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Scientists Face Special Concerns When Considering Retirement

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am a 68-year old microbiologist and professor specializing in cancer research with considerable funding. Retirement, on the mind of many of my aging colleagues, is a concern. I am afraid we may be blocking the progress of younger scientists from getting grants, perhaps slowing progress in cancer and other research. We also may be an obstacle to the success of younger scientists. Giving up something you love which is a part of your identity is not an easy pill to swallow. Any thoughts on how to approach the retirement decision for impassioned scientists?

Answer: Your concern and passion about the progress of cancer research and the careers of your younger colleagues is a tribute to you and your values.

The retirement decision is not always easy. Although it is about money and affordability, there is so much more. A recent article in Science magazine, “The Graying of NIH Research,” affirms your concern.

In 1980, there were few National Institutes of Health-funded principal investigators older than 70. One reason is that until 1994, faculty at most universities were forced to retire at that age because of mandatory retirement. With the removal of the mandatory retirement age, the number of funded older principal investigators has increased. In 2007, at least 400 funded researchers were older than 70.

According to NIH projections, by 2020 grantees older than 68 could outnumber scientists under 38. The average age of scientists to obtain their first NIH grant is now 42. As a way to increase funding for younger scientists, the NIH is setting numerical targets at each institute for grants to newcomers – referred to as “affirmative action for new grantees.”

Science magazine interviewed about 20 researchers 70 and older asking their views on this policy. According to the publication, most praised “the idea of introducing new blood but only about half said they were ready to relinquish their own lab.”

One scientist who was interviewed commented that he can’t imagine doing anything else and he “will keep doing research until somebody stops me from doing it.” Another indicated that “funding should be based strictly on scientific merit, not age.” He continued, “We’re the only profession judged by our peers every three to five years. If older scientists can pass that trial, I am comfortable with that.”

Yet another stated, “If I and other old birds continue to land grants, the (young scientists) are not going to get them.” Another commented, “Once I reach 81, 82, it would be a poor decision (to stay) for myself, my university and for the students.” Others decided to move into teaching, with the hope for greater recognition for teaching and mentoring junior faculty members.

Here are a few considerations that might serve as a brief guide to help you make the retirement decision:

I would consider continuing my scientific research (or other type of work) if I…

  • Like starting each day by immersing myself in my work.
  • Want to continue to solve problems, address challenges and create change.
  • Find my work challenging and fulfilling.
  • Feel energized by my colleagues and co-workers.
  • Enjoy the recognition for my accomplishments and contributions.
  • Have the energy and the mental and physical capacity to continue.
  • See more opportunities that are exciting and gratifying.

Having many “yes” answers may lead you to your decision.

A difficult question is “What’s next if (and when) I retire?” One approach is to determine what you value in your work. Consider using those aspects of work that motivate you as guides in seeking your next chapter in life.

Work values include making a difference, valuing your achievements and accomplishments, being an authority figure, having a sense of belonging, wanting intellectual stimulation, being a leader or mentor, having prestige, pursuing passion, working with colleagues and solving important problems.

You might evaluate your options against the values important to you in your life as a scientist. If you want continue involvement in your field during retirement, consider YourEncore. See It is a network of retired and experienced scientists and engineers with proven excellence who are connected to industry-leading companies such as Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly and Co., the Boeing and General Mills. Critical projects are identified that require the skills of experts in the network.

One last thought: Unless you organize other mature scientists to leave for the “good of the cause,” follow your own desires – and also mentor the next generation. Anyone who has faced, or will face, cancer in his or her lifetime will be grateful for your contributions.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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