Skip to content Skip to navigation

Planning a Graceful Exit to Retirement and Beyond: Starting Points and Guiding Considerations

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 

There’s a trick to the “graceful exit.” It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and let it go.  It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out. - Ellen Goodman, January 1, 2010


The posting below gives some excellent pointers on what to consider when contemplating retirement from academe.  It is an excerpt from Chapter 6, Planning a Graceful Exit to Retirement and Beyond, by Amy Strage and Joan Merdinger, of San Jose State University, San Jose, California. It appears in the book, Faculty Retirement: Best Practices for Navigating the Transition edited by Claire A. Van Ummersen, Jean M. McLaughlin, and Lauren J. Duranleau. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2014 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Use Prerequisite Exams to Help Get Your Course off to a Good Start



Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

---------- 1,926 words ----------

Planning a Graceful Exit to Retirement and Beyond: Starting Points and Guiding Considerations


There’s a trick to the “graceful exit.” It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and let it go.  It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out. - Ellen Goodman, January 1, 2010

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.

-       Lucius Annaeus Seneca

We would be hard-pressed to think of words of wisdom better suited to the challenges and opportunities that our senior faculty encounter. Since the mandatory retirement age was abolished in 1994, decisions pertaining to the timing of and planning for retirement have rested more squarely in the laps of faculty themselves. Although campuses typically devote extensive resources to helping faculty launch their careers, they have yet to direct much support, beyond financial matters, to helping them bring those careers to a close. The programs we highlight in this chapter reflect the commitment of San Jose State University (SJSU) to providing opportunities for faculty members to identify personal goals and secure the information and support they need to achieve them as they move through the significant transition from full-time employment to full-time retirement.

Starting Points and Guiding Considerations

Like snowflakes, no two faculty members are exactly alike. When and how they choose to retire is an extremely complex and personal decision, and how extensively and effectively they prepare for the transition varies enormously from one individual to another. The programs SJSU offers to support faculty members throughout this process are designed to accommodate a wide range of needs and personal circumstances. The considerations we raise in this section may well resonate with faculty and administrators at other campuses.

1.        To disclose, or not to disclose? Some faculty members feel comfortable – even eager – talking about what comes next. In contrast, others are intensely private. Whether they are not ready to acknowledge for themselves the coming to a close of their teaching career or are concerned about how others will respond or how their status will change, they do not want to tip their hand, as it were, until they are ready.  At a recent board meeting of our campus’s Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association (ERFA), for example, one member described sharing his intentions “with great enthusiasm, and with everyone who would listen,” as he sought input from colleagues about the projects he planned to undertake once he retired. One of the other board members present that day shook her head, smiled wistfully, and recounted going to great lengths to “keep [her] plans quiet,” lest she be seen as a “lame duck, … no longer invited to the table” when important conversations about the future of the department took place. Another board member acknowledged regretfully having divulged her plans to retire as soon as she did, adding that “once the cat was out of the bag,” conflicts with her calendar were the lowest priority as groups tried to schedule meetings. As a result, even though colleagues “did a nice job keeping [her] informed about decisions taken,” she gradually felt that she was “sitting on the sidelines, out of the loop.”

Faculty who are loath to come forward and share their plans to retire may be the most difficult to reach and support. For them, ready access to individuals with whom they can speak in confidence or to resources that they can access privately (e.g., online) may prove particularly useful.

2.         Struggling to compare the upside and the downside of retiring.  Many faculty are torn about whether to “stay or move on.” Some are drawn to the opportunities they imagine a life postretirement, but at the same time they are reluctant to abandon unfinished projects.  Others acknowledge the stresses and day-to-day frustrations they experience at work, but they also worry they won’t find anything as fulfilling or meaningful to occupy them once they leave their jobs.  Some resist because, although they would like to pursue other interests, they worry about their finances or that various benefits will disappear.

Efforts to help these faculty articulate the parameters of their ambivalence, connect with the appropriate resources, and explore their options more intentionally can provide the reassurance they need as they move closer to retirement. [1] Faculty who feel compelled to hold their cards closer to the vest are more likely to feel additional stress as they grapple with their indecision on their own.

3.        Clean break or gradual exit? Some faculty members want a clean break, whereas others prefer a more gradual separation, decreasing their time and professional responsibilities on campus over a span of several years. Fortunately, an increasing number of campuses are offering options to suit a variety of preferences. Data reported in the most recent nationwide survey of faculty retirement patterns conducted by the American Association of University Professors reveal that nearly one-third of responding institutions (32% of 567 institutions) offer faculty some kind of phased retirement option (Conley, 2007). Fully one-third of these programs were launched within the 5 years leading up to the survey, and over 10% of them became available within 1 or 2 years of the survey. As such programs proliferate, so have studies documenting their advantages and costs (e.g., see Clark & Ma, 2005).

The California State University (CSU) system offers faculty three retirement options, including traditional outright retirement and two phased retirement plans. The two plans are included in the collective bargaining agreement between CSU and the California Faculty Association (CFA), the union that represents all faculty in the CSU system. Deciding which retirement or phased retirement option is the best fit requires weighing a variety of factors, including financial as well as personal and contextual considerations. On our campus, of a total of 115 faculty who have retired since the 2007-2008 academic year, two-thirds (n = 77) have opted for a phased retirement. During the past 3 years, the proportion has risen to three-quarters (n = 56 of 74 faculty). In this chapter we describe an online tool faculty can use to help them compare financial projections for the three retirement pathways.

4.        How much to change at once?  Some faculty members plan to start a new chapter once they retire.  They anticipate leaving their university lives behind – perhaps even relocating physically – and filling their postretirement days with activities and experiences completely different from what they had been doing, year in and year out, often for decades. Others don’t want such dramatic change, imagining instead a period during which they will divest themselves of the more onerous and tedious parts of their faculty work life and be able to devote more time to those aspects of their professional lives that have brought them the greatest satisfaction.  For many, however, despite thoughtful planning, for one reason or another, their lived experience turns out to be quite different from what they had envisioned. Some discover that the people and activities they encounter once they begin their new life turn out not to be as engaging or interesting as they had anticipated. And some who opt for a phased retirement may be less successful than they had hoped in “filling their dance card” (as one department chair on our campus refers to faculty academic assignment) with only those responsibilities they had hoped to preserve.

Resources that can help faculty develop greater self-knowledge, personal efficