Greybearded TDWFs FTW

March 21, 2013

this is making the rounds…

From the PBS News Hour

Or, as Walt Kelly put it much more succinctly

55 Responses to “Greybearded TDWFs FTW”

  1. Pascale Says:

    And yet the congress critters who decide at what age entitlements for the elderly begin keep raising the retirement age. I am expected to work until I’m 70…


  2. physioprof Says:

    KILL THE OLDS!!11!


  3. .. or at least force them to stop writing grants…


  4. Dave Says:

    Lots of RAAAAAGE out there lol!!!


  5. Ola Says:

    Some places “get it”, but the consequences can be rather horrendous depending on the individual. Case in point – a colleague/mentor of mine at a nearby institution – continually NIH funded for 35 years, former Department chair, founded a journal (IF~8), was actively involved in designing a refurbished floor of the med’ center for his department, including his own lab space. Went on sabbatical (his first ever), came back and the dynamic new chair had given his space away to a junior person “with better chances of funding during this fiscal crisis”. When old-prof protested, he was flatly told “it’s not about the grants you HAD, but about the ones you HAVE, and the one you have is about to run out”. Soon after old-prof had a heart attack (potentially bought on by these events) and had to retire anyway, but he’s still running the journal from home and is very productive in outside teaching/mentoring. By all accounts the junior-prof who inherited the space has not yet achieved independent funding status 3 years later. Maybe if they’d kept around their most well-funded (to date) PI to mentor the junior folks, things would be different? Yes it’s an N of 1, but it illustrates that getting rid of the old fuzzies is by no means a universal solution to the current ills.

    FTR, by a combination of living in a small house in a cheap city and max’ing out my investments every year, I hope to get out of this game by 60, before this kind of thing happens to me. Life expectancy in my family (going back 5 generations) is about 55, so I’ll be on borrowed time post-retirement anyway. I’d rather not work until I die.


  6. A. Postdoc Says:

    I say that every professor that retires at a reasonable age should be regarded as heroes. Perhaps we should start a blog about their achievements and their reasonable retirement.


  7. AcademicLurker Says:

    Can they afford to retire since their 401ks were nuked during the financial collapse?


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    oh sure they *claim* that’s the problem. but what about those who have no 401K (or tiaacref dealio) because the baby boomers ruined the economy by voting, selfishly, for the republicans for 35 years? my sympathies are limited.


  9. Physician Scientist Says:

    Yes Drug Monkey…the number of tenured graybeard professors who vote republican is incredibly high. There are rumors in my department that one of them voted for Reagan in 1984, but that’s never been verified.


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    I think you need to reread what I wrote PS


  11. Physician Scientist Says:

    In all seriousness, I think alot of them in my department have their identities so tied up in their profession and have so little outside interests that they can’t quit. This is what I think is sad.

    And…the 403b loss argument doesn’t add up anymore because the last 5 years has seen a return to levels higher than that before Lehman brothers. My sense, though, is that many never bothered to save – the young will take care of them both professionally (by supporting their salaries through our indirects) and personally (through the massive transfer of wealth via Medicare and SS taxes).


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    I agree entirely about the identity issues.


  13. neuromusic Says:

    “When you hear ‘Moby Dick’, you think …”

    hahaha. poor humanities PhDs.


  14. Hermitage Says:

    What’s a 401k? *quizzle face*


  15. Dave Says:

    In all seriousness, I think alot of them in my department have their identities so tied up in their profession and have so little outside interests that they can’t quit. This is what I think is sad.

    This probably has something to do with it.

    God I hope I don’t end up like that. Wait. Who am I kidding? I will more likely be working at Walmart in a year or so. Maybe after an illustrious career there, I can retire at Home Depot and bask in my own magnificent glory.

    All I care about is that this old fuckers stay out of study sections. I do not want some dude whose last experiment involved a Douglas Bag reviewing my grants.


  16. TheThirdReviewer Says:

    Make tenure a harder thing to get.

    Assess productivity/usefulness/potential every N years.

    Make clear cut markers of evaluation/progress.

    Establish a probation system.

    Do your best to keep the best people.

    “I’ve been here forever” is not synonymous with “I’m essential.”


