Warning: navel gazing
If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know that last July I moved into “phased retirement”, or “semi-retirement” if you prefer. Administratively, I’m now in 62% of a professorial job, and will be for another year before full retirement. I get asked a lot how that’s working out. About a month in, I attempted to answer that question; but for obvious reasons (a month, lol!) it was a poor attempt. Now, at six months, I have a better idea. So if you’re interested (perhaps you’re contemplating something similar yourself), here’s my update.
I knew at the start I wouldn’t be suddenly and magically doing only 62% of the work. I still have grad students and collaborations I’ve committed to, and I’m not deserting anybody – which will make it much more of a gradual wind-down than a step function. But I can feel the reduced pressure (and I like it). I’ve gone for walks in the middle of the day. I’ve taken days off with family or just for a break. And I’ve focused “work” activities increasingly on the parts of the job I like (more about that below), and away from the parts I don’t.
This fall, I taught only 1/3 of a single undergraduate course, rather than the 1½ that would be more normal for me. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Like a LOT of my colleagues, I’d been suffering pandemic-related teaching burnout, and it was wonderful to have that burnout lift and to discover that I can still enjoy teaching engaged students. (I feel a certain amount of guilt that I can escape this burnout while my younger colleagues can’t. It’s not a reasonable kind of guilt, of course, but I still feel it.) In winter I’ll offer my Scientific Writing course (sadly for the last time). That course is a lot of work, but it usually involves some of the most amazing students I get to deal with, so I expect it to be fun. I have a new experiment to run this year: a “lectures-and-workshops only” version of the course that I think can achieve a significant fraction of the teaching at a small fraction of the effort. Stay tuned to hear more about that.
The key to moving into retirement, of course, is saying “no”. That’s because what makes up an academic job is so extraordinarily ill-defined:* it’s not like doing 62% of the job is as simple as clocking out after 4.6 hours rather than 7.5! Saying “no” takes practice, but I’m getting better at it. I’ve said “no” to some small things (manuscript reviews, committee roles) and to some rather large ones (impressive grad-student applicants, two potentially sizeable research grants/contracts). Somewhat ironically, I’ve said “no” to a few things I’ll likely say “yes” to once I’ve wound things down a little more – in particular, to a couple of requests to serve as an external examiner for interesting-sounding theses. Later, that will be a fun way to stay academically engaged; but right now, it’s a surreptitious way to stay working full time!
As I mentioned, I’m beginning to be able to focus on the parts of the job (by “job” I mean “being a scientist”, not “drawing a university paycheque”) that I like. I’ve just submitted the final manuscript for a book chapter on scientific naming, for an edited volume entitled “Onomastics and the Law: Names, Identity, Power, and Policy”. (Yes, I did have to look up what “onomastics” was.) I don’t often write chapters for edited volumes, because a chapter’s most common fate seems to be to sink like a stone tablet. But this one was fun. It let me introduce scientific naming to a rather different audience, and it let me work out some ideas about naming that I can develop further in writing to come. (This post about changing species’ common names, and this one about text-mining with Google tools, had their roots in work for the book chapter.) I’ve signed a contract to co-write a book on teaching and mentoring writing, and I’ve been outlining another book on the history of attitudes (both scientific and popular) to extinction. I’m not retiring to go for long walks in the woods – or rather, I’m not retiring to only do that. I have ideas I’d like to explore and write about, and I’m beginning to spend more time with those ideas.
So: the bottom line is, so far so good. Maybe I should have done this a few years ago!
© Stephen Heard December 27, 2022
Image: walk the woods, CC0 by Unsplash via StockVault
*^My brother, who is not an academic, once asked me who my boss was. I was speechless. Not only did I not have an answer, I hadn’t even thought about the question. Was it my Chair? My Dean? My VP Academic? Did it depend on what part of the job (teaching, research, service) we were talking about? I couldn’t even decide if the question was even meaningful. There aren’t a lot of jobs like that.