Skip to Main Content

Science & Technology

January 19, 2009
Volume 87, Number 03
pp. 59-61

Age Is No Barrier

Professors continue research after retirement or skip retirement altogether

Celia Arnaud

Robert Paz/CalTech
Sage Service At 85, Marcus still works with graduate students.

MANY PEOPLE look forward to retirement and all the things they’ll do when they no longer have to worry about a job. Others postpone retirement as long as possible—some because they just aren’t ready and, some, in the coming years, because they might not be able to afford to stop working. In academia, many professors have the opportunity to retire without retiring by continuing their work as emeritus professors.

Until 1993, tenured professors were exempt from the age discrimination laws that made mandatory retirement illegal in other fields. When that situation changed, Jerrold Meinwald of Cornell University initially feared that people would “stay in jobs forever and do them less and less well.”

Meinwald’s fears have not been realized. Those aging scientists who notice their own work performance dropping tend to enjoy what they are doing less and retire, he says. “If you’re enjoying it and you’re doing okay, you tend to stay on longer,” he adds. Meinwald himself chose to postpone retirement until 2006 at age 79. Now an octogenarian, he still actively participates in research as an emeritus professor.

John D. Roberts, an emeritus professor at California Institute of Technology, fell victim to mandatory retirement and was compelled to retire in 1988, when he reached 70. But he continues his research at 90.

At the time of Roberts’ retirement, it was customary for emeritus faculty to work alone. He would have none of that; Roberts still works with postdoctoral associates and undergraduates. He has needed and procured external support for his work but takes no stipend from the university for his time. He will teach his last formal course, on nuclear magnetic resonance, this spring.

"As long as I feel I’m doing really new things and can compete effectively with younger people, then I plan to compete."

Some of Roberts’ younger Caltech colleagues enjoy the freedom to make their own decision about when to retire. Harry B. Gray is still going strong at 73. Last August, the full professor became the director of a National Science Foundation-funded Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI) on solar energy conversion. “I have a commitment to NSF and to my colleagues to stay in there full blast” for the duration of the program, he says.

Gray currently receives funding from both NSF and the National Institutes of Health. “If I didn’t think my work was really at the frontier, I would drop out and let NIH invest their money in younger people,” he says. “As long as I feel I’m doing really new things and can compete effectively with younger people, then I plan to compete.”

In a climate where agencies such as NIH express concern over the rising average age of first-time grant recipients, Gray contends, “you can’t fund young people just to be funding young people. Some of the older, senior people may be doing much more important work. That simply has to be evaluated on an objective, peer-reviewed basis without regard for age.”

Gray knows that he could continue research as a retired emeritus professor, but he would no longer be able to work with graduate students, an activity that he enjoys. Plus, he thinks becoming a retiree at this stage would send the wrong message to his colleagues in the solar program. “I want to direct it as an active professor with a strong research program,” he says.

Rudolph A. Marcus is another Caltech professor who has forged ahead 20 years beyond the traditional retirement age. He is young enough that he narrowly escaped mandatory retirement, and at 85, the 1992 Nobel Laureate continues as a full professor.

Gray enjoys working with graduate students such as Crystal Shih. Bert Lai
On The Board Gray enjoys working with graduate students such as Crystal Shih.

FAR FROM SLOWING DOWN, Marcus enjoys mentoring young scientists and participating in scientific interactions that allow him to do research in diverse new areas. Still attracted by the challenges of initiating new lines of research in fast-developing parts of the world, Marcus is now even collaborating with researchers at the Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore.

At Harvard University, Nobel Laureate Elias J. Corey has taken a different approach. At 80, he is still active in research, but he began making way for younger chemists when he was 65.

“There’s an age discrimination law that’s made it possible for people to continue indefinitely to teach as long as they are able, but there is also a tradition in our academic system to give young people opportunities and to make sure that universities and individual departments remain vibrant and innovative and active,” Corey says.

In the early 1990s, Corey informed his colleagues that he intended to step down from his chair in 1998, when he would be 70, but his colleagues protested. He ended up continuing to teach until 2000.

At the same time, Corey decided to no longer seek federal funds. “I haven’t applied for well over 10 years,” he says. “There’s insufficient funding, and I knew some very good young people who were denied funding. I didn’t want to contribute to that.”