  17. Former technician Says:

    My boss is over 70, published 18 papers last year and has a fully funded lab of over 25 people. Is he keeping someone from having a TT position? Possibly, but he is also still being productive. He is considered a mentor in both our University and his field. He adds junior faculty to his grants to help them get started. This is all very positive.

    On the other hand, there is a track record of just promoting 5+ year post-docs to research track faculty. This does not encourage them to move on. Additionally, the longer they stay, the less likely they will be able to move on. (Worst examples: 1. post-doc joined the lab in 1992, still here as RT faculty. 2. joined lab as grad student in 1988, graduated and became post doc, still here as RT faculty.) Why is this a problem? Because eventually the professor will leave to retire or for some other reason and these folks will be left without the ability to have independant labs.


  18. Physician Scientist Says:

    Former technician-
    This is exactly the problem. This senior investigator is “collecting” highly talented hands and keeping from being independent by “promoting” them into positions in which they can’t write or get independent grants or flourish on their own. His use of this model, on the backs of junior scientists who he pretends to promote, allows him to have 18 papers in a year and stay fully funded. A much more impressive senior investigator is one whose trained a number of quality scientists who have gone on to make independent major contributions to the given field. My two cents…


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    Ft- he’s hosing off the surplus value of his underlings. And he’s probably at cap, does he contribute 2-3 times the value of a youngster? *personally*?


  20. Gigantic Says:

    Soylent green for the lot of them. Even the productive ones. The whole idea that “they are productive so why should they stop” is a big steaming pile of confirmation bias. Oh, so your geezer PI publishes papers? And he has 25 people in his lab? What a fucking hero of scientific productivity. I’m sure nobody else could pull that off. In any case, their papers are probably perceived as relevant because they are the ones that decide what is relevant. Even if we concede that keeping them will be more efficient (=more productive) than letting younger people take their place, it will most definitely be less sustainable. And if you don’t think that is already happening you should take your head out of your ass.


  21. theshortearedowl Says:

    I just think we should start encouraging the over-60s to take up dangerous hobbies. You know, get the most out of those golden years… why not try base-jumping?


  22. a european assistant professor Says:

    Well, in most European countries, professors have to retire at the legal retirment age, most typically 65. If they wish they can stay around, be involved in projects, mentor, … though they do not receive wages, cannot apply for grants and can only go to conferences if they cover the cost themselves or are invited. The nice thing for the young ones is that THEY have time to read through all parts of your job search applications and provide detailed, thorough feedback and are very accessible to discuss science. I’m no where near 65, so for now, I like the situation.


  23. Spiny Norman Says:

    In our department we just start handing out cartons of cigarettes to faculty when they turn 55.


  24. MorganPhD Says:

    “This is exactly the problem. This senior investigator is “collecting” highly talented hands and keeping from being independent by “promoting” them into positions in which they can’t write or get independent grants or flourish on their own.”

    If evidence existed that this senior investigator was actively undermining the job prospects of his employees, then shame on him/her.

    I actually think this senior investigator is doing something GOOD for science, which is providing jobs for highly trained scientists. Don’t people bitch and moan about how there aren’t “jobs” for scientists after they finish their training? This is exactly that type of job. You get to actively do experiments and be involved in science without the hassle of running a lab.

    If anything, we need more of these investigators who will hire someone for the long haul instead of constantly churning grad students and postdocs.


  25. @ MorganPhD: YES.

    But companies gutted R&D labs- systemically eviscerating USA basic science jobs in the name of high profits for the company shareholders; and shipped the work out to universities to be done on the cheap by student labor. Germany has … its own issues in basic research, but it good at setting up institutes and ensuring its scientific workforce has good job stability and benefits.


  26. odyssey Says:

    Post tenure review. With real teeth.


  27. dsks Says:

    PS ” This senior investigator is “collecting” highly talented hands and keeping from being independent by “promoting” them into positions in which they can’t write or get independent grants or flourish on their own.”

    Huh? I don’t think these highly talented hands have exactly been shanghaied into long service. What the fuck are they doing hanging around if they’re actually competitive for TT positions of their own? I don’t know many superannuated postdocs with evidence of good productivity voluntarily continuing to work for their postdoc mentor for shits and grins. It’s career suicide and everybody knows it.

