ALAN L. PORTER
University leaders confront multiple challenges with an aging faculty. Writing in Inside Higher Ed in 2011, longtime education reporter Dan Berrett spotlighted the “Gray Wave” of a growing number of faculty members 60 years of age or older (think baby boomers and increasing lifespans) holding tightly onto their positions, shielded by the lack of mandatory retirement. Many of them have the ability and desire to continue their scholarly work, and they fear multiple losses attendant to retirement. But as they hang on, younger people may be kept off the academic ladder. Might there be “win-win” semi-retirement options to enable faculty to remain productive and engaged, while opening opportunities for new generations?
The answer may be yes, based on one case study—my own. I retired as active faculty in December 2001, at the (rather young) age of 56. I had been jointly appointed as a professor in industrial and systems engineering and in public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Upon my retirement, Georgia Tech indicated that I needed to pick one school to reduce administrative overhead for an emeritus faculty member, so I’m now an emeritus professor, and part-time researcher, in public policy.
Since retirement, my research productivity has escalated. Amused colleagues have kidded that the secret to boosting research output is to retire and that I ought to share this tale. So, I offer this “N = 1 case study” to stimulate thinking about retiree research and to raise some intriguing faculty policy issues.
What retirement did to my research publication activity is captured in Table 1. It compares two five-year post-retirement periods with corresponding pre-retirement periods. The data resulted from searching in Web of Science, skipping my first year of retirement (2002) as ambiguous and leaving out one year in the middle of the overall period, just to facilitate comparison. I also left out four papers published after retirement that reflect research conducted at a small company I joined, to make this a tighter academic “before versus after.”
The data show a sharp increase in research publication. This same phenomenon appeared in examining only my journal articles (the table includes all publications). For this subgroup, there are 14 for 1991–2001 versus 42 for 20032013. Aha—retire and publication productivity triples!
One alternative hypothesis to explain this increased productivity is that I’m a slow learner and that my research has been trending upward throughout the pre- and post-retirement periods. The data don’t conflict with that. (So maybe the elixir is simply aging?)
Citations accrued by the papers (also gathered from Web of Science) provide an additional, if again imperfect, measure of research value. The tally of cites to the 1991–2001 papers is 254 versus 727 for the 2003–2013 papers: another tripling up. And cites per year, based on the average number of publications per year by period, shows a jump from 14 before retirement to 121 after.
Behind the numbers
We can argue over which statistics are most meaningful, but what they all show is that my research productivity has gone up. But why? And so what?
Several factors seem to have contributed to the rise. Although cute, and the stimulus for this reflection, “retire to boost productivity” does not convey enough information to account well for the gain. Let’s scan some additional factors worthy of consideration.
To begin, my teaching load before retirement was moderate, averaging two courses per semester, or four per year. Since shortly after retirement, and with the end of teaching, I’ve reduced my workday by roughly 20%. I now spend roughly half of my work time at Georgia Tech, with essentially no teaching duties and much-reduced administrative chores. But the other half of my work time is now devoted to my role as director of R&D for Search Technology Inc., based in Norcross, Georgia. So more time than before is devoted to my role in the business. My colleagues at the company provide invaluable technical support for the text analyses that underlie most of my research, in which I use VantagePoint software to analyze sets of R&D abstract records. Balancing it all out, I’d guesstimate that under the current arrangements, my weekly hours devoted to research increased post-retirement, but not drastically, from 15 before to 20 after.
The disparity between detailed policies and procedures for the active faculty and the dearth thereof for retired faculty warrants protest and action.
How about university roles in supporting retiree research? Georgia Tech allows me to continue to conduct research and provides essential research infrastructure. Post-retirement, I continued to advise two Ph.D. students through graduation. I cannot advise new ones, although I do serve on Ph.D. dissertation committees and support research assistants from project funding.
I am a technology watcher. My research focuses on science, technology, and innovation intelligence, forecasting, and assessment, so I don’t need laboratory facilities. Shared workspace for graduate students and visiting researchers is a requisite, I’d say. I am usually on campus once weekly for meetings but don’t much use a shared workspace myself. Onsite and remote-access library resources (especially databases such as Web of Science) are essential for my bibliometric analyses.