Nonetheless, Corey has continued to do research with undergraduates and postdocs. Consulting fees and grants from pharmaceutical companies have allowed him to keep the lab afloat. He runs his lab frugally. “If we need it, we make it,” he says.

John W. Huffman, a research professor at Clemson University, a public institution, took advantage of a South Carolina program originally designed to retain public elementary and secondary schoolteachers with enough years of service to take early retirement. He signed up for the program in 2001, at age 69, but had to retire from Clemson at the end of December 2005. Since then, he has paid himself a small salary as a research professor out of his NIH grant.

Although Huffman, now 76, has retained NIH funding, he plans not to apply for renewal when his current grant runs out in June 2010. One of his reasons for not reapplying is the death last June of his longtime collaborator, pharmacologist Billy R. Martin of Virginia Commonwealth University. Their research focused on cannabinoids.

“He was probably the best pharmacologist, maybe in the world, in drugs of abuse,” Huffman says. “Without his support and collaboration, it would be hard to get the grant back in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.”

Huffman says that there are still things he wants to learn, but “it’s too much of a hassle to get money these days.” He plans to join his wife in Sylva, N.C., not far from where she works at Western Carolina University and where Huffman says he might volunteer as a mentor in the chemistry department.

Working Mom Woertink readies a sample for a resonance Raman spectroscopy experiment. Courtesy of E. J. Corey
Model Interaction Corey and postdoc Barbara Czakó discuss an experiment.

Roberts is waiting to hear about the renewal of an NSF grant. In the past, he has received reviews that questioned the value of giving money to a scientist his age. “That’s age discrimination, and NSF tries not to do that,” he says. He points out, however, that he must focus on projects that undergraduates can handle.

Meinwald also continues to work with postdocs and undergraduates. He spent the majority of his career discovering compounds involved in the chemical ecology of insects and plants. He now has NIH funding to comb through that large compound collection to identify potential drugs.

“I was frankly stunned that at this advanced stage in my career I was able to get a new grant,” Meinwald says. “It’s fantastically competitive.” After the first year, Meinwald and his research associate, Frank C. Schroeder, 41, swapped places as principal investigator on the grant.

William Klemperer, an 81-year-old emeritus professor at Harvard, has had to scale back his research because his NSF grant was not renewed. “Most of the research I’ll do will be analytical rather than experimental,” he says. “Probably the greatest difficulty is keeping an experimental program running, which is expensive and needs continuity.”

Esther M. Conwell, a research professor at the University of Rochester, considers herself lucky to be a theoretician in these lean times. “I don’t really need much money,” she says. Conwell, who describes herself as “over 80,” continues to do theoretical research on charge transport in DNA, graphene, and carbon nanotubes.

Craig will research as long as his hands are steady enough for glassblowing. Courtesy of Norman Craig
Hot Stuff Craig will research as long as his hands are steady enough for glassblowing.

ONE PLACE that emeritus faculty have, until recently, been able to get modest funding is the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation’s Senior Scientist Mentor Program. The program, which was suspended in November in the face of the economic downturn, had offered two-year $20,000 grants to emeritus professors to fund research with undergraduates. The recipients were encouraged to use the bulk of the grant for undergraduate summer stipends.

“Emeritus faculty who still maintain a laboratory are a tremendous and relatively untapped resource for the education of undergraduates,” says Mark J. Cardillo, executive director of the Dreyfus Foundation. “In general, they don’t teach and they don’t have graduate students, so they really do have more time to develop a close mentoring relationship.”

The Dreyfus Foundation hopes to be able to reinstate the program when the economy improves.

Norman C. Craig, an emeritus professor at Oberlin College, in Ohio, has been a three-time recipient of Dreyfus funding. Retirement allows him to focus on research full-time, and the grant has made it easier both for him and his colleagues to make space for him in the laboratory. “In a college department, space is tight,” he says. “If you have an outside grant, there’s a little more satisfaction with having a retiree take up valuable laboratory space.”

Health issues are just about the only thing that would convince most of these senior scientists to give up their research. They each have their own indicators of their health. Craig will know it’s time to stop “when my hands are no longer steady enough to do glassblowing.”

But don’t expect any of these researchers to stop soon. Conwell says, “I still enjoy it, and I can’t think of any better way to spend my time.”

Save/Share »

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


Save/Share »



Our log-in process has changed. You need an ACS ID to access member-only content.



Questions or Problems?

Adjust text size:

A- A+

Articles By Topic