    The opposite is far more common, I think. Well-funded sentimental oldies keeping unproductive superannuated postdocs in the lab because… well, we’re all human and it’s not easy to let people go when there is still money coming in to pay their salaries.


  28. DJMH Says:

    And of course our lack of mandatory retirement just means that all the geezers from Germany come HERE when they want to keep up research programs.


  29. drugmonkey Says:

    You have all kinds of privilege showing, dsks


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    And Sweden, DJMH


  31. Grumble Says:

    “Maybe if they’d kept around their most well-funded (to date) PI to mentor the junior folks, things would be different? ”

    This hits the nail on the head. The dean of my college is rapacious in his pursuit of retirement for “non-productive” (or less-productive) senior faculty – those with big salaries that aren’t fully covered by grants. But those faculty are a repository of knowledge and experience. Getting rid of them by any means available undermines the mission of the college – which is not to build new buildings and hire new deanlets, but to educate students and do thoughtful, meaningful research. Background, perspective and experience are essential to doing these activities well.

    Anyway, it’s interesting that everyone here is focused on the BSD oldster with a 25 person lab and research scientists from 1988. This is exactly the kind of faculty that colleges want to keep around, so they are in no danger of being asked to leave. It just won’t happen until the individual decides for him/herself that it’s time to quit, and it makes no sense from an ethical or financial perspective to try to force them out – any more than it would make sense for Nissan to fire its most productive and senior auto workers simply because they’re old, never mind that their work is top notch.

    No, it’s the 65 year old with one R01 and 40% salary coverage who’s most likely to be forced out in this day ‘n age.


  32. Steve Says:

    The main in the office next to me is about 90. Finally last year the department had a “retirement party” for him. That meant he would stop being paid. He still comes into the office almost every day.


  33. drugmonkey Says:

    it makes no sense from an ethical or financial perspective to try to force them out

    what a dimwitted assertion. as far as ethical goes, the existence of a retirement age elsewhere ends that nonsense before it is started. financial perspective? you are talking a line of rationale that drove the US car industry into the ground and many other industries as well. Blockbuster? brick and mortar bookstores? c’mon now, you aren’t even trying with this nonsense.

    successful models are successful until they aren’t. Those that have invested in the future during good times are most likely to survive into the future.

    NIH ICs are no different. They can save the Bluehair labs preferentially if they like but *eventually* these folks will exit the system. Who is left? All the ESIs that they are grooming/pushing ahead now? maybe…or maybe these folks will be struggling to get their grants renewed, get their models really humming and productive and there will be no mid-senior cadre to fill in the gaps.


  34. Anon Says:

    This discussion is depressing me. Although I’m a solid 30 years away, the idea of retiring cold turkey is terrifying, while the idea of tinkering around as an emeritus professor into my 90s sounds lovely. Senior faculty contribute in many different ways to a university – I think the ideal would be to have a nice distribution. Wisdom and historical perspective from the bluehairs, productivity and leadership from the mid-careers, enthusiasm and new ideas from the newbies. Is it specifically the baby boomers that draw vitriol? There are too many of them tying up too many faculty positions? I’d like to see the data showing that for every retirement, a new assistant professor is hired. I suspect it is not an exact correlation. In some departments, adjunct hiring is all the rage. In others, there is still growth, and a retirement could result in a couple of hires over the next few years. I don’t think its any wiser to mortgage our future by getting rid of the experience than it is to do the same by eating our young. These be hard times, but we need to be careful about how we cope.


  35. Grumble Says:

    “as far as ethical goes, the existence of a retirement age elsewhere ends that nonsense before it is started.”

    Bullshit. Just because the Europeans do it doesn’t mean that a retirement age is ethical – and in fact even in Europe there are movements afoot to abandon mandatory retirement. I’m sorry, but there are plenty of brilliant and productive old people, and it’s just plain stupid (not to mention morally wrong, at least to me) to interfere with their ambitions and careers. Why are they any less important than young people? It’s just as random (and abhorrent) to say “black people should all retire because they’re in the way.” It’s called age discrimination, and I’m surprised that you of all people – Dr. Black Science Month himself – would feel this way.

