17

Everyone grows old, grow less dexterous and energetic, lose cognitive ability, and so on. In most jobs these don't matter that much since one doesn't need to be the best, and "good enough" is good enough. However, academia is unique because it lives and dies on ideas. Without ideas, there is no funding proposal, and with no funding proposal, there is no money, no students, and no job.

This sounds like a very difficult situation for academics: they grow less and less able to come up with good ideas, but still have to compete with the legion of younger researchers at the peak of their mental capabilities all coming up with ideas. Furthermore, younger researchers are also in better shape physically, and can put more energy into their work.

How do academics deal with growing old in a job where growing old directly impacts one's ability to perform?

  • 10
    in short I would say: experience over-compensates lack of physical and mental abilities. – OBu Mar 28 '18 at 5:18
  • 37
    I certainly can't agree that "most" jobs have no particular need for cognitive ability. This sounds a whole lot like academic arrogance. – user1751825 Mar 28 '18 at 6:20
  • 27
    1. Ideas are cheap, realising them is hard. 2. You don't have to be the best in academia. 3. You do not lose your job without ideas. 4. Some people stay sharp when they get old - I just hope that I will be one of them. – Dirk Mar 28 '18 at 6:40
  • 3
    @Allure And yet there are plenty of people who, on a daily basis, are solving engineering, and IT related challenges, for example, which would be beyond the capabilities of most academics. Perhaps some jobs don't require intellect, but many do. Outside academia, people still need to adjust to ageing, by taking on less demanding roles, delegating complex tasks etc. – user1751825 Mar 28 '18 at 7:59
  • 2
    @user1751825 "Currently" beyond the capabilities of most academics I can agree with, but "permanently" beyond I wouldn't. Given enough time I'd expect academics to be able to solve those problems too, but not vice versa, at least for most jobs. Also, in my last (non-academic) job, people ages 60+ were often just as effective, if not more effective, than people ages 20+, because of superior experience. – Allure Mar 28 '18 at 8:13
18

All people deal with getting old(er) in some way, but I can think of a few aspects that are unique to academics.

One way to keep up the performance is to gradually shift from hands-on work to advisory work. It is clear that an aging professor can't keep up with the hours invested, enthusiasm, desire to prove oneself, etc. of a PhD student or junior faculty. However, our older guy has participated in a lot of academic craft (writing papers/grants, advising, doing research, reviewing, etc.) over the years, which can give a significant edge to junior people around him. Guiding others can and does produce scientific breakthroughs even though the senior professor didn't think it all up by himself. Further, it also educates the next generation of researches which also an important and challenging job.

People outside of academia are usually obligated (with exceptions, of course) to retire at a given age. On the other hand, a professor has the possibility to attain the emeritus rank, which lets him be an active member of the academic community theoretically until the end of his life. This partially offsets the time investment of PhD studies, postdocs, etc., if the argument is that people in academia have fewer "productive years" as opposed to people who start off right after undergraduate.

Finally, professors are usually respected members of their communities, so even if some of them perform less in their later career, there are always other duties they can excel at. For example, focus on teaching or department duties or writing books.

In my opinion, none of these options is inferior to the "pure research" track and I feel that many come naturally as personal development. In other words, I don't think aging professors find it necessary to outright compete with their younger colleagues, but rather mature into other roles that benefit the academic community.

  • 1
    People outside of academia are usually obligated (with exceptions, of course) --- I'm having trouble even thinking of examples, so the use of "usually" might be a bit overstated. I'm not talking about being laid off or being dismissed or other such general terminations that might be a result of poor performance due to age, by the way, but rather with age-specific retirement limits that apply regardless of one's performance. – Dave L Renfro Mar 28 '18 at 13:41
  • 2
    It should be mentioned that in the US there is no mandatory retirement age for tenured faculty- it's possible to continue as a tenured professor long past a "normal" retirement age. – Brian Borchers Mar 28 '18 at 14:04
  • @DaveLRenfro Some examples that come to mind are company owners and elective positions (e.g. board members) and that also might wary by country (although I can't think of any). – user3209815 Mar 28 '18 at 14:29
  • @DaveLRenfro Now there are age discrimination laws in the U.S., but previously there were strong "expectations" of retirement in certain fields. There still is a mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots. – cactus_pardner Mar 29 '18 at 0:53
  • 1
    @aparente001 Perhaps the comment got too much into the weeds, but user3209815 wrote that "People outside of academia are usually obligated (with exceptions, of course) to retire at a given age," which was being questioned by the other commenters. Commercial pilots was a major example where that still happens, despite age discrimination laws in the US. – cactus_pardner Mar 30 '18 at 16:35
11

There are a number of ways senior academics have their careers shift, and some assumptions in your question aren't necessarily valid.

