PRISM Magazine Online - April 2000
Teaching Toolbox
Getting Retirement Right

By JJ Thompson

Slowing down is not what most engineering professors have in mind when the time comes.

Getting Retirement RightEdward Ernst says he flunked retirement the first time. Instead of spending long days at the beach or planning trips to faraway places once he left his teaching post, he remained in the marketplace for another 10-plus years.

That's not the age-old picture of retirement, but Ernst seems to be more the rule than the exception. Though retirement is no longer mandatory, many professors do decide to move out of academia and into other lifestyles. Sometimes they choose a slower pace, but increasingly they are choosing to retire early for financial reasons--either because of retirement incentive plans or to dramatically increase their incomes by drawing both a salary and a pension--and look to other venues to stay active in engineering.

Fortunately, engineers are in such demand now that life after academia can be filled with activities, from consulting for private industry to working either full time or on volunteer projects with professional organizations and engineering schools.

In Ernst's case, he hit the 40-year mark in teaching electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1989. After the 40th year with the institution, years of service are no longer credited to the amount of one's pension, so the decision to retire, he says, "was strictly financial." Although he was in his mid-60s at the time, he had not put much thought into what he wanted to do with his retirement years--an example that he advises others not to follow.

Engineering academics agree that faculty members about to leave the demands of teaching, research, and service need to construct a plan, albeit a flexible one. It is important to contemplate, for instance, which activities will build a satisfying life, both mentally and physically. Also, are there any dreams that they have been too tied to their universities to pursue, such as travel or other professional opportunities?

Another important consideration: Where do they want to spend the next years? In the same location where they have been teaching? Closer to "home," perhaps nearer grown children? Or would they like to experience someplace totally exotic?

As it turned out, events took care of Ernst's future for him. During his final years at Illinois, he had been working in a rotational position with the National Science Foundation and serving as president of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Though retired from the university, Ernst continued his other duties for another year, during which time the University of South Carolina at Columbia called, asking him to lead their engineering education reform efforts.

Okay, so it wasn't really retiring, but "at least I knew it was going to be warmer than Urbana-Champaign," Ernst says of the move to Columbia.

If Ernst flunked retirement, so have plenty of others who have barely reduced their workloads--if they have at all--after formally stepping down from a full academic position. "It's not really attractive to sit in a rocking chair," says Dan Hodge, a retired electrical engineering professor and department head from Ohio State University who is now an accreditation director at ABET--his second post-retirement position.

Staying in the Nest

Engineering deans say it is quite common, in fact, for engineering professors to maintain laboratory space and an office, and to continue advising graduate students or teaching a class or two at an institution, even after having retired.

"That's probably what I will do when I retire,' says C. Sidney Burrus, engineering dean at Rice University. He has a number of role models before him--emeritus professors maintaining an academic presence at reduced levels who he says are taking advantage of living a slower pace while staying mentally active. Pension plans may have caps on how much a "retired" academic can make and still be eligible for their full payment, however, so it's wise to check with a retirement counselor before agreeing to a set number of hours or salary.

For Hodge, much like Ernst, the decision to retire was somewhat sudden be cause the state of Ohio--as has occurred in other states as well as at private institutions--offered a limited-period retirement buyout that proved to be too tempting to resist. Hodge could retire at the age of 56 with an additional five years of service credited to his pension. Since he had been eyeing a rotational position at the National Science Foundation for a possible sabbatical, he decided to pursue the job for a longer period during his new state of retirement, he says. "It was an interesting experience, and I'm very glad I did it, but I knew those positions have a maximum term of four years," he says. "I thought I might be ready to sit in a rocking chair after that."

No way. About 3 1/2 years into his NSF job, he learned of the opening for his present position, in which he supervises a staff of 20 and a volunteer squad of 500. Because ABET is located in Baltimore--too far from his home in McLean, Virginia, for a daily commute--Hodge lives in a condominium overlooking the Baltimore Harbor during his four-day work week. Then he travels to McLean to enjoy long weekends with his wife. "That's the nice thing about having a pension. You can enjoy what you are doing instead of having to worry too much about finances," he says.

Ernst agrees that the economic returns are beneficial. "Extrapolating from my own situation, I would say a significant increase in income is possible," he says. "If your income from the retirement system is near the top available, and receiving income from another job does not diminish the pension, you should be in good shape," he says.

Opportunities to take advantage of dream jobs, short-term projects, or committee service are available for engineering professors through organizations such as NSF and ABET, as well as other professional groups such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or the American Society of Civil Engineers. While some offer paying positions, others offer the chance to remain active on a volunteer basis.

"Based on my experience, I'd say keep your options open. There are a lot of interesting things out there, and when you have that pension coming in, you can take advantage of them," Hodge says.

Sometimes, though, it really is time for a true change, if not of pace, at least of direction. At the age of 75, Ernst is preparing to retire again this summer. "I'm not going to talk to anybody about another job," he says, adding that "anything I take on will be a short-term commitment."

He and his wife, Margaret, plan to "take life a little easier and make our own schedule--that will probably last a year." But he is trying to be more intentional about his retirement this time. Ernst's plans include spending many more weeks at the couple's time-share beach condominium on the South Carolina coast, visiting his four children, and becoming more active in local activities.

In addition, he plans to stay involved with engineering education reform by taking advantage of "opportunities to work with people on a project basis," he says. "I am looking forward to it. I am another 10 years older" than he was the first time he tried to retire, and he knows it is possible to change.

After all, Ernst says, friends who have retired from teaching engineering, regardless of the level of professional or recreational activity they have chosen, "seem to be quite happy about the whole thing if I read the Christmas cards correctly."


 J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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