    “financial perspective? you are talking a line of rationale that drove the US car industry into the ground and many other industries as well. Blockbuster? brick and mortar bookstores? c’mon now, you aren’t even trying with this nonsense.”

    Bullshit again. I asserted that it makes no financial sense to fire highly productive older workers just because they are old. You counter that this kind of thinking is part of what drove several industries into the ground. Really? Do you have evidence for this ridiculous claim?


  36. DJMH Says:

    I am with grumble. Age discrimination is as bad as gender discrimination (or anti-hijab discrimination, since we’re citing Europe as the gold standard…)

    What *is* useful is active management of faculty *at all life stages*. For those near 65, it means that the dept chair should sit down and have a talk about goals, needs, and performance. Not in a nasty way, but in the way it’s done in the above video (but one-on-one). Some senior profs want to keep a lab going. Others are just inertial, and will take a good retirement opportunity if it’s put forward–particularly if it comes with an office and maybe a special role as advisor to junior faculty. Or in spearheading curriculum revision, or something that appeals to their experience and interests.

    Management that can’t have these conversations in a productive fashion with their senior faculty is failed management.


  37. drugmonkey Says:

    Why is it any less abhorrent to “interfere with the ambitions and careers” of young workers exactly?

    It is not age discrimination it is called investment in the future. If your Taurus or Grand Caravan is selling gangbusters that’s fine but eventually the consumer stops buying. Just like eventually your Graybeard dies or gets a stroke or finally listens to his wife and retires. If you have nothing in the developmental pipeline, you are screwed. So it makes sense to look toward the future long before that moment arrives.


  38. Grumble Says:

    No one is advocating “interfering with the ambitions and careers of young people.” Re-read the posts if that’s not clear.

    I really don’t think an old PI with a 25 person lab and the grants to support it can be compared to Ford trying to sell Tauruses to people who want Priuses. Would you say the same thing about a young PI with 25 people and grants?

    The idea that “because you are old all that you do is obsolete” is just plain dumb. Especially when the evidence points to the opposite: in this funding climate, it’s hard even for the old farts to get solid funding without being very, very creative.


  39. drugmonkey Says:

    don’t be stupid.

    being an established investigator always advantages you, all else equal. in flush times and in tight times. across the entire board, not just cherry picking your favorite Lake Wobegone geezer, this means lesser quality of ideas. that’s even before we get to the investment issues that you are conveniently dodging.

    AND (and it is a big one) these people have become what they are by extracting surplus value from the very smart people who have come to/through their labs. so your respect for their individual and personal contributions is invariably overblown.


  40. @ Grumble

    Totally with you on Not Killing the Old Emeritus People.

    Seeing as most of my Bosses are Old Emeritus Professors. Who are Not Involved in Hiring Decisions anymore.

    My grandfather was a chemical engineer out of Purdue with a BS. Worked for USA government all his life in nuclear engineering.

    I love my father (he is an English major). But I respect my grandpa, even after his death- esp. after reading his health and safety manual for nuclear reactors. Please listen to your parents, Boomers. Sometimes they do have something worthwhile to say.


  41. FabulousMan Says:

    DM: The best predictor of future success is past success. By definition, ‘established’ investigators are successful.

    I don’t understand your issue with established investigators.

    Let’s say this is a horse race. Horse #1 has won 19 of the last 20 races it has been in. Horse #2 has never raced. Which do you want to bet on?

    Which should taxpayers or your institution’s admin bet on?


  42. anonymous postdoc Says:

    Man some people are myopic. Horse #19 hasn’t got that many more races in him.

    I have personally seen careers, from long-term technician to “research assistant professor” positions, which evaporated due to the sudden death or unforeseen sudden retirement decision of established senior investigator Dr. Bigwig. This is not to say that Dr. Bigwig (or rather the people in Dr. Bigwig’s lab) wasn’t productive right up until the end. But if there’s one thing the Boomers are super good at, its denying they are ever going to die, and therefore refusing to make any sort of plan for that future, to the point of being offended at the idea that a senior scientist should give thought to the processes by which they will wind down their lab.

