Scientists nearing forced retirement age in Europe and Japan find more welcoming laboratories abroad. Learn the secrets to their success.
Jan-Åke Gustafsson never got an official retirement notice from the University. But that’s because the 63-year-old chairman of the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at the Karolinska Institutet didn’t wait around for it. When a recently retired colleague warned Gustafsson, who was quickly approaching Sweden’s upper mandatory retirement age of 67, that emeritus professors aren’t taken seriously in Sweden, he began to realize it was all too true. Emeritus colleagues received fewer and shorter grants and were more segregated from their departments. “It was in the air,” he recalls. “As far as I can understand, the word ‘emeritus’ doesn’t mean anything meritorious. It means used, spent.” He began to plan an exit strategy.
Age discrimination was outlawed in the European Union in 2000, yet many senior scientists across Europe, as well as Japan, are forced from their positions at a mandatory retirement age ranging from 60 to 70, depending on a country’s laws and pension age. In 2009, the charity Age UK lost a case to abolish the mandatory retirement age in Britain when the European Court of Justice ruled the policy was legal if age-related retirement was justified by a specific employment objective, such as allowing all ages better access to employment.
Yet critics of the policy remain active. “Older professors still working at universities are often in their places because they are good at what they do. They are at the top of their fields,” says Stefano Gelmini, a spokesperson for Age UK, based in London. Mandatory retirement of experienced researchers results in the loss of valuable mentors and knowledge, he emphasizes.
Even more than law, it’s the culture in Europe that makes older workers obsolete. “There’s this idea that at a certain age you should go home and watch bad television,” says Peter Lawrence, age 69, who worked for more than 40 years at the University of Cambridge before being forced to retire at 65. “There’s a strong tradition to throw the person out,” agrees Albert de la Chapelle, a 77-year-old geneticist at Ohio State University who left Finland in 1997. “The successor doesn’t want to see that person around.”
For many, the desire to stay productive and active outweighs the discomfort of uprooting one’s life to make a transatlantic move to work in countries like the United States, Australia, or New Zealand—which have no mandatory retirement laws or traditions. Here are how a couple of scientists bucked the trend and fought to maintain their research when their home institutions cried “Game over.”
Previous institution: Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, 1979–2008
Lab size: 30
Publications in 2008: 40
Current institution: University of Houston, Houston, Texas, 2009–current
Lab size: 15 in Houston, 15 in Sweden
Publications in 2009: 43
Four years before his time at the Karolinska Institutet ran out, Gustafsson, a renowned researcher in hormones and nuclear receptors, started spreading the word of his availability to colleagues in the United States. For more than 30 years, he had worked at the Karolinska, where his lab achieved a series of firsts: First to clone a nuclear receptor, first to demonstrate the binding of a nuclear receptor to DNA, and first to discover a major estrogen receptor, ERbeta, among others. He received several attractive offers from institutions eager to hire him, but when he visited the University of Houston in Texas in the spring of 2008, the president of the University invited Gustafsson to spearhead a new health initiative. Less than a year later, in January 2009, Gustafsson made the move.
Born and bred in Sweden, where he had worked for his entire career, the move to Houston wasn’t easy. “The first 2 months were a culture shock,” says Gustafsson. While Stockholm was a tall, historic city, Houston was wide and flat. It took about 4 months to learn his way around the city, he recalls. It was also a long haul working through the social security process and other paperwork required to live and work in the United States.
As director of the new Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University, Gustafsson has since hired 7 of 12 faculty positions and is now working in brand new lab space that is still expanding. He continues to work on nuclear receptors, though his research has taken on new dimensions thanks to the Texas medical center, one of the largest in the world. Collaborating with urologists and breast cancer clinicians at the medical center, Gustafsson has begun to broaden his focus to more translational research, such as studying nuclear receptors in mouse models of the respective diseases as well as in patients. “Collaboration is one of the most thrilling aspects here,” he says.
