Active retirement keeps me involved in science and helps others

Entrance to the Cairns campus of the James Cook University

The campus of James Cook University, where Juergen Reichardt spends his retirement as an adjunct professor.Credit: Suzanne Long/Alamy

Towards the end of my last academic appointment as the vice chancellor of research and innovation at Yachay Tech University in Ecuador, I wondered what the future would hold for me. I am almost 63 years old, and have seen many of my peers step away from research entirely as they grow older. However, after looking back on my career in research, teaching, administration and engagement, I wanted to cut back on my responsibilities but continue to enjoy science and interacting with colleagues.

I have been lucky to have worked around the world, in seven countries on four continents, and so had some choice on where to go next. In the end, I decided to return to Australia, where I had worked for ten years prior to my last appointment in Ecuador.

Specifically, I decided to return to a young academic institution in Australia: James Cook University (JCU) in Cairns, where I had previously worked as a professor as well as in senior academic-administration positions. JCU was kind enough to offer me an adjunct professorial appointment: I am not paid and remain officially retired, but I do have an office so I can continue working.

Juergen Reichardt

Juergen Reichardt at the 2019 Human Genome Meeting in Korea.Credit: The Human Genome Organisation (HUGO)

I rejoined the university in 2019, and here at JCU, I remain active editing journals, reviewing grants and manuscripts, writing papers and giving the occasional talk (all virtually over the past few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic). I find myself videoconferencing with colleagues and friends on many committees at odd hours to accommodate people internationally; these calls give me the chance to cheer up my friends and colleagues around the world, who are sometimes struggling during the pandemic in situations significantly worse than my own here in Australia.

I also advise younger academics regularly, and it gives me some satisfaction to think that my choice to begin an ‘active retirement’ might have freed up a faculty position that my younger colleagues deserve; many have been unable to progress in the academic system even without the threat of layoffs during the current pandemic. This is perhaps especially the case in Australia, where there is no mandatory retirement age in academia. My retirement means that I am also free to pursue my own interests when and how I want to.

The only significant downside to my new lifestyle thus far is a by-product of the coronavirus pandemic: international borders remain closed in Australia, except for return travellers and approved exceptions. So, although I think the result of this policy has undoubtedly been positive in containing the virus, I have missed the conferences and interactions I was looking forward to this year.

I have found my active retirement to be a good way to maintain a strong connection to the academic community and its institutions with no significant cost to the university itself. I get the impression from my colleagues that I am viewed as being relatively free of politics and personal ambitions because I am retired and no longer employed by the institution. In fact, both the younger colleagues I work with and mentor and the people I now report to have thanked me for my support, work and advice.

I feel that I made a great decision for many, myself included, in beginning my active retirement as an adjunct professor. I hope that my experience, thoughts and ideas will benefit others, especially younger colleagues, but also experienced ones who are pondering their future.

I would recommend a more active retirement for other academics who are considering their future and wish to remain involved in academic life.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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