I’ve now been semi-retired for one month: I moved to my new 60% appointment on July 1. Already I’m getting asked what it’s like, and how it’s going. I’ll update you occasionally on this journey, but here’s my early answer to “what’s it like?” and “how’s it going?”. I don’t really know.
Here’s what my summer has looked like so far. I still have 5 grad students (weirdly, my decision to begin retirement didn’t make them suddenly and magically finish up and defend), and they’re still sending me chapters, consulting me on experiments and data, and needing to know which account they can charge their primers to.* I have a full-time technician, two half-time technicians, a half-time project manager, and five part-time lab assistants.** I just revised one manuscript after review (this one), and we expect reviews soon on another (this one). The second-last day before my magic semi-retirement date, I got a contract for a major new piece of field work (a regional survey of mosquito populations) that I’d assumed we weren’t going to get. And in 2022, the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re finally able to mount a full-scale field season in our work on soil carbon storage during spruce budworm outbreaks in the spruce-fir forest of Quebec.
So I’ve been more busy than ever, and some folks (cough, cough, my wife, cough, cough) are tempted to point to this as evidence that my retirement project is failing. I have days when I feel like that too. But: it was always the plan that the transition be a smooth curve, not a step function. Not for a moment did I think I’d be working flat-out on June 30, but only 60% on July 1. Academia, for one thing, is generally project-based rather than hours-based***; it will take some time for projects now underway to work their way through to completion. (I’m using “project” here very broadly; it would include people, especially grad students. Maybe it’s awkward usage to call “Alice” my “project”, but “Alice’s success as a scientist” certainly is.)
Now, could I be ramping down faster? Probably. I’ve started saying “no” to quite a few things; but I did read an MSc thesis I could have ducked (but it was interesting!). I did do a promotion-and-tenure review I could have refused (but it was for a rising star whose work I admire!). And I did accept an invitation to write a book chapter about scientific naming (wait until to you see the fun angle!). Over time I’ll get stricter about these sorts of requests, but I’m in no rush to go to 100% “no”, because these are some of the things I really enjoy about being in science. It’s better to think about this summer as the beginning of an gradual evolution from asking myself “should I do this?” to asking myself “do I want to do this?”
Anyway, in an odd reversal I’m looking forward to the semester starting so I can get a break (my semi-retirement teaching is sharply reduced, and this fall is especially light). Meanwhile, I’m taking days, or quitting early, now and then – without any guilt, which is something of a novel feeling.
All right, maybe now I do know how it’s going so far. Pretty much as planned, with just enough fleeting tastes of reduced work to make me pretty confident I’m doing the right thing. Phew.
© Stephen Heard August 9, 2022
*^The first two are fun. The third one…well, most of you will know by now the shockingly large part of a faculty job that consists of book-keeping.
**^And the shockingly large part of a faculty job that consists of filling out HR forms and then managing your hires. Each of which has its own challenges.
***^And yes, you’ll see a lot of folks arguing that this is exploitative and that one should work 37.25 hours a week and then quit, and that the moment one’s paycheque goes to 60%, one should quite after 22.3 hours. This view would, I think, involve breaching quite a few commitments to other folks.