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Elisabeth Pain , ,

Life-long career development

You may feel that, once you’ve got tenure and set up your lab and life in a place you like, your scientific career will go on forever. But while it’s quite common for professors in the United States to remain active and productive researchers in older age, national laws and cultural traditions make it much more difficult for professors in Europe to do the same.

A recent article in The Scientist highlights the difficulties professors face if they wish to continue running a lab beyond the retirement age imposed by many European countries: “When a recently retired colleague warned [former Karolinska Institutet professor Jan-Åke] Gustafsson, who was quickly approaching Sweden’s upper mandatory retirement age of 67, that emeritus professors aren’t taken seriously in Sweden, he began to realize it was all too true. Emeritus colleagues received fewer and shorter grants and were more segregated from their departments,” the article states.

For many well-established professors, the only way to keep their research going at full speed, if at all, is to start all over again overseas. Of course, you’re much more marketable and can land much more prestigious positions if you’ve got a life-long career’s worth of achievements on your CV. But the advice that the later-career professors offer for starting over at a new institution strike me as applicable to scientists at the beginning of their careers. Here’s some of their advice:

Research your options
“‘Start early, at around 60, to really think about what you want to do,’ says Gustafsson… Gustafsson talked with colleagues about the pros and cons of becoming an emeritus professor before making his decision, and once he was sure, began his search for a new institution several years before reaching retirement age.” 

Plan ahead
“Careful planning will allow you to avoid the worst aspect of moving – the loss of productivity, says Gustafsson. ‘Organize the move efficiently, starting with the administrative details, a year before,’ he says.”

Don’t burn any bridges
“As [former University of Helsinki, Finland Albert] de la Chapelle dissolved his lab in preparation for the move, able to only bring a few junior faculty members with him, he was faced with seven dependent doctoral candidates still at Helsinki. ‘We had to really scramble to get their lives organized and get them co-mentors in Finland,’ says de la Chapelle… But it was worth it: Today, those graduate students remain his key ties back to the university, he says.”

Forced retirement is one reason why you may have to unwillingly leave your institution, at least in Europe, but in these days of economic recession even tenured professors have been made redundant. This makes it all the more important to keep your career-development skills well-honed all along the way for when you might need them.

You can read the full article on The Scientist’s Web site.