The later years of the academic career are uncharted territory. You might say they represent the last frontier of academic life. Researchers have paid little attention to the challenges and development needs of late-career professors (over 55 with 20 or more years of academic work experience) who are nearing retirement.
Publications on senior faculty frequently view them as a costly problem for their institutions and a barrier to aspiring academics eager to enter the profession. Also, we learned from a national research project there are very few programs or policies in place at colleges and universities specifically intended to support professors in the later years of the career and to ensure these years are productive and fulfilling. Similarly, research we conducted on late-career university professors reveals many senior academics have done little or nothing to prepare for retirement other than contributing to TIAA-CREF or another retirement fund. It seems many professors and their institutions are in denial about the later years of academic life and are not working to make sure this is a fruitful and satisfying part of the academic career.
Two operating assumptions seem to be at work here. First, is the implicit belief that long-serving professors are fully capable of taking care of themselves. By this point in a career, professors should know how to learn, keep pace with their evolving fields, and stay productive. According to the second implicit assumption, limited institutional resources are better invested in early-career professors in order to get their careers started on a firm foundation.
A 2-Part Series
Friday: Why institutions should pay more attention  to what their late-career professors can offer.
Today: Advice for senior professors on how to make the later stage of their career vital and vibrant.
As they approach the later years of their professional lives, senior professors should consider methodically how they wish to spend their remaining time in the academy. They also should think carefully about the legacy they want to leave behind and plan how to bring their careers to a satisfying conclusion.
We believe the later years of an academic career can be satisfying and productive for professors who take the following actions:
Reflect on your career so far and consider how you want to invest your time and creative energy in the years ahead. What do you want to accomplish before you retire? A fulfilling conclusion to academic life requires some careful planning and a thoughtful strategy to achieve your goals. These goals (e.g., writing a book, updating your academic program, setting up study abroad opportunities for students) should be concrete and specific or they will be difficult to achieve. Questions you should answer include:
- What important career goals remain to be accomplished? What projects are my highest priorities and what tasks already in process do I wish to complete before retirement?
- How can I use my remaining years in service to my students, institution, and profession?
- How do I phase out of my duties in a way that best supports my colleagues and students?
- Is there a specific legacy I hope to leave behind? If so, how do I make it happen?
Reach out to colleagues (both contemporaries and junior professors). Collaboration and co-mentoring are great opportunities to continue learning and growing professionally. Working closely with others can be both motivating and rewarding. It is a good way to stay engaged, up to date, and productive in the later years of one’s career. Integrating technology into a favorite course with a new faculty colleague or co-authoring a book with an advanced graduate student are just two examples of engaging and rewarding late-career activities that can lead to lasting contributions that are mutually beneficial.
Seek assistance and support from deans, department chairs, and others to be sure you align your career goals with institutional needs. These key individuals can also help you implement your goals. Achieving fulfilling late-career targets may require release time, research assistance, negotiating a revised work assignment, different evaluation standards, or financial support to complete a project or long-delayed publication. Deans, departments chairs, and other administrators are often the linchpin between an exciting idea and its implementation. However, they cannot help senior faculty if they know nothing of their needs and aspirations. We encourage senior professors to consult with administrative colleagues as they define a vision for their concluding years. Deans, department chairs, or other key players need to know they can play an important role in the late-career planning and implementation process.
Take charge of the final years of your professional life. An academic career provides more opportunity for individual initiative than many other lines of work. We encourage late-career professors to value the autonomy that is a hallmark of academic life and take full advantage of it. The early stages of the academic career are largely structured and directed by external objectives like tenure, promotion, and merit salary increases. These extrinsic motivators gradually fade as professors reach the top of the career ladder and achieve a level of financial security that makes modest salary increases less important. In other words, senior professors are uniquely well-positioned to decide what is most important to them and how they will spend the final years of their professional life. There is no better time than late career to take charge, decide what you want to accomplish before you leave higher education, define clear goals, determine how you will divide your work time, and identify the standards you will use to judge your performance.
Develop a comprehensive plan for retirement. In our research on late-career faculty, we were surprised how few participants had prepared for the social, professional, and personal dimensions of retirement. Yet retirement represents a major life transition for individuals whose very identity is often defined by their field of specialization and employing institution. It can be daunting for a lifelong academic to adjust to separation from a vibrant intellectual community populated with interesting colleagues and opportunities for lifelong learning. To ease into this major life change, we encourage professors to use their later years to prepare for what inevitably lies ahead. They should consider what will give them meaning and purpose in their retirement years. In addition, how will they stay intellectually engaged, and, if they wish, how will they stay connected to their institution, department, and profession? In particular, how will they keep in contact with the colleagues who have been a large part of their social and professional life for so long? Many universities now have retired faculty organizations or “emeritus colleges” to help their retired faculty stay engaged. Such organizations may not only ease the transition to retirement, but also extend the professional lives of members by giving them new avenues for learning, scholarship, teaching, and service. Whether or not they have access to an established post-retirement organization, professors nearing retirement should prepare carefully to ensure they move smoothly from a satisfying professional life into an engaging and fulfilling retirement.
The last frontier of academic life deserves more attention from higher education institutions and from researchers who study careers in colleges and universities. Most of all, the later years of an academic career deserve more careful preparation from those who are or will soon be in that stage of the career. Academic life may be a journey, not a destination. But the quality of the final years of a professor’s career will greatly influence how he or she feels about their life’s work and how it is remembered.
Careful planning for the concluding years of academic life is the best way to ensure a career ends on a high note. It is also a way to ensure colleges and universities remain vital enterprises where professionals in all phases of the career are learning, growing, and engaged in meaningful work.
Roger G. Baldwin is a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University, and Michael J. Zeig is a graduate research assistant in the College of Education there.