After Christina Hultman retired from her professorship at Karolinska Institutet, she spent four years employed as a senior professor at the same university. Today, she is a newly appointed professor emeritus. She says that her years as a senior professor have been both successful and sometimes frustrating.
The successes include the research itself, funded by the NIH, and the rewarding collaboration with younger colleagues. The frustration has concerned her relationship to the department, where Christina Hultman and a former head of department have had a hard time reaching agreement.
“We have had very different points of view”, she says. “I was amazed and disappointed when he prevented me from applying for external funding. His justification was that he wanted to help younger researchers. Of course that’s important, but I think that it is simplifying matters to suggest that you are benefiting the younger generation by stifling opportunities for older researchers to continue with successful research.”
Not allowed to apply for external funding
She points out that the grants applied for would primarily have benefitted her three younger co-applicants.
“I found myself in a catch-22 situation; I was accused of being a cost to the department, but was not allowed to pull in external funds.”
The department’s management has since changed and Christina Hultman feels that when her employment came to an end at the beginning of the year, it was a fine and dignified conclusion.
“It was a great relief. When the conflict was ongoing, I often thought, ‘This is not how I want things to end – angry and bitter!’ It would have been terrible to have to end it that way after all the fantastic years I have had here.”
A better system rather than an age limit
As a professor emeritus, Christina Hultman continues to be active in academia through various commitments – as a mentor and sounding board, as a member of an ethics committee, as a writer, most recently of a planned book chapter, and as a reviewer in international calls for proposals.
“In my role as a reviewer, I am particularly sceptical about older researchers. I think you have to be. Does the idea have academic merit or is this about someone having clung to a project for too long? That happens of course. The reviewer has a major responsibility to favour younger researchers and not to allow older researchers’ long list of publications to be overbearing, for example.”
Christina Hultman thinks that the research community’s tradition of peer review means that it should be possible to adopt a more flexible attitude to the retirement age.
“In academia, we are accustomed to assessing quality and identifying what is fundamental research. We do this kind of weeding out all the time. We should then be able to have a more differentiated system for retirement than a simple age limit. It is too crude.”
Seniors also help young researchers
Bengt Westermark, senior professor at Uppsala University, has the same argument.
“Being dismissed because you have reached a certain biological age, even though you might be a better scientist than ever before, is fundamentally wrong. Space in academia is not a zero-sum game – those of us who continue to be active after 67 contribute to the growth of the university and research, and many younger researchers receive funding through our external grants.
In the statistics, Uppsala University is notable for its unusually low proportion of researchers over 65 years of age, but Bengt Westermark has not yet had problems continuing to work. He is now in his sixth year as senior professor.
His group is externally financed and it is the department, not himself, that applies every year for his appointment to be extended.
Should be more like in the US
However, he would like the situation in Sweden to be more like that at American universities.
“As I understand it, dismissing someone on the grounds of age is illegal discrimination in the United States. An American colleague with whom I collaborated continued researching until he turned 90. He did really well – I would say he did his best research after the age of 70.”
How long would you like to continue?
“I have not taken a position on this. For me, it is the same as for researchers in general: I have grants for the next three years, what happens after that, I have no idea. As long as you get grants in competition, I think it demonstrates that you have an edge.”
Both a strain and an opportunity
Nearly 12 per cent of employees at Linköping University were over 65 in 2016. This is the highest proportion among the country’s universities and almost quadruple the number the university had a decade earlier.
Pro-Vice-Chancellor Roger Klinth notes that the university has had a glut of people born in the 1940s and that their retirements have resulted in both a strain and new opportunities for the institution.
“There has been much discussion about how we could manage to fill the professorships once people born in the 1940s left”, he says. “I understand that in most quarters it has gone well. Rejuvenation is absolutely essential, so we have not wanted professors to stay on in their ordinary professorship after 67.”
However, he emphasises that Linköping University has a positive view of retired professors continuing to work at the university in other ways.
“Many, especially those who retired relatively recently, are energetic and active and have important networks in academia. We would like to take advantage of this.”
Linköping University does not use the job title senior professor, but talks instead about emeritus appointments. For a number of years, the university has had a specific unit, the Emeritus Academy, where these positions are placed – organisationally and often also physically.
All professors emeritus receive a one-year appointment without pay. For those who have access to external funding, this may be supplemented with an employment contract with a salary. Today, the Emeritus Academy has around 140 members.
Life crisis at the age of retirement
Roger Klinth says that working with a colleague to plan for their retirement is a delicate process. For many people, retirement brings on a life crisis.
“The reactions of different colleagues are highly individual. Unfortunately, many people feel a sense of injustice – that they have done a lot for their department and suddenly they are of no value. That they have to stand there, cap in hand.”
Their frustration can be directed in various directions. Some may feel they have been pushed aside when they are no longer allowed to keep their previous workplace. Others may be offended that they are not allowed to take on new doctoral students as principal supervisor.
“They may have supervised 20–30 doctoral students very successfully and then suddenly their services are no longer required. Of course that can be hard. For those of us who represent the university, it is a case of trying to overcome that feeling, to talk about why we need to have certain general rules and that it is not personal.”
Roger Klinth’s experience as a former head of department is that it is important, above all, to start the discussion at an early stage.
“It’s not always easy, some professors have such a tough time thinking about life after retirement that they find it difficult to stay in the room when you raise the issue.”
Energetic researchers who want to continue
According to the proposals in the pension agreement presented in December, the retirement age will be increased in a few years. The proposal is for the right to stay in work to be raised to 68 years of age from 2020, and to 69 years of age from 2023.
“I don’t believe that increased retirement ages will cause any major changes to our approach with the Emeritus Academy. The boundaries are changed, but the principles remain the same – we will still have energetic researchers who have retired but want to continue their research.”
Read more in Curie: A balancing act between experience and renewal