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Reflections: Transition Through Retirement

Why Do Academic Faculty Members Retire?

By Marianne E. Felice, MD

Now, that I have stepped down as Chair of Pediatrics and assumed a semi-retired role in the institution, I find that many colleagues (here at UMass and elsewhere) ask me questions about “retired life”. One frequently asked question is:  How do you know when to retire? The answer to that question is not easy and is specific to each individual. Nevertheless, in my limited experience as a “retiree” now, I have learned that academic faculty members (including chairs) generally retire for one of five reasons:

  1. Follow One’s Avocation:  We Baby Boomers are lucky. Generally, we are healthier than our own parents were at our age. We are active and we have cultivated many interests. For some, retirement is an opportunity to follow a dream outside of medicine. A friend of mine in another state has given up medicine, is writing poetry, and is considering writing a novel. I have never seen him happier. Another friend has taken up photography, and another colleague enrolled in art classes at a local art museum; he is quite good and his paintings sell for a pretty penny at fancy art boutiques. 
  2.  Personal  or Family Health Issues:  The mid-sixties, a time when many of us start to think about retirement, is also the time when many of us experience a serious illness for the first time, such as cancer or a heart attack. This can be a wake-up call to one’s own mortality. A friend had a mild heart attack at the age of 68. Although he recovered well, it scared him. He realized that if he and his wife were going to travel as they had always planned to do post-retirement, now was the time to do it. We are not the only ones advancing in age; so are our spouses, significant others, parents, and children. When a loved one becomes ill, that also may be the trigger to retire. A chair of pediatrics in another institution stepped down when his wife of 40 years suffered a stroke. He said she had been his backbone for years, supporting him and his career, and now it was his turn to support her.
  3.  New Leadership or Major Change in Policies:  Those of us who have been in academics for many years know that there are leadership changes every few years. Chairs move on, move up, or retire. Deans and CEO’s may leave and go elsewhere. Most of the time, we are resilient to these changes and adapt well. However, as we age, change may be a little harder to accept. A new chair may not be the chair who recruited you many years ago and you may not like his/her leadership style. You may feel that he or she does not appreciate your contributions to the institution like the previous chair did. Sometimes a new leader arrives on the scene and changes policies or the way that things are done in the hospital or institution. You may find yourself thinking, “Oh, no. Not again. We tried that idea 10 years ago and it did not work.” A friend of mine who was Chief of Pediatrics in a General Hospital said, “Our hospital could not keep Chief Medical Officers very long. When the 4th CMO in 7 years arrived, and I found myself explaining yet again that children are not little adults, I knew I had to step down.”
  4.  Major Conflict with a Peer or Colleague: I don’t think this happens often, but it does happen. Most of us enjoy coming to work. Most of us have wonderful and supportive colleagues around us who become like family to us. But there are those situations where two people just don’t get along. When we are younger, we can get a job elsewhere or hope that the other person will get a job elsewhere. We may not have that option when we are older. Sometimes, the stress of coming to work is just not worth it anymore and the situation spurs us to retire.
  5.  Burn Out:  This situation does happen a great deal, particularly among older clinical faculty members who are struggling with all the changes taking place in the health care industry such as medical records, electronic health records, and information systems. The Traditionalists and Baby Boomers did not grow up with computers, tablets, and iPhones; these systems are not second nature to them. Many faculty members across the country are choosing to retire rather than be forced to learn another electronic health record system. 

Regardless of the reason for the decision to retire, it is also important to choose the right time to retire. We don’t want to retire too soon nor too late, but when it is just right. A friend cared for high-risk adolescents as a major part of her clinical practice. She frequently saw runaways, pregnant teens, drug users, and school dropouts. She asked to talk with me at a national pediatric meeting and said she was going to retire because she was becoming annoyed with her adolescent patients for making poor life choices. I wasn’t sure that she really wanted to retire; I thought she might just need a vacation. She ignored my vacation suggestion and retired. About two years later, she called and admitted that she was bored and greatly missed clinical medicine, including teenagers who make poor choices. She retired too early. Luckily, she was able to find another job caring for teens in a nearby city for another several years. On the other hand, a well-known and well-loved chair experienced failing health. He could no longer attend all the meetings that were required of him and had to delegate many of his routine tasks. After a while, his faculty resented the fact that many of them were doing his work without the pay or the credit. When he finally stepped down, individuals were thrilled and his farewell party was more exuberant than one would expect. He had just waited a little too long. 

Do any of these vignettes resonate with you? If so, maybe you are ready to think about or plan for your own retirement. Jump in….the water is fine!