Gliding Toward Retirement

Elizabeth H. Simmons answers colleagues’ questions about smoothing the pathway toward a fulfilling retirement.

November 29, 2022
A white glider plane in a blue sky.
(Nicola Colombo/istock/getty images plus)

As an academic leader, one of the most important services I can provide for my senior faculty colleagues is to help them plan for a smooth transition to retirement. For many faculty members, the career has been such a central part of their lives that they may not be able to imagine what might lie beyond. Some have not thought about retirement options or spent time learning about the retirement processes until a life event forces the issue to the forefront of their attention. They then may abruptly realize they are unsure of how to learn about their options or to make plans they could comfortably embrace.

Colleagues, if you see yourself in that description, I want you to know that your institution shares your interest in identifying a pathway to retirement that feels like an honorable and appropriate cap to your career. If you are at a point in your life where continuing the full set of responsibilities you have been carrying throughout a long career is no longer feasible, please read on. If you are ready to retire, your institution will help you plan that transition so that a new generation of faculty members can take up the work and build their own careers.

Here are a few of the most common questions about retirement that have come my way over the years, together with brief answers and suggestions about how to find further resources at your own institution.

Must retirement be an abrupt all-or-nothing affair? In a word, no. Since you and your institution share an interest in achieving a timely, smooth retirement, you can often discuss a negotiated step-down period during which you transition from regular responsibilities into duties tailored to your special circumstances. Such a step-down arrangement would typically involve your signing an irrevocable agreement to retire as of a particular date, with the period of modified responsibilities occurring during several semesters or quarters leading up to that retirement date. You can design the nature of the work to be done during the step-down period to meet the joint needs of you and the institution: Is there a lab or grant to be closed out? A last graduate student who needs to finish up? A specialized course to be taught?

The agreement may also include post-retirement provisions, allowing you to devise a comprehensive plan for a smooth transition from pre-retirement to post-retirement activities. This should all be memorialized in a written document that makes the timeline clear for everyone concerned.

How can I find out information about retirement anonymously? Your institution’s human resources website should include materials that describe both the suite of retirement benefits available to you and the process through which you effect your retirement. In addition to online documents and pamphlets, you may find training videos and or opportunities to attend webinars that allow you and other participants to ask questions. Examples from my university system are here.

If you are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the contract might include relevant language. You can also find informational resources through national groups like the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education or retirement financial service providers like the Teachers Insurance Association of America. It’s worth bearing in mind that the further removed the information source is from your university, the more generic the knowledge you will be able to glean from it. Ultimately, when you are ready to seriously consider retiring, learning about exactly how retirement works at your institution will be crucial.

Can someone familiar with the retirement process at my institution answer my questions? Yes, a knowledgeable person at your college or university should be able to answer your questions; who that is may depend on how your institution is organized. For example, the central campus administration may have an experienced human resources or academic personnel professional who has been through the process from the institutional side many times. The “benefits” section of the institutional website should include contact information for a central office that handles retirement matters. Many institutions also have human resources or academic personnel professionals in their deans’ or departments’ offices who can answer many general queries.

Your institution might also have “faculty equity advocates” who help departments and individual faculty handle issues related to sensitive personnel matters. Some campuses even arrange for a retired faculty member to serve as a retirement liaison who is available to answer faculty members’ questions and refer them to additional resources.

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Can someone help me talk with my chair or dean about retirement options? Yes, you can include someone appropriate in that conversation to make sure you bring up all the topics that are important to you and to help you keep track of the answers. Examples available on different campuses might include a faculty retirement liaison, an ombudsperson, a faculty equity advocate from your school or division, or a human resources or academic personnel staff member from your department or school or from the central administration. If you are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, a union representative may be able to assist you.

How can I stay engaged with the campus after retiring? Many institutions have a variety of ways for retired faculty to remain active. For example, there is often an association of retired faculty that takes on projects related to student mentoring, scholarship fundraising, lifelong education or community service. My university has two such groups, the Retirement Association and the Emeriti Association.

At some colleges and universities, retired faculty can arrange to have a part-time “recall” appointment that enables them to teach a few courses for their former department or to continue an administrative role for a limited time. Sometimes you can apply for special programs or titles, such as an emeritus, research professor or professor-of-the-graduate-division status in order to facilitate continuation of your research. Or you may be able to find a way to access shared offices, the campus library or other resources. Your department chair or faculty retirement liaison should know the local options, including whether some post-retirement components might be arranged for during pre-retirement planning.

While a brief essay can only scratch the surface of a complex topic like retirement, I hope to have conveyed a sense of the opportunities and sources of guidance that can help you make a clear plan for approaching this important transition with confidence.

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Elizabeth H. Simmons is executive vice chancellor and distinguished professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.

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