we go to the Seychelles next year to do some snorkeling?" Falkow muses.

Credit: Daphna Levit
Zalman Amit and his woodturning craft

Scientists who cut their ties with the scientific world may have a tougher time, partly because of the way cutting ties affects relationships. "Once you leave the university, you won't see the same people day after day," Schlossberg says. And "if you're used to working separately every day and now you're [both] at home, it changes your relationship with your significant other." Many scientists continue to live near their university so they can use the library or visit friends. A good social network outside of work can also replace workplace camaraderie.

An absorbing hobby is another remedy. "I have some friends who've retired [for whom] the question of self-identity was a big issue. Who am I? Where do I want to go?" Amit recalls. For him, woodturning "alleviated that apprehension and sense of trauma," he says. The transition to retirement was "a very good experience." Eleven years on, he's never found himself missing the office, nor his identity as a university professor.

Retiring Lives , a book coedited by Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell

Nancy Schlossberg's book Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose

A July 2010 research summary "A comparative review of international approaches to mandatory retirement" by the U.K. government's Department for Work and Pensions

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development's "Pensions at a Glance 2011: Retirement-Income Systems in OECD and G20 Countries"

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