In September 1959, I entered the education system, an anxious small child starting out at Garlinge Infants’ School. In a couple of months, at the beginning of 2015, I will finally leave that system, having progressed without a break through junior and grammar schools, university, postgraduate study, Research Fellow, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Professor. Academia has been my professional life, my comfort zone, for those 55 years, so why am I leaving it? At a mere 60 years of age, I have certainly not lost interest in my field of research, nor have I ceased to enjoy working with students or with my diverse colleagues. The University of York, my employers since 1999 and for an earlier phase of my career, is still a fine place to work. My reasons for stepping aside are more complex and, I hope, more positive.
In career terms, I have reached my limit. Many years ago, when I was a newly-appointed Lecturer, a wise and eminent zoologist gave me some excellent advice. “Keep things in perspective”, he said. John’s advice was that in a successful academic career you write some papers, maybe a book or two, that are useful and regularly cited, and that some of your students go on to do well and you feel a little bit proud of them. “That’s not a bad career”, he said, “You can’t ask for more”. Well, I think I have reached that point, with a body of published work, some of which seems to be appreciated by colleagues, and former students who have found a good place to be in a wide range of careers. That is not bad, and I do not ask for more.
Then there is the matter of fatigue; not the usual end-of-term weariness but something more entrenched that cannot be relieved by a few days off. I feel a little like an old laptop. My central processor will not handle the latest operating systems, my board memory is woefully inadequate and unreliable, and my battery no longer charges reliably. Fortunately, people are more difficult to scrap than laptops, at least until the more useful files in my hard drive have been downloaded. Best not to push that simile any further. The last few years have seen a few small health warnings as well – nothing serious, but enough to suggest that mind and body need a little more care and consideration than I have been accustomed to give them. Having paid into a pension fund for so many years, I intend to live long enough at least to break even.
I mentioned positive reasons for retiring. Career and family require some things to be sidelined. A few of those things continue to interest me, so having the time to walk the hills, watch birds and go to concerts will be very welcome. Friends occasionally ask “What will you do when you retire?”, to which the obvious answer is “All the things I have been putting off for the last 30-odd years”. Perhaps not quite all of them: when the retina of my left eye tore and partly detached a few years ago, I was firmly told to give up boxing and bungee-jumping. Damn! Perhaps I should take up something completely new? Friends who have retired early from a career in archaeological science have gone into the creative arts, including a well-regarded poet and a successful painter. I doubt that I will follow that path. My abilities with paint and brush are strictly limited to walls and magnolia emulsion. The point is that the time to strike out in a new direction would be available should the wish and opportunity coincide.
One more positive reason, I suppose, is that there are so many good young people in my research field that I can step aside knowing the gap will easily be filled by someone with energy and bright ideas. That person can then set about building their career, remembering, I hope, John’s advice to keep it all in perspective. We cannot all make the front page of Nature or be made FRS by the age of 45. In fact, the great majority of academics achieve neither pinnacle, but their careers are none the less successful. The one additional piece of advice that I would pass on to younger colleagues is “Remember to have a life”. I certainly intend to do so.