Georgia Tech provides an institutional base for me to be principal investigator (PI) or participant on funded research (paid on an hourly basis up to a halftime threshold). It also provides regular administrative support for management of my funded research (and charges projects the regular overhead rates, but my fringe benefit rate is very low, as a retiree).
My research gains enormously from ongoing collaboration in Georgia Tech research activities, including through the Program for Science, Technology & Innovation Policy, where I participate in weekly meetings, and through ties with the Technology Policy & Assessment Center. Such access to intellectual stimulus, interchange of ideas, and energetic graduate students eager to do the heavy lifting are, in my view, the major drivers of my observed research productivity gains. (My 14 pre-retirement articles included in this analysis averaged 3.2 authors; the 42 post-retirement ones averaged 3.8.) These arrangements counter the potential isolation of retirement.
Tellingly, the National Science Foundation (NSF) accepts proposals from me as PI or participant, with Georgia Tech or Search Technology providing institutional bases. An NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society award to Arizona State University has supported Georgia Tech through a subcontract to generate and maintain a substantial “nano” publications and patents data set. This has provided key data resources for a series of analyses and resulting papers—at least 17 since 2008—and has been a major factor in my productivity.
NSF also made a Science of Science & Innovation Policy award to Georgia Tech, with me as PI. Ultimately, some of the work proposed under the award did not take place, but NSF allowed us to reallocate the funds to make small targeted sub-awards intended to generate project-related research in critical areas. I am convinced that this flexible support helped boost research collaboration.
There is also an international component to our work. Building on a 20-year collaboration with Donghua Zhu, a professor of management science and engineering at Beijing Institute of Technology, a string of Ph.D. students from his lab, with funding from China, have spent a year at Georgia Tech. I believe both sides gain as the students work on our projects and learn our approaches to science, technology, and innovation analyses to initiate research pointing toward their dissertations. In 2008–2009, two such students, Ying Guo and Lu Huang, became the model for productive research collaboration, deriving from their initiative, English skills, solid analytical background, and research interests that meshed very well with colleagues at our Program for Science, Technology & Innovation Policy. I have continued to collaborate with Ying and Lu since they returned to their Beijing institution and moved into faculty positions, and these efforts have resulted in nine coauthored papers published between 2011 and 2013—more than with any other colleagues in that period. Active collaboration also continues with their successors who visited Georgia Tech. This international exchange has thus been a huge post-retirement boost to my research collaboration and productivity.
Beyond N = 1
What about evidence beyond N = 1? A modest contingent of scholars studies retirees, devoting attention to many facets, such as work, leisure, health, university access, and research activity. I’ll borrow a bit from several of them—with great, if indirectly acknowledged, thanks—in considering the various factors that contribute to research productivity and policy issues.
How many retirees continue their scholarly research? I made a casual sampling of five retired faculty members from each of five organizations: the MIT Sloan School and Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Georgia Tech Departments of Chemical & BioEngineering and Physics, and the Stanford University School of Engineering. A search in the Web of Science for a recent 1.5-year period turned up publications by 20% of them. More broadly, estimates in the literature suggest that up to about half of recently retired faculty remain active in research, teaching, or both. Perhaps not surprisingly, retired faculty tend to be more engaged in academic activities for the first 10 years or so after retirement, tailing off after that.
Here are factors that I believe affect retiree research opportunities:
- Retirement age, early retirement options, and phased retirement possibilities. Mandatory retirement in higher education has been banned in the United States since 1994, and retirement experiences vary widely across the nation’s campuses.
- Availability of facilities, such as whether retired faculty are allowed to maintain office space or lab access.
- Insurance coverage that enables retirees to continue lab work.
- Infrastructure and administrative support, including computing and Internet access, software and licensed database access, remote library access, and grant administration services.
- Allowability of pay for retiree research, and limits on such pay.
- Direct encouragement of retiree research. This may take such forms as providing university grants to retirees for travel or student research assistantships, developing a website presence and recognition for emeritus faculty, and fostering retirees’ ongoing engagement by recruiting their participation in research center or departmental brown-bag seminar series. Help in this area may be available through cooperation with the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education, whose membership includes some 50 major U.S. universities.
Areas for exploration
So what policy options does my case of post-retirement research boosterism and a reading of the literature raise for university administrators? Here I identify five areas for further exploration:
1. The word “retirement” conveys the idea of ceasing one’s prior work activity. Should universities allow retirees to continue research? If so, how so? Can they advise Ph.D. students, serve as PIs on grants, maintain lab facilities? I think the answers should generally be “yes.” But some institutions still favor “clear out your desk” retirement.