    No one is saying they have to stop teaching, or stop writing. They just have to stop hiring people under the supposition that they will be around to support their career long enough for it to make a difference. How long does it take to get a first year postdoc past tenure, if a TT job is even gonna happen for that person? 10 years is the best case scenario, during which that person is gonna need mentoring and letters and schmoozing and more letters and more mentoring and etc if you are doing a decent job at actually mentoring.

    Oh wait, I forgot, its all about ego and “scientific legacy” and the “trainees” are there to make these people look good. My bad.


  43. drugmonkey Says:

    The best predictor of success in science is funding, actually.


  44. A. Postdoc Says:

    Seriously, so negative. Can we get back to a positive idea? Every school should give out awards, paintings, statues, etc., to faculty that retire at a reasonable age. Seriously, I respect the ones at my current institution who retired (and are still around in some way as Emeritus) compared to the ones at my previous school who have empty labs and refuse to give it up.


  45. drugmonkey Says:

    Logan’s Run works better


  46. Mac Says:

    I think there is also a little issue with trying to force specific retirement ages on faculty that may have had very different career lengths. This may hit those folks from less traditional backgrounds much harder than faculty who went the straight path college->grad school->postdoc->prof. Not everyone’s life is like that. I’m thinking of my mother who went to college at 36 because previously she’d been a housewife and stay at home mom. She’s not an academic but she had a long and successful career in her field before retiring at 70+. My aunt worked until she was 84 because she spent the first 25 years working part-time, again because her primary role was at home for much of that time. Things have changed a bit from my mother’s generation but for various reasons women and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will often enter the field older. If they are still performing their jobs well why should they have only 25 years in the field when if you come out of a background that helps you make a straight shot through the process you get an extra 10-15 years? This also applies to many people in my generation who ended up postdocing for a long time. Maybe length of service (as well of course as continued productivity) should be incorporated into thinking about this issue.


  47. Isis the Scientist Says:

    We should ask them to kill themselves at 65 for the good of society .


  48. FabulousMan Says:

    Anonymous Postdoc: OK, let’s entertain your twist on my horse betting analogy. You say Horse #1 hasn’t got many races left (Actually you said ‘Horse #19′, but I know what you meant). So presumably you’d bet on the untested Horse #2.

    First off, I don’t believe what you say for a second, unless you are also the type that says in the lab “Here is a method that works every time and is well accepted by the scientific community. I would rather use this other protocol that my brother made up yesterday and no one has ever tried.”

    But I will continue to give you the benefit of the doubt, because maybe you were a bit drunk when your wrote your comment (Friday night, after all). What you are maybe trying to say is that it is better to BUY Horse #2 because Horse #1, albeit successful, hasn’t got many races left.

    That is somewhat of a reasonable argument (although it belies a totally naive understanding of institutional finances, the multiple roles that PIs serve besides just getting grant money, and the advertising value of having recognizable all-stars on faculty.)

    But actually, it’s myopic. Look at the choices:

    1) Keep a geezer with high likelihood of at least 1 more renewal on board, at zero cost.
    2) Chuck the geezer, generate a lot of ill-will among other established senior faculty, spend at least several hundred thousand dollars hiring some rookie with no experience or name value, and wait several years hoping it will pay off.

    If that’s the way you would run a department or institution, you are a moron. And DM, I am shocked. You insist over and over that established investigators are more successful, for various reasons. And yet you think institutions should get rid of them?

    Age-ism is no more acceptable than any other bigotry. Should we get rid of women scientists? They tend to drop out of science more often, just like old people. What about poor people? Should we stick ’em in the gas chambers with stray dogs and cats? How about grad students and postdocs who blog or post or surf the internet instead of getting experiments done or reading? Maybe they should be electrocuted because they are also wastes of money and space.


  49. Grumble Says:

    ” in flush times and in tight times. across the entire board, not just cherry picking your favorite Lake Wobegone geezer, this means lesser quality of ideas. ”

    Let’s at least agree that there’s a range of old fart talent, from the expensive leech who does nothing but tax the system, to the sharp as a tack, very productive I’ll-quit-when-they-nail-my-coffin-shut 80 year old genius. (As a post-doc, by the way, I worked for both flavors of older PI.)