In most jobs these don't matter that much since one doesn't need to be the best, and "good enough" is good enough.

You're asserting this isn't true for academia without much evidence. There are plenty of professors who settle into modest but respectable careers, teaching a few courses, having one or two long-term grants, etc.

However, academia is unique because it lives and dies on ideas.

I don't think this is unique to academia, and you don't just need a volume of ideas. You need the ability to execute on those ideas, and experience helps with this - indeed, experience may help filter ideas that seem promising but are likely dead ends, unproductive, etc.

Even if your volume of ideas declines with age, as long as you still have some over a threshold of "I have nothing to work on now", it might not matter.

Without ideas, there is no funding proposal, and with no funding proposal, there is no money, no students, and no job.

Senior researchers, with established labs and track records, have an easier time getting funded, not a harder time.

This sounds like a very difficult situation for academics: they grow less and less able to come up with good ideas, but still have to compete with the legion of younger researchers at the peak of their mental capabilities all coming up with ideas. Furthermore, younger researchers are also in better shape physically, and can put more energy into their work.

How do academics deal with growing old in a job where growing old directly impacts one's ability to perform?

Even if all your assertions are true, their careers aren't over. They may become chairs or deans, identifying, recruiting and mentoring those "legions of younger researchers". They may use their prestige and reputation to bring those younger voices into their projects, either as members of their labs, collaborators, etc. Or, in many cases, they take a step back and focus more on the trajectory of the field as a whole, thinking about slightly broader and grander ideas where the perspective of someone who has been working on the same thing for decades is valuable.

  • 3
    +1. Even when you can no longer get research grants, you can do other things. Perhaps you are still useful as a co-author to others. Teaching. Administration: How many deans, provosts, vice presidents, and presidents of universities do you know who keep their labs going? Very few. Mathematician G. H. Hardy described his ideal for a mathematics professor: for the first half of your career, do research. For the second half, write books to pass on your knowledge to the next generation. – GEdgar Mar 28 '18 at 13:54
  • 2
    @GEdgar And one could argue that Hardy's assessment of the productivity of youth was overly impacted by the genius and early death of Ramanujan. (I've heard more recent mathematicians say that your first 5 years of working on a problem are when breakthroughs are most likely, but that means that you can productively move to another question five years later.) – cactus_pardner Mar 29 '18 at 0:55
  • Thanks for answer. To clarify: I assumed that academics need to be the best because the job is in such high demand. If there're lots of people applying for the same job, clearly (?) one has to be really good indeed to get it. I don't mean literally the best in the world, but rather the best as a group. – Allure Mar 30 '18 at 19:37
7

Your question sits on a very flaky premise, namely that professors tend to get worse at their job as they grow older. You write:

they grow less and less able to come up with good ideas, but still have to compete with the legion of younger researchers at the peak of their mental capabilities all coming up with ideas. Furthermore, younger researchers are also in better shape physically, and can put more energy into their work.

Physical energy isn't very important in most fields. Being able to work many long hours at a desk job is more a function of family commitments, hobbies, stress resilience, and how long you have already been doing this than of physical fitness. If you see some older professors work less than their pre-tenure colleagues, physical fitness is likely a tiny aspect of why this is the case. More importantly, there are also plenty of tenured professors who still work their behinds off, so it certainly can be done if a senior faculty member still feels the drive.

That older colleagues have less good ideas than younger ones is a very questionable premise. I argue that people's ideas tend to get better as they get older, as they have seen more research projects (failed and succeeded ones) and generally have more experience in the field to draw upon. Personally I have certainly observed my ideas to get better (as in: more out of the box, and at the same time more feasible) over time, but I am also not exactly reaching retiring age yet.

Without ideas, there is no funding proposal, and with no funding proposal, there is no money, no students, and no job.

Again, I think the premise that younger people have an easier time accessing grants is flawed. In my experience the inverse is true: it is awfully hard to get funds and students when you are still young, unexperienced, unknown, and generally a wildcard for most funding evaluators;; once you get older, more well-known, and more experienced in writing grant proposals, getting access to grants becomes much easier. That you sometimes see older professors have less grants than younger ones is not because they wouldn't get one anymore, but rather that they don't necessarily have the need for a grant. If you have reached a career stage where you primarily focus on teaching, writing books, or other outreach activities, you probably don't need nor necessarily want a big grant that funds a bunch of PhD students that need advising.

So, to answer your question:

How do academics deal with growing old in a job where growing old directly impacts one's ability to perform?