2. University administrators should consider formally and clearly establishing policies for supporting retiree research. Appointing faculty committees to examine the issues may prove valuable here. Among the questions to be considered: Does the university provide an institutional base for ongoing retiree research? If so, what is provided across the university and what through individual units? With what conditions and restrictions, and for whom? And for how long?
3. Central administration and accounting units should address issues associated with the attendant costs and benefits of having retirees continue to conduct research. For example, who will pay for a retiree’s computer support, and who will accrue overhead on grants received? On the flip side, my case suggests that facilitating retiree research can provide highly favorable benefit/cost ratios. Universities would be well advised to crunch the numbers thoroughly and pay heed to the results.
4. There may be a critical divide between retired faculty who will need physical facilities, such as lab space and equipment, and those who don’t. But even as universities may find it easier to accommodate the needs of faculty who don’t need lots of infrastructure, at least as policies begin to unfold, they can continually look for ways to provide support elements—I prefer not to consider them “privileges”—to make it easier for both camps to remain engaged.
5. Whatever retirement research policies are determined, universities really need to communicate them to everyone, including those faculty considering retirement (early or otherwise).
A key mission of universities is to generate new knowledge. Enabling a great human capital resource—retired faculty and staff—to contribute to that mission seems wise. Not doing so strikes me as wrongheaded. And other faculty appear to agree, because surveys find a significant number of retired faculty lamenting restrictions on their access to university resources needed to continue their scholarship. Rising life expectancies may only amplify the interest and the payoffs for universities, for society, and fundamentally for retirees who still find great life fulfillment through continuing their scholarly pursuits.
Aiding “good luck”
Given the potential rewards from retiree research, what support should universities provide? Returning to my personal experiences, fostering ongoing collegial interaction seems paramount, especially staying connected with potential collaborators. My case touches on several means to enhance collaboration, including having international graduate students visit for a year during the course of their studies. Georgia Tech has been supportive of that by moving to establish policies on background and language proficiency checks and providing support in obtaining visas, among other helpful measures. Ongoing interaction with grad students can benefit both them and the retired professor.
Academic research relies on funding. In my case, NSF is the main supporter, so I’m very appreciative that competition for funding is open to retired faculty. Policy options span a gamut. One possibility to consider would be set-asides for retired faculty support, perhaps small grants within programs to support conference presentations, travel grants, or whatever. Or special funding could be designated to facilitate collaboration between retired and active faculty at different universities. A variant would be to support emeritus faculty who mentor or collaborate (or both) with junior faculty. Drawing on my experiences, the provision of modest support to encourage visiting Ph.D. students spending a year with a retired faculty member as mentor can pay off nicely for both. At the opposite extreme, funders could preclude retired faculty from acting as PIs (but I hope they don’t).
Beyond specific actions, an overarching message is that the future should not be left to chance. My tale contains a happy confluence of factors that has brought me much satisfaction, enabled active research, and returned value to my university (and to the taxpayers who ultimately provided the federal funding dollars). I lucked out; my choices (especially early retirement) were made pretty casually, without careful consideration of ongoing research means and ends. Better for universities to spell out options so that faculty can plan wisely, and I think those options should be weighted to encourage “active retirement.”
More attention should also be paid to faculty and staff retirement issues writ broadly, reaching beyond the research environment. Literature addressing faculty retirement finds a lamentable lack of information for, fairness toward, and sensibility about, faculty retirees who want to stay involved. Much could be offered to make retirement more attractive at modest cost. The disparity between detailed policies and procedures for the active faculty and the dearth thereof for retired faculty warrants protest and action.
A major concern for universities and the research enterprise more broadly is to expand opportunities for young Ph.D.s for research and full faculty positions. Although, as I’ve suggested, the issue certainly requires more exploration and discussion, one obvious way to create those opportunities is to make semi-retirement attractive and rewarding for the graying faculty. Encourage us to retire! Our productivity may even go up, as we take advantage of greater flexibility in pursuing not just our research but life satisfaction, while making more room for faculty positions for younger generations.
Alan L. Porter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus, industrial and systems engineering, and public policy, at Georgia Tech.