This extended working paper reports on an investigation into how the career endings of UK academics and their transition to retirement are managed by the individuals concerned and their employing institutions. The project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. It was conducted over 18 months from October 2019, the majority of which time coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated revision of the original research design.
The principal data were collected through virtual interviews and two surveys, one of academics further on in their careers but still working (defined as receiving at least the majority of their income from paid work) and another of retired academics (defined as receiving the majority of their income from pensions). 81 survey participants were still working and 161 were retired. 54 interviews were conducted, 20 with participants who were still working and 34 retired. Overall the participants split into two halves, those under 70 and those aged 70 or over. Although the retired participants inevitably were concentrated in the older age groups, there was considerable variation in actual or planned age of retirement. Men made up between 55% and 69% of the different groups of participants, and there were further biases towards participants being white and working for (or having worked for) pre-1992 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Survey participants had better representation from STEM subjects, while the interviews had better representation from humanities and social sciences. Over 80% of survey participants lived in households with a partner (a minority of these with other family members as well). Interviewees included good representation from Scotland as well as England. Further data were collected relating to HEI policies on later careers and retirement, and relating to academic obituaries.
The survey data were collected between May and September 2020 and the interview data between May and October 2020. While the surveys and interviews were being set up, analysis of obituaries featuring in The Times Higher over the 5 years to December 2019 was conducted. The HEI policy documents were collected in January 2021.
The analysis of the data was framed around answering four questions:
- What does ‘retirement’ mean, and what does it look like?
- Is there a right time to retire?
- How do academic identities evolve? and,
- What support do universities provide?
The discussion of the data in relation to these questions in section 3 makes up the bulk of this extended working paper, where the challenges of defining ‘retirement’ and ‘careers’ for academics are discussed. Four main themes emerged from the analysis, relating to the uncertainties surrounding later academic careers and retirement, the strong sense of academic work as a vocation, the complex nature of turning points and trajectories, and the importance of paying attention to contextual influences. The analysis of policy documents revealed wide variation in what is available by way of university support and also in its tone, and some indication of what might be considered good practice is given. Other material available to later career academics is also discussed, including consideration of the idea of ‘role models’. It is concluded that although opportunities do exist for people to shape their path to academic retirement so that it fits their circumstances and preferences, nevertheless difficulties remain. Participation in three ongoing conversations is recommended.