On Retirement


David Balamuth

Prior to my retirement I served for 13 years in the Dean's office of the School of Arts and Sciences. Among my duties was counseling members of the SAS faculty who were considering retirement. I found this a challenging but rewarding experience. The challenge came from the (obvious) fact that not all problems have a ready solution: personal factors such as divorce, children born late in one's career, or external financial difficulties can all contribute to steepening the financial hill we must all climb to achieve a reasonable standard of living after retirement. The reward came from the a discovery that probably should have been obvious: the questions raised by my colleagues almost never revolved around money or finances. Simply put, many if not most academics identify their research and teaching with their very existence. Contemplating retirement for them means literally staring in the abyss of non-existence. It's a heavy trip, and no one should be surprised that sometimes we need a little help to get through it.

I was also impressed by the frequency with which colleagues were motivated by the opposite of selfishness. For example, many of them had trained numerous Ph.D students, and well appreciated the idea that our generation should step aside to create opportunities for younger scholars.

For the most part the advice I gave was pretty straightforward: make a list of those things about your academic life that give you true enjoyment, along with another list of those elements that cause stress and/or discomfort. The goal of a successful retirement plan is to maximize the first while minimizing the second. There are a lot of tools available: a gradual transition through part-time status to 'try on' a different lifestyle is one example among many others.

The climax to my sojourn in the advice-giving business was, of course, my own retirement. Perhaps surprisingly, I found it relatively easy to follow my own suggestions. In the end, the determining factor for me was that the only way I would ever find out if a different way of spending my time would suit me was to try it. If I didn't retire, I might never know. I can now honestly say, five years or so post-retirement, that I have not regretted my decision for a moment.

Nowadays I mostly spend my time reading the books I never had time for. Biographies and history seem a lot more meaningful now that I have most of a lifetime's experience behind me. I am also enjoying exploring new areas in science, although at a non-professional level. One of the aspects of working in the Dean's office that I found most rewarding was the chance to learn about research that was very far from my own competence and expertise; it is nice to be able to continue that, but without the pressures of having to act on the results.

Another of my duties is helping Margaret provide child-care support to our two busy, professional daughters and their spouses. (Somebody has to wait for the guy to come fix the washing machine.) We feel incredibly lucky that our four grandchildren all live within 15 minutes of our house. We recently returned from 2 weeks on Cape Cod with all 10 of us (me, Margaret, Fran, Naomi, spouses Michael Mullins and Bimal Desai, and all the grandchildren - Fran's two boys Jesse and Emmet (ages 5 and 8) and Naomi's twins Sam and Mauli (age 4). We had a great time - I feel incredibly lucky to be blessed with such a wonderful family. To use a current cliche, I think of myself as part of the village that is raising these four delightful children.

I have also managed to maintain some contact with my old life at the University. I serve on the Personnel Benefits Committee of the University Council, in which capacity I try to look after the interests of my senior and retired faculty colleagues. I am also helping to administer the process by which my department (Physics & Astronomy) is selecting a new Chair. Occasionally I also revert to my old role of giving advice on retirement to colleagues contemplating the step; mainly I seem to provide assurance that whatever fears and uncertainties there are, others have had them, and for the most part overcome them.

In short, I feel very comfortable with my retirement. The freedom to pursue new interests is wonderful; as an example, I have taken several courses on film at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and have thoroughly enjoyed them. We also have more time for theater, concerts, and, perhaps most important, maintaining contact with old friends.