Silver Science

Courtesy of Adam Cooper, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System  Bettie Steinberg The last sands in the hour-glass of Charles Gauntt's science career are silently descending. When the final grain falls on December 31st, Gauntt's 36-year stint as a virologist will officially come to an end. Retiring was his decision, one he made four years ago. No one had to push him or dangle an enticing severance package. All he needed was to think about fishing on a beautiful lake not far from t

Dec 15, 2003
Bob Calandra
Courtesy of Adam Cooper, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System
 Bettie Steinberg

The last sands in the hour-glass of Charles Gauntt's science career are silently descending. When the final grain falls on December 31st, Gauntt's 36-year stint as a virologist will officially come to an end.

Retiring was his decision, one he made four years ago. No one had to push him or dangle an enticing severance package. All he needed was to think about fishing on a beautiful lake not far from the land he owns in central Texas. "At some point you say, I want to do something different," says Gauntt, an easy going 66-year-old who is just tickled that he now has time to read Time magazine from cover to cover. "I want to take a history course--adult courses where I don't have to take notes."

Gauntt is working half-time through the end of the semester at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. It's a good way, he says, of easing out. "I'm doing a few things I wanted to wrap up," he says. "It was a good job. I liked the challenge."

Statistically speaking, Gauntt's timing is typical for a PhD. According to a 2002 National Science Foundation study, 50% of doctoral degree scientists either leave full-time employment or retire from a job at age 66, four years later than scientists with bachelor's or master's degrees. By 68, half of all PhDs are no longer in the labor force in any capacity. But those numbers are vintage 1999. Since then an economic downturn has set off a financial chain reaction, reducing state aid to universities. Suddenly shedding older, higher-paid professors makes good fiscal policy. "There are, as is common knowledge, considerable incentives for administrators to have senior professors retire," says Jonathan Knight, director of Programs for Academic Freedom and Tenure at the American Association of University Professors. "The cutbacks in state expenditures for higher education alone would make that a desirable goal."

And while retirements certainly drain away experience, the NSF study reports that an ample supply of young, lower-paid scientists are available to replenish the system. Universities are convincing older professors to take their leave by making them offers they can't refuse. Knight says the method commonly employed by universities includes offering incentives that sweeten the base retirement plan. Sometimes administrators just wave a chunk of cash, an extra year's salary, for example, in front of the scientist. "It is not unusual to see senior faculty approached about retiring," Knight says.

HARD ROAD END Just because the university is offering a buyout, doesn't mean that the scientist has to take it. But those passing it up can expect to underwrite more of their salaries through grants than ever before. Despite greater demands for productivity, when the work is intriguing or close to fruition, leaving isn't really an option.

That's what happened to Bettie Steinberg, 66, a molecular and cell biologist with North Shore-Long Island Jewish Research Institute in Manhasset, New York. The Institute's chief scientific officer, Steinberg has spent her career researching the human papillomavirus (HPV). The time approached when retirement would be a consideration. And why not? She had accomplished much of what she wanted to do professionally. "My goal is to add some pieces to the puzzle," she says. "I think I've done that."

With her main goal secured, Steinberg began working through the mental machinations of how and when to retire. She had loose ends to tie up and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to worry about. She read about other research scientists who bowed out and even settled on the "grand old patron" model, where she would teach a little and mentor a lot. And then something happened. "We got exciting, interesting data and now I am not ready to walk away," says Steinberg, who has studied HPV for 23 years. "We're at a point where we may be making a significant breakthrough in the treatment of this disease, and that is a hard time to walk away."

If her grant is renewed, Steinberg is looking at retirement four or more years down the road. But, she says, "I am beginning to think about the other parts of my life, my family, my grandchildren, my husband, and do I want to spend more time with them. I have young grandchildren, and I would like to spend more time with them because they are not going to stay young."

Yet, with such promising data it's hard to walk away, especially when no one is pushing her out the door or baiting the retirement hook with incentives. Actually, quite the opposite is true. "If anything, the demands on my time and involvement within the research institute and medical center are growing, and no one thinks it's time for me to step back," says Steinberg, who says she considers only people 15 years her senior as old.

Steinberg is committed to working through the life of the grant if her grant proposal is renewed; if it is not, her future will really depend on why it was rejected. If she just failed to explain or market the idea effectively, chances are she'll continue working, with her family's blessing. "They said you should do what you want to do," Steinberg says of her husband and children. "My husband is totally supportive and feels it has to be my decision in the same way it was my decision to build this career." No matter what happens, Steinberg is a scientist to the end. "I joke that my long-term career goal is to go be a postdoc in somebody else's lab," she says.

BENCHING THE BENCH Gauntt says his days at the bench are over. Not that he is putting himself out to pasture. He would like to teach undergraduates or senior citizens part time. "I don't want to retire and hang it up," he says. "I want to retire and have fun. I want to teach part time. I think it's important to keep working."

Courtesy of Charles Gauntt
 Charles Gauntt

Over the course of his career, Gauntt has published countless papers, lectured to more students than he cares to count, and attended wonderfully informative national and international meetings. Overall, it's been an immensely pleasurable experience, he relates. "I've always enjoyed coming to work," he says. "There are always a few tense days where you have to flunk a student or tell someone they have to leave the lab because 'I don't know what the hell you're doing but you're not being a scientist.' I enjoyed coming in 70% of the time and 30% of the time I wanted a substitute."

His career made him feel useful, fulfilled, and even needed. And he always approached work with the idea of enjoying it and himself. "If you don't have a little fun going through," he asks, "what the hell do you have to look back on?"

Bob Calandra (rotacal@aol.com) is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

1. "Characteristics of doctoral scientists and engineers in the United States: 2001. Detailed statistical tables," National Science Foundation, available online at www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/nsf03310/start.htm

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