When to end a career

I never thought I’d consider retiring in my 50’s. Scientists are supposed to live and breathe their work forever. We become inextricably linked to our study. It’s why we get paid so little compared to other professions with advanced degrees. We learn to live on intangibles like recognition from an obscure organization or an occasional bone tossed from a grantor. But here I am, a career scientist contemplating my move out. I’m grateful that I am at a point where I can fully retire rather than ghost. At the same time, I can’t help but feel like a failure for wanting to retire.

Push and pull factors

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My vision of my career finale was me, somewhere in my 70’s or 80’s, clutching my keyboard as they dragged me from my office. It had started as a dream career, and I would never be finished because I still loved my work that much. That vision has changed. Those feelings are gone. The job has morphed into something unpleasant and unrecognizable. The demands are crushing at the same time support for research is dwindling. Do more with nothing. People who I used to fund are now people who I compete against. And now my age and gender work against me. The decision to make the jump sooner than later was made easy, but it is not satisfying.

Not all of the factors in this decision are push factors. There are also pull factors coaxing me away. Factors like working on more fruitful ventures and making up for lost time with family neglected by an overly demanding career. My spouse is older and already retired, and I long for the freedom that he has. We want to go “do things” before doing things becomes too difficult. 

And I’ve grown resentful about losing my summers to fieldwork, every damn year for 30 years.

Retirement is all I can think about. It’s time to jump.

Following the emotional process

So what happens during the final year of one’s career, scientific or otherwise? What thoughts go through one’s mind during this shift? What tools can help prepare for the emotional transition? Obviously, everyone is different, and I can only speak to my situation. But I think it’s a useful exercise to chronicle this move in the next year. 

I suspect that the mental aspects of retirement are at least as critical as financial considerations, but we usually don’t visit advisers to determine if we are mentally prepared. Perhaps we should.

Why wait one year? Why not retire now? 

Even though I’m ready to retire, I lack a sense of completion. I’ve put so much into my projects that it would be a waste not to draw them to a close. Yet I can see me dragging this out far longer than one year. By giving myself a firm deadline, I’m forced to tie up loose ends. One year is a compromise between the push and pull, but knowing that I can leave at any time makes things easier.

What’s next? 

In the next year, I will be exploring the “what’s next” and how one might have a productive and meaningful second act in life. Is this really a retirement or a reinvention? What lifelong skills have I honed that might be useful in the next stage? My science skills are limited to a particular area — but are they useful for anything else?

God I hope so.

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