Plan Ahead for a Rewarding Retirement

Ask yourself these key questions before you retire.

December 13, 2016

In many careers, retirement is a welcome break from long days and office politics. But academics aren’t always eager to retire. Most professors feel called to their fields and love sharing a lifetime of learning with the energetic future leaders who will carry on their passion. And, given the flexibility and prestige that academia offers, many faculty continue teaching well beyond the typical retirement age.

Faculty often experience mixed emotions as they approach retirement. Sometimes, “accounting professors who are close to retirement or after retirement think they are not useful anymore,” said Baruch Lev, 71, a professor of finance and accounting at New York University who continues to teach.

David E. Stout, an accounting professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio, says he felt that very emotion as he prepared for this year to be his last in full-time education. “I have invested a huge chunk of my life in accounting education and program development,” the 64-year-old said. “At one level, it would be a waste of resources for me to walk away as if that life never existed.”

Planning and some introspection can make the transition to retirement easier. Knowing more about what you plan to do in your next phase of life—and visualizing how you’ll make it happy and productive—can make the prospect of retirement less daunting. Here are some areas to consider:

Do you want to retire all at once or in stages? Retirement doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair. As Wake Forest professor of accountancy Dale R. Martin approached 70.5 years old— the age when he’d have to start taking minimum distributions from his retirement funds—he decided to phase in retirement. He reduced his course load last year and is teaching even fewer courses this year, he said, adding he’s taking advantage of the school’s three-year phased retirement program that includes benefits.

Lev endorsed this idea (if your school allows it). “You’ll have several years of an easier job; you’ll teach half the courses, and you’ll do half the administration work that you did before,” he said. “This is more wonderful than an abrupt disconnect.”

Are your practical affairs in order? As you craft a timeline for retirement, the first thing to do—if you haven’t already—is to assess your financial status and health care, preferably with a professional. Get a physical, but also make sure you plan for health expenses—ranging from anything that emerges during the physical to unexpected ailments down the road. Also, decide where you want to live, said Stout, who said his retirement was well-planned. “Don’t do it as an afterthought,” he advised.

How engaged do you want to stay with your school? Your university may offer opportunities for consulting, guest lectures, or mentoring other faculty.  “Practically all business schools offer space for retired people,” Lev said. “Join seminars. Be up-to-date. Don’t get disengaged.”

Explore your school’s resources. It may offer organizations, programs, or even dedicated offices for retired faculty so that they can remain active and feel current.

The University of Southern California Emeriti Center, for example, helps retirees connect with information and resources ranging from wellness programs to awards. Transition-to-retirement sessions help faculty prepare for their “encore life,” while the program works to tap into the knowledge and expertise of faculty after their full-time work, said Janette C. Brown, the center’s assistant vice provost.

Mount Holyoke College offers tenured faculty a three-year phased retirement between ages 58 and 70 that pays half the salary and allows faculty to do things including teaching, scholarly research and even administrative work. (Similar plans are in place at schools nationwide.)

Other ideas are to write a textbook that teaches the field in a different way, contribute to course development or teach a class online, suggested Lev, who recently wrote his fifth book, The End of Accounting, with co-author Feng Gu.

Many professors like to keep in touch with their peers and their students. If you want to, let students know that you’d love to know where they end up and that you’ll always be available for advice, Stout suggested.

Do you know what you’ll do in your free time? You need to have at least one aspect of your life you’ll continue to pursue in retirement: perhaps volunteering, mentoring, or a hobby or creative project. Stout said he learned that you should make sure you have activities in your life outside work before you retire.  “One mistake that I have made as the years have gone by is not diversifying and getting a hobby,” he said. “If I retire today, what am I going to do tomorrow?”  (Stout does, however, plan to enjoy traveling and spending time with family—especially grandchildren.) 

What will you do with everything in your office?  Most academics have accumulated a lot of paperwork and books, and now is the time to decide what goes where. It may be overwhelming at first, so start slowly. Consider donating some books to the school and local library.

Choose a few papers and books to keep, but recycle liberally. Stout joked that his first thought was to toss all his papers in the trash. “As long as all that stuff is around, there will be that constant temptation [to work],” he said. “Certain journals, articles, I will keep for posterity.”

But also know that you’ve already made your mark. “In the corporate world, you have the opportunity to make a lot of money, and I’m sure you make a lot of friends,” Stout said. But the best legacy, he said, is “for someone to say ‘Thank you for having an impact on my life.’”

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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