Very well in general, as getting older (more senior) typically influences job performance positively if at all. It's no wonder you often see even retired professors still hang around in the office. They like the job and are often highly valued in their team.

  • Wow, and if I speak to an old professor and am impressed, a part of me would wonder "can you imagine what it would've been like to talk to her while she was young?" – Allure Mar 30 '18 at 20:22
7

As (not entirely facetious, at all!) counterpoint to the other answers and comments:

Clearly, "getting older" (whatever this means precisely) is construed as a bad thing, with mostly bad side-effects, by the question, and as an under-current in the answers, even if they push back slightly.

As in my earlier comment, it might be interesting to reflect on the reversed assumptions and corresponding question: "How can young people have any hope of doing meaningful research, being adequate scholars, and competing in the academic marketplace, when they are so immature, inexperienced, ignorant, and naive?"

(I would seriously claim that, although the previous is presently a rhetorical question, it reflects enough reality to bring the question above to more-or-less a "dead heat", I think.)

That is, population X may reasonably imagine (if they are optimistic) that the traits they imagine that they have are exactly what makes them superior (in some useful sense) to other tribes/populations/clans, and can have discussions about how those other populations (purportedly lacking these signal distinctions) can bear their own existence, survive at all, etc.

I've heard all too many times the idea that (in math) "well, when you get old-and-tired and can't do research any more, you can always teach". Toooo many assumptions here, especially that people who lack the energy or interest to continue research "can always" teach. E.g., I'd claim that if they were not good teachers before, loss of energy and interest wouldn't help... (Of course, such comments are in a mythological context where "anyone can teach", but "only the special ones can do research"...)

It is true that in current contexts there is an aggressive identification of "research" with "funding" and "entrepreneurial spin-offs" and "technology transfer". I cannot speak for engineering departments and such, but this is clearly not the model of all departments in universities. Some departments are caught in the middle, e.g., mathematics, where there is a seductive possibility of playing short-term, big-money games (as opposed to small-money, quiet, long-term scholarly games).

I do not claim to understand the arc of personal scholarship, nor the gamut of "economies" of grants and such across disciplines, but it is relatively clear in my experience that there are many scenarios where I'd be very much more interested in hearing a scholarly opinion from a decades-long experience than from a glib newcomer. Sure, newcomer rebels can be interesting, but the context is complicated.

So, my facetious-rhetorical response is "What? I'm getting older?" (Sincere!) And, then, "Wait, what, all this time I thought I was finally figuring out how to do stuff, I'm being declared ever-more-incompetent?!?!"

:)

  • 1
    exactly, we have people in 60, 70ties at our departments and they produce solid and good work, I dont understand why OP thinks getting old is bad thing. – SSimon Mar 30 '18 at 8:34
6

How do academics deal with growing old?

I will answer based on my observation of one researcher maturing over the last 25 years, and of several researchers who are in their 70s.

Contrary to the attitude you expressed in the question, in fact the creativity, skills and engagement are still there. I think the keys to a successful transition are

  • make sure to pace yourself

  • avoid situations where you won't be able to hear well

  • don't get stuck in certain ways of communicating and collaborating -- be open to others' preferences, even if it means learning to use a new tool

  • learn to cope with degrading memory skills -- for example, develop organized ways of making and retrieving notes

  • be honest with others about your limitations and any health issues you may have

  • make more of an effort than you used to with personal hygiene and keeping your wardrobe reasonably up to date (this refers to both condition of clothing and stylishness)

  • keep in mind that as people age, they tend to become more sensory avoiding; so, push yourself to expand your sensory world. Example: if noise or bright light bother you, force yourself to be in them sometimes, because an avoidance policy will just make you even more sensory averse.

Staying involved in research, at a pace that feels right to the individual, is one of the main things that seems to make life fun for the older researchers I know.

  • 1
    older professor are much more patience, and much less horny. I dont know how OP get to conclusion that older professor degradate in memory skills? – SSimon Mar 30 '18 at 8:36
  • @SSimon - I'm not the Original Poster (OP). I spoke of "degrading memory skills" because this is a well-documented fact. – aparente001 Mar 30 '18 at 13:15
  • yes I know.................................. – SSimon Mar 30 '18 at 13:52
  • Other answers do a good job of challenging the premise of the question, and highlighting things that aren't negative about aging, but I think yours does the best job of answering the question in the title. I can see these tips actually helping people when they come to the discussion from outside, unlike the ones that mostly address the OP's hangup about losing one's youthful edge. – Jenn D. Jun 21 '18 at 6:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.