When your local butcher or grocer retires, it’s perfectly clear what this means. They are no longer there in the shop when you next go in. Someone else has taken over, or the shop has changed to another business. If you see them in the street it would be bizarre to ask them about what’s good value this week. Their retirement is unambiguous. They don’t cut up meat or select fruit from the city markets anymore. They go on big trips, play more golf, take things easy.
But when academics retire it’s far from clear what this means. Some things are obvious. They stop taking on the supervision of new postgraduate research students, although often agree to keep assisting those who have not yet graduated. They greatly reduce their teaching, now reserved for guest lectures and making appearances in seminars where a reflective voice of experience is called for.
They are excused from committees and interminable reporting duties, and from losing two months of their life every year applying for research grants, in the knowledge that 85% of applications will be rejected. I will never forget my sheer joy as I finished writing comments on the last masters student assignment I knew I would ever mark. Marking is universally experienced as the most spirit-dulling duty of academic work. It helped that the last one was, like so many, as good as they can get.
But having now been effectively retired for seven months (I’m currently eating up a career’s worth of untaken long service leave prior to formal retirement), there are many things that are never-ending. Some of these present challenges in how to respond without appearing rude and unhelpful. Others force reflection on just how much academic life is a vocation, not just a job. And others are a joyous apotheosis of what you’ve always wanted to do, but could rarely find time for.
I started my public health career in 1974 and loved almost every minute of the next 40 years. I never recall a day when I resented going into work, usually before 7am and often working 70-80 hours a week.
Academic work becomes rapidly vocational. You quickly realise that you live to work, far more than you are working to live. When you publish work that you find out has been very useful in policy debates, precipitated change or altered the way that something is talked about, it’s simply gratifying.
The heart of academic life is having research questions eating away at you like musical earworms. For pure scientists, these questions can often be highly theoretical and arcane. But for me, the starting point was always wanting to pursue strategically useful research questions where I knew there was an appetite for change that could make important differences in people’s lives.
When you stop drawing a salary, your curiosity about those questions does not suddenly switch off. You don’t suddenly have an epiphany, as you might if you had worked in the Venetian blinds industry, that you just no longer have any interest in what you did every day for the last 40 years. But your appetite for setting out to answer these questions reduces, and so you focus only on those in which you are passionately interested and which can be researched without a team of funded colleagues. Here free data obtainable from the internet opens up many possibilities.
My profile has long caused me to get many daily requests from all over the world. The most common are for reviewing others’ papers, grants and book proposals. I have always subscribed to the noblesse oblige of reviewing others’ work, just as I expect others will review mine. Regrettably, as a long time journal editor, I know how far from universal that value is.
I always thought it right to review at least as many papers as I was writing myself. Most papers you get sent are answering questions that will make no difference to anything important, some need euthanising, and a few are destined to be critical bricks in important knowledge walls. So I still review, but only those that emit that early fragrance from their abstracts.
I also get oceans of requests from school and university students to help them with their assignments. Here are 15 questions I’d like you to answer, says a year 11 student from Adelaide. Can I come and interview you for project that’s due next week? Sometimes dozens of these would pour in in a week when a thoughtless teacher or academic presumably listed my contact details in a handout, as if I was a 24 hour information service. I also get lengthy, breathless theses from people wanting me to support their cause, magic potion or paradigm shifting thoughts that are so far strangely unappreciated.
I have to admit to becoming less accommodating to these sort of requests, as I do try to pursue some pleasures I’ve never had time for: writing a memoir of growing up in the 1950s and 60s, reading all of Charles Dickens and re-reading Orwell, finding out what TV series are about that I hear others talk about, and cooking.
But most days, life is not hugely different. Public health challenges are endlessly fascinating, dangerous idiocy and mendacity needs the antiseptic of strong sunlight, and younger colleagues need support and encouragement. I’m writing lots of references!
Academics traditionally have no mandatory retirement age, and some hang on for years in this era of austere academic funding, limiting promotional chances for younger staff. I had no desire to stand in the way of succession and am happy to have a continuing role at my university while releasing my salary.
I took a single sabbatical in 2006, living in Lyon in France where after breakfast each day, I sat down in a quiet office with no phone at the International Agency for Research in Cancer where I wrote a target of 2,500 words towards a book on public health advocacy. I had the same experience for a month last year in the Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio on Lake Como.
Writing is my first passion, thanks to a wonderful high school English teacher. A day without any writing is a day wasted. I’m planning few wasted days for the foreseeable future. Au revoir, but not adieu.
Simon Chapman’s Festschrift is being held today.