    What I object to is your blanket assumption that old PIs tend as a whole towards falling into the former category, which leads to your comfort with the imposition of arbitrary retirement limits on everyone. That’s exactly the kind of generalization that is usually called “discrimination.” There’s a good argument to made that NIH ought to be changed so that funding success is less dependent on all the reasons why older successful PIs are successful at getting grants (name recognition, large network of contacts, etc). Fine. The way to do that is to change NIH’s procedures, not to impose a blanket retirement age, which is wrong and potentially very counterproductive.

    As for your “old PIs extract surplus value from the people who work for them” argument, that might be true, but (1) why is it more true for old PIs than younger ones? and (2) All PIs (except the leechiest of leeches) add some value, often a lot, because of their experience and understanding of the field; why would that be any less true for older ones?


  50. rs Says:

    I think many of these old faculties are staying put simply because they love what they are doing and define themselves by their work. They don’t know what they will do if they retire. Maybe universities should form a policy to utilize the talent of these people by using them in adjunct/adviser/mentor part time positions while making a way for younger generation. Maybe these people need to generate significant part of their salary via grant in research faculty positions if they would like to continue doing research they so love.

    Right now these people don’t retire, so younger folks feel outrage, deans and heads have to use tricks to get them out which makes people bitter after serving a life time in a institutes. There can be a dignified way out of this mess.


  51. Eli Rabett Says:

    There are useful solutions.

    One, that is popular is the phased retirement option, where you give up your tenure in return for a bonus payment (generally one year salary) and negotiate teaching load and associated salary for up to five years. Research support for salary continues.

    The other (Eli’s variation) is the post retirement post doc, where you combine your social security, 403b/401K, other retirement pay, etc. with a low/no pay post doc somewhere where you are interested in the work and the people are friends/nice/interesting/not assholes.

    Opportunities for travel and science.


  52. […] a parable out of this, but just point out that while thinking these thoughts I was reminded of this recent post over at […]


  53. anonymous postdoc Says:

    I enjoy being called a moron. It is invigorating.

    The argument that we should keep this particular senior faculty member for that next renewal instead of hiring is analogous to the argument Nate Silver railed against with regards to the 2008/2010 elections.

    To wit: senior Democrats in the House stayed in the election in 2008 because it was one more easy re-election, but retired before the 2010 election, because it was going to be a harder campaign. Now, this was even though it would have been easier for freshmen Democrats to be elected in the wave of Dem voters in 2008. Consequently, when these previously unelected D candidates went up for election in 2010, they got creamed. The long term winning strategy from the Democratic Party’s point of view was then completely counterintuitive to safety – you make your investments in the future when you have a good prospect, not by delaying said investment until you have no other choice.

    I recognize the incredibly important role that senior faculty can play and have benefitted from their experience and guile I MEAN wisdom. I can see that by the incredibly self-serving needs of university administration, investment in a sure thing is, well, a sure thing. But the NIH is sure concerned about this problem, or else they wouldn’t be trying to prop up the Career awards as much as they are. What is gonna happen when these boomers die in their office? Again, I will say from direct experience – when the PI dies in his office, people’s lives get fucked up and there will be NO MORE RENEWAL OF THAT R01.


  54. bacillus Says:

    A strategy that seems to work well in government labs, is the defined benefit pension. E.g. pension is accumulated at a rate of 2% of salary/ year to a maximum of 70% of salary after 35 years of service. In this scenario, your pension is guaranteed rather than dependent on the foibles of the stock market and your ability to play it, but you benefit the most by retiring as early as possible, whilst retaining the choice to stay on. Some of my colleagues go as soon as they hit the big 35, one retired aged 82 last year and collected his pension for a mere 6 months before dying, another 82 year old is still showing up.


  55. WS Says:

    The solution is not to force retirement onto productive old faculty; the solution is not to exploit, uh train, WAY more people then can hope to find employment beyond a permanent post-doc. Look at that poor humanities bastard in the video. Right now he is barely getting by and probably putting little or nothing away for retirement. If he does eventually find a real job, retirement at 65 will probably not be an option. That situation probably does not apply to many of the old farts hanging around today, but will be increasingly common in the future.


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