Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.

16.8.2018

Rage, rage

Horrendous as it may seem, I am approaching the age at which people start to think about 'retirement'. This can take a huge variety of forms, including embarkation on a completely new life chapter. For most people, it involves the end to a career that has been anywhere on a wide scale from intensely rewarding to intolerably burdensome. For academics, it is usually a bittersweet process: on the positive side, it usually means freedom from the ever-growing web of bureaucracy that entangles almost all academic pursuits nowadays, as well as teaching tasks that have become routine and stale, especially if they involve imparting material to students who formally need it but don't really value it, at least at the time it is being delivered.

For those of us who remain active in research, driven always to discover the ins and outs of something new, whether useful to the world or only in satisfaction of our own curiosity, retirement is typically something we resist and postpone until the last possible moment: that day when we lose our final grant, are compulsorily pensioned off as victims of employment legislation, or simply find ourselves overwhelmed by the soul-destroying but necessary process of fighting with peer-reviewers, editors and funders. 

There are two opposed intellectual processes to which we are all subject, which impinge on the outcome: as we get older, we accumulate wisdom and experience. Our intuition helps us to guide  students in what approaches are likely to work and which ones are a waste of effort. Even if most major discoveries are made by fearless young scientists, we are still able to play our part, formulating important new insights, putting together the different streams of our knowledge. At the same time, our problem-solving and information processing capacity diminishes day-by-day, however much it is bolstered by fancy gadgets, online tools or memory-sustaining exercises. We fear and even deny the slow decline of our mental faculties that accompanies old age; we applaud the achievements of those who accumulate illustrious awards, publish prolifically into old age, and deliver prestigious keynote addresses at sundry colloquia, even if they are hogging the limelight and obscuring from view the real achievers – their postdocs and students.

For my part, I am torn between these natural reflexes to hold on to something I love, which even defines me, and at the same time make way for others to take the field forward, even if their acuity still exceeds their wisdom. Perhaps the ideal compromize is to somehow do both: eventually  relinquish my position, and stop applying for grants when those still in the pipeline finally expire. But still find something zesty to do in science which keeps me engaged, able to develop new ideas and even see them put to the test, and maybe have some impact on society.

If anyone comes across this column ten years from now, in 2028, and I happen still to be alive, it will be time to test whether I have put any of it into practice. Have I actually moved on into something fresh yet still useful? Or am I one of those bitter old professors raging against the dying of the limelight?1

 

Howy Jacobs

 

1with apologies to Dylan Thomas