Some career news: a(nother) metamorphosis begins

Warning: navel gazing.

I’ve not been noted, over my career, for laser-focused stick-to-it-iveness. Instead, I’ve reinvented myself a few times, changing my research focus – among other things – repeatedly. But I’m about to launch my biggest reinvention yet. I’m retiring – albeit gradually and not right away.

As I write, I’m in my very last week of full time professoring.* As of July 1st 2022, I’m moving to a 60% appointment,** and in December 2023 I will retire from my position as Professor of Biology at the University of New Brunswick. It’s a little early for me (I’ll be 58 years old at retirement), but it feels like the right time.

When I’ve told my colleagues about this, they nearly all ask two questions. The first is “why?”, and the second is “what are you going to do next?”. So for those who are interested, here’s a stab at it. The two answers are intertwined.

Why? Well, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the best job on the entire planet. There’s not much better than learning new things about nature, and telling other people about them! But I’ve been professoring for 27 years now, and parts of it are getting a little old.*** I still love discovering new things, but I’m less enamored with shepherding papers through publication. I still love having students around me, but I’m less excited about grading piles of papers. I still love ideas about how to make universities better, but I’m a bit tired – OK, a lot tired – of the committee work it takes to refine them, and the way higher administration almost always discards the results in favour of glossy but meaningless strategic plans. So I’ve realized that there are parts of professoring that I love, and parts that I don’t love – and that I can decide to do the former parts but not the latter parts.

What will I do next? Well, that last bit probably gives you a clue. I’m not going to quit science cold turkey. I have proposals in the works for two new books – one allied to The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, and one rather loosely allied to Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. I’ll give the occasional guest lecture or writing workshop. I’ll sit on a grad student committee or two, and be open to a secondary role in an interesting collaboration. And I’ll offer to help some colleagues with their research in the field – one of the things I’ve always enjoyed enormously is other people’s field work. All this, I hope, will add up to just enough science to keep me engaged and connected to the thrill of discovery. And little enough to give me time to walk, and think, and explore, and maybe even to finally learn to tell sandpipers apart.

OK, maybe that last bit is aiming too high.

© Stephen Heard  June 28, 2022

 Image: Metamorphosis © Annatsach via CC BY 4.0

*^The squiggly red line under that as I type suggests that Word doesn’t think “professoring” is a real word. Or maybe that Word doesn’t think it’s a real job. It’s not the first time I’ve been judged by my software, and it probably won’t be the last either.

**^Well, actually, 62%, and that hyperprecise number has a backstory which you, as a reader of this footnote, may find amusing. To move into this “phased retirement” part-time appointment, I had to submit a work plan explaining the percent workload I was proposing. So I did, proposing 62%, and I included a footnote that laid out the arithmetic behind this in the kind of detail you’d expect if you know how my very nerdy brain works.  You know, I’ll be doing X% of my undergraduate teaching, Y% of my university service, and Z% on average of my graduate supervision as my current students finish over the next two years; and my portfolio is A% teaching, B% service, and C% research, and so X% times A% plus Y% times B% plus… well, it went on for a while. And then I wrote “I realize that this calculation is ludicrously detailed and the 62% figure is unreasonably precise. That’s just how my brain works, and we can discuss the actual number”.  But nobody in administration seem to have read the footnote; or at least, nobody ever mentioned it, and the document came back duly stamped ‘approved’ and here we are. And that’s why you should always read the fine print.

***^As am I. But I didn’t bring you here for that lame joke (well, not just for that lame joke). I brought you here to point out that one big reason all this is getting old for me is the extraordinary amount of extra labour we’ve all put in to get our universities, and our students through the Covid-19 pandemic. Well, that and the abject failure of my university, like most, to recognize that labour from its faculty and staff. Pivoting courses to online, for example, was all-consuming for many months, as was pivoting research to make up for missed field seasons. I have to admit that both pivots worked out well for me, in the end: I think my online courses were very successful, and some of my lab’s “pandemic projects” are really fun. But that doesn’t get around the fact that I, like most of my colleagues, put in hundreds upon hundreds of extra hours, and for that my university has kindly provided a perfunctory and impersonal mass ‘thanks’ email and the offer of a couple of wellness webinars. University leadership during the pandemic has been, by and large, disgraceful. I’m lucky that I can step back to recover, and I feel for my early-career colleagues who can’t. And, since you’re still here reading this: I’ve finally done it. These footnotes, collectively, are longer than the post they’re footnoting. I’ve jumped the footnote shark.


26 thoughts on “Some career news: a(nother) metamorphosis begins

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    Congratulations on your career so far, and on your transition starting, and on your future doing interesting things with interesting people. I hope you continue to post here, and also hope you continue to harvest from your sugar maples and discuss it.


  2. Kathy Daub

    Well, this is a shock! Wait a minute, I retired at 55, so I give you the same authority. It just seems that the years have gone by way too quickly! I definitely enjoyed reading your post and your explanation of plans. I’m sure you’ll have no shortage of projects to create your next challenges.

    All the very best, Aunt Kathy



  3. John Pastor

    Congratulations, Steve! I retired five years ago and am doing more interesting science now than I did when I was “working”. My advice: stay away from any and all committees! Thanks for these columns over the years and your books and best wishes.


  4. Jason Munshi-South

    Congratulations on your retirement! Thank you also for posting the explanation. It is very helpful. For some time it has been my plan to retire between 55-58 yo. That gives me another 12-15 years, which seems like enough time for a full-time career (started as an asst prof at 29 yo). My spot may then also be opened for a younger colleague, although I realize the long-term trends are bad in this regard.

    It is difficult to discuss these plans with other academics, as there are at least 3 common reactions: 1) Why would you ever plan to retire? This job is so great! 2) How could you ever afford to retire? followed by a list of that person’s monetary woes, and 3) What would you do retiring so young?

    Answers in my head: 1) It is still a job, and entails much work on tasks that aren’t enjoyable; 2) I didn’t pay off my student loans until after 40 but have been saving continuously, and lucky to have a spouse that has been doing the same since starting her career in her early 20’s; and 3) There are so many things to do!


  5. Pingback: I think I finally like writing | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  6. Pingback: So, how’s (semi) retirement going? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  7. Pingback: Six months into “phased retirement”: how it’s going | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.