“Start early, at around 60, to really think about what you want to do,” says Gustafsson. Some researchers go into shock when suddenly they are emeritus, and things aren’t as they were before. “It can lead to depression,” says Gustafsson. “If you continue to be thrilled by science, and it’s an important part of your life…plan for that.” Gustafsson talked with colleagues about the pros and cons of becoming an emeritus professor before making his decision, and once he was sure, began his search for a new institution several years before reaching retirement age.
Careful planning will allow you to avoid the worst aspect of moving—the loss of productivity, says Gustafsson. “Organize the move efficiently, starting with the administrative details, a year before,” he says. Order the equipment you’ll need in your new lab early and ask your new institution to store it. Try to bring personnel with you, so you don’t have to staff completely anew when you arrive: As part of his recruitment package, Gustafsson brought 15 personnel from his lab at the Karolinska to Houston. The university even sent an architect with a camera to photograph his lab in Sweden in late 2008, and organized the lab space in Houston accordingly.
If possible, keep a lab going at your old institution. It allows your staff to continue projects with your support, without interruption. Gustafsson spends about 20 percent of his time each year at his lab in Sweden, which he maintains with several continuing grants. There, his old team sustains productivity while the new team in the States gears up. He hopes to maintain both labs and build collaborations between them. Last year, in his first year at Houston, Gustafsson published 43 papers on research from both the Houston and Karolinska teams, keeping up and even slightly improving his publication rate.
Previous institution: University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland, 1974–1997
Lab size: 40
Average annual publications from 1992 to 1997: 16
Current institution: Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 1997–current
Lab size: 12
Average annual publications from 1998 to 2003: 17
In 1996, with the bang of a gavel, the retirement age for professors in Finland was lowered from 67 to 65. “I found myself at 63 facing retirement a good deal sooner than I had anticipated,” says Albert de la Chapelle, then chairman of the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of Helsinki, where he had worked for 23 years. It wasn’t a choice he was looking forward to. But he had never permanently lived in the same country with his wife, Clara Bloomfield, chief of oncology at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the United States, so de la Chapelle was open to living abroad.
As word of their availability spread, de la Chapelle and his wife began to receive phone calls and letters from prospective institutions, but not until Ohio State University called did the offer appeal to them both. His wife was offered a position as director of the OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center, while de la Chapelle was hired to direct a new Human Cancer Genetics Program at the University, a change in direction for him. An eminent geneticist, de la Chapelle had been an early pioneer in the genetics of leukemia, but had spent most of the 1990s elucidating hereditary recessive disorders in Finland, such as diastrophic dysplasia, a bone and cartilage disorder, and progressive epilepsy with mental retardation.
While some of his students at Helsinki carried on the work on Finnish diseases, de la Chapelle made the switch to human cancer. “From that moment on, it was my entire research effort,” he says. For the last 13 years at OSU, he has focused on mapping and characterizing genes for diseases such as colorectal cancer, papillary thyroid cancer, and acute myeloid leukemia.
At Ohio, “everything that was promised was delivered,” says de la Chapelle. He was able to hire many new faculty, and after 10 years the program had a thriving group of 18 faculty and 250 staff working on human cancer genetics. De la Chapelle gave up the reins to a successor in 2004, but at 77 remains a distinguished professor in the Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology, and Medical Genetics, where he still runs a lab of 12 and publishes numerous articles, including papers in Nature Genetics and PNAS last year. He has no plans to retire soon.
As de la Chapelle and his wife shopped for a new institution for them both, he was not interested in moving to the American Midwest. But not long after arriving, he became a big fan. “It turns out the Midwest is a wonderful place,” he laughs. “Life is easy and people are truly friendly.” To try out new institutions, consider taking a sabbatical year abroad to see how things go, says de la Chapelle.
As de la Chapelle dissolved his lab in preparation for the move, able to only bring a few junior faculty members to Ohio with him, he was faced with seven dependent doctoral candidates still at Helsinki. “We had to really scramble to get their lives organized and get them co-mentors in Finland,” says de la Chapelle. In the end, it worked out well, he says, but it took several years to iron out the details and help the students graduate. But it was worth it: Today, those graduate students remain his key ties back to the university, he says.