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Over my long career in academe, I’ve watched many people retire, and, as I’m now approaching that milestone myself, I decided that I wanted to do it on my own terms. I’ve seen way too many colleagues leave feeling unappreciated, unwelcome, angry and betrayed—almost always with very good reason. I’m trying to learn from them so I can leave this career I’ve loved the same way I came into it—feeling like I had the best job in the world. So I made a four-year plan.
I’m one year into my retirement plan, and I feel like it’s working. Based on what I’ve seen and what I want for myself and my program, I’ve come up with some guidelines that might be helpful for other academics nearing retirement. Do I think universities also ought to be doing things to help senior faculty moving toward retirement? You bet I do! But that’s another essay for another time. For now, here are 14 recommendations for those of you who are approaching retirement.
- Stay engaged. I’ve watched a lot of senior faculty check out as they near retirement. They stop revising classes, publishing or going to conferences. Soon they’re just gliding along. They’re not happy, nor are their department or students. So instead, stay engaged. Keep learning new things and trying out new approaches. As I got older, I spent some time reflecting on where I think I’ve done my best work. I realized that it was teaching introductory-level courses. I loved blowing students’ minds. Thus, I’m spending the last years of my career teaching intro-level courses on topics I love. I even developed the courses recently as Ecampus courses.
- Start to let go. This one may seem at odds with No. 1, but I think they’re the proverbial two sides of the same coin. While we still have a lot to contribute to our departments and universities, we don’t really need to control so many things anymore. We should create space for the dreams and visions of our younger colleagues and offer support. If departments want to go in directions that are new and perhaps unsettling to us, we should be their cheerleaders, not their antagonists.
- Don’t expect the institution to care that you’re leaving. I am now grateful that my first institution taught me that universities do not care about you. Any one of us could leave tomorrow, and the institution would go along without us. That is a gift now, because I know the institution does not love me, and I don’t expect it to. I see a lot of colleagues who are deeply wounded when their institutions are indifferent toward their leaving. I don’t expect anything else, and that helps me keep moving toward retirement with perspective.
- Figure out what you love, and then do that. If nothing else, senior profs have earned the right to do what they love to do. I came up with my four-year plan and sat down with my supervisor and got her blessing for it. I’m only doing the things I love. If committees or courses don’t spark joy, I’m not doing those anymore. Of course, all of this depends on having a department chair who’s willing to work with you. Often, it means that if you’ll set a date for retirement, administrators will be more willing to help you out. After all, they’ll probably be able to hire two new assistant professors with your salary after you leave.
- Use your senior status to speak up. You’ve got nothing to lose. Be a loud voice for equity. Make good trouble. Senior professors have a moral obligation to speak up and out for people without institutional power, people who can be hurt by doing that for themselves. We can and should say the unspeakable and use our voices more than ever to call the university to ethical and just policies and processes.
- Start to clear out the 35 years’ worth of stuff that’s accumulated in your office. Unless you’ve got a huge home office, you can’t take it with you, and, frankly, I don’t want to. I’m giving my books away to grad students, younger professors and the library. If I don’t teach the topic or research it, the book has to go. I had a copy of The Feminine Mystique that an older faculty member gave me in my first year of teaching, 35 years ago. I just gave it to a first-term Ph.D. student in our program who wants to be a professor.
- Embrace the bittersweet feelings. As excited as I am to think about retirement, I still love what I do and am having the time of my life teaching, writing and leading study abroad. Even as I give my books away and realize I won’t have to deal with general education reform, I try to sit with the simultaneous feelings of joy and grief. I’m not terribly touchy-feely, so I have to make myself pay attention to and process what I’m feeling. Otherwise, those unrecognized feelings can crop up in other ways, making me angry, disappointed or disengaged.
- Leave while they still want you to stay. This is the academic version of “Always leave them laughing.” Too often, if we don’t have things we look forward to doing when we retire, we stay on too long; we become those disengaged professors who never do anything new. Experiencing the inevitable ageism that comes with growing older means we’re already feeling some sense of being sidelined, but, when we stay beyond our usefulness and joy, colleagues and administrators may start to try to push us out. If we leave while they still want us to stay, we can retire feeling much more positive emotions about the university.
- Have things you want to do when you retire. I once asked an older colleague who was well beyond an age where she could retire why she didn’t. Her answer took me aback. She said, “Why? What would I do if I retired?” I was shocked and sad that she didn’t have a life beyond the university. I already know I want to hike more, garden more, read all the British murder mysteries that have come out in the last decade that I’ve missed, learn to bake like they do on The Great British Bake-Off, keep traveling and learn to do mosaic tile. I want my brain to have a rest and not be worrying about the next article, the next class, the next deadline, the next strategic plan. I want to wake up and not be seized by the fear that I forgot to do something or the dread of proofreading a manuscript. I want to be like my spouse, who gets up each day and asks herself, “Hmm. Do I want to work in the yard or play pickleball first?”
- Start figuring out who you are once you’re not the professor. I worry about this one for myself. I’ll be the first to admit that my identity is wrapped up in being the professor. I’ve loved that identity, and it’s really who I am through and through. My administrative assistant once told me, “Susan, you’re working even when you’re not working.” That’s true. Now I have to figure out who I am when I’m not that person. That can be frightening and daunting—or it can be an opportunity to recreate myself, to start over with a different kind of joy in the world.
- Be OK with what you did, and don’t expect anyone else to thank you for it. Colleges and universities usually have short memories. Probably no one will remember how you built your department or financially rescued the music program or brought in more research dollars than anyone else ever had. But you know you did it. You know your contribution. Be happy with that. If you expect to be thanked, you’re likely to be disappointed, and that will make it harder to leave with good feelings. Generate your own sense of accomplishment, and let that be enough.
- Let go of old resentments, what-ifs and regrets. I want to go into retirement clear of any negative emotions about my work, my university and all the people I’ve worked with through the years. I can spend the next three years angry about something the institution didn’t do, or I can be happy with everything it did, and let go of the rest. Any anger I might feel won’t hurt the university, but it could hurt me. So I’m working on letting go. It feels good.
- Let your colleagues throw you a retirement party. I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues refuse a party—some because they’re pretty introverted (as am I) and others because they’re leaving hurt or angry. I think we’ve earned a party, and our colleagues should have an opportunity to acknowledge our contributions. It’s good for them and for us. I want a party. I want a way to mark this transition with the people I’ve spent most of my time with for the three decades I’ve been at the university. Maybe it’s not a party for you, but letting colleagues do something for you is an important part of the process.
- Get all the help you need with financial planning and Medicare. Changing my financial status scares the bejesus out of me, and all the paperwork and decisions for Medicare fill me with dread. Fortunately, my university and my retirement account managers offer help. Take those opportunities when they arise. Talking to a financial adviser makes me feel better about my ability to support myself once I’m no longer receiving a salary. I know I can have all the pieces in place come December 2025.
I don’t claim to have researched the efficacy of these recommendations, but I can attest to the ways they help me move toward retirement. I do still think being a professor is the best job in the world, and I plan to walk out the door of my university in three years still feeling that way.