This month’s topic for LOL is retirement. Specifically, what, if any, plans we have for our retirement. It’s a good topic. Retirement seems like a far-off dream, but it’s starting to frighten me. I’m now in the “summer years” of my life, and as the days blur into weeks, then months, the pace of the blur is increasing. I am becoming more cognizant that time is short and limited, and that I will not be young forever. It is time to start making plans–and more, to start EXECUTING them. Thus sayeth the master procrastinator.
Once upon a time, you could work for a company for 20 years and earn a pension. With a few rare exceptions, those days are gone. I have only just completed my education, and so I feel like I am really just starting my adult life. Worse, I don’t feel I’m in a position to do anything proactive about retirement. I amassed a staggering amount of student loan debt in getting my Ph.D., and retirement concerns are taking a backseat to my primary concerns about needing to deal with that. I should inform you that a Ph.D. does not in any way disqualify you from asking if your customer wants fries with that. Jobs are few and far between, and for a science-academic, you have three basic options after finishing that degree.
One, go work for industry (if there are any or if you are able/willing to relocate). This option is massively discouraged in academia today, as though there is something inherently wrong, evil, and mercenary about working for a company where your data is not your own. Many also feel that it is scientifically unsound, given that you as a researcher may be more likely to experience “enforced bias” in your results. Although I realise that this may not be accurate, it is a huge part of the perception. There is no guarantee of job stability, and retirement options are IRA/401K type investments. Most industry positions are looking for Ph.D. candidates with a few years of postdoctoral experience (read as more “education” without another degree, and squalid pay).
The next option is to attempt to achieve the “holy grail” of academia: a tenure-track position with a college or university. Research-oriented (larger) schools basically require that you have a grant, and assume that you will run a successful, bountiful (income-producing) research program in addition to some sparse teaching duties. To get a grant, you typically need, you guessed it, postdoctoral research time. In fairness, postdoc salary levels are improving, but still not competitive with industry, nor will they ameliorate pain from student loans. This is additional training so that you can become a productive, grant-garnering researcher capable of running a good, solid scientific research program. This training is NECESSARY if that is what you want to do. My perspective changed markedly in the last few months of my Ph.D. I found myself wishing I had more time to pursue my research; there were more questions I wanted to address, more experiments I wanted to do, to fill in the holes in my knowledge. While I was far more comfortable planning and executing individual experiments, I do not think that I could design and run a full-fledged research program. So, if I wanted to research, that would be my best option. Postdocs do not come with retirement (they often do not come with benefits, either).
The third option is to find a position at a community college or a liberal arts college that is teaching-oriented. Research is not required, but if you land a grant, it’s fantastic. Your time is spent in the classroom. The pay varies; as adjunct (part-time) it is slim. As a full-time faculty member, it is better, and job security is reasonable, but these jobs are not widely available either, especially at state institutions in the current economic situation. Ahh, for the comfort and security of tenure-track. Of course, these salaries still do not compete well against full-time salaried employees of industry or research faculty.
So what’s a poor little doc to do? The general consensus seems to be… “do you want fries with that?”
No. It’s not quite that grim. But I do want people to understand that a Ph.D. by itself doesn’t magically open doors to high-paying, high-powered jobs. Especially if you find yourself feeling selective about the type of research you might be willing to do.
So, in a nutshell, my retirement is in my own, rather incompetent hands. I certainly do not trust the government to provide me with social security in 35 years when I reach retirement age. I don’t think it will exist in our current form. I laugh when I get my statements from the Social Security Administration. Besides which, it is NOT enough to live on. I am afraid of being one of those old women who have to eat cat food because spam is too expensive.
The other side of the equation is the loneliness factor. You see, I’m unmarried; I don’t have a spouse that I can “plan retirement” with, or that I think I will see 70 with. I don’t have kids. I have to plan on being alone. It is scary, perhaps even terrifying. How will I know if I need to move to an assisted living facility? Will I still have the judgment (or resources) to make that call? Will I be the insane old cat lady?
All that said, I do have WANTS for my retirement. I think I honestly started dreaming of retirement when I was about 10. I hadn’t even started working yet. My dream is oddly simple: I want a good comfy chair (preferably leather recliner), a good book (I’m a one-at-a-time reader), a glass of wine, and a cat in my lap. As I got older, I added a fireplace to my fantasy. I don’t want to travel when I’m too old to enjoy it, I want to experience that while I’m still (relatively) young, and have those memories with me as I age. Simply put, I want to feel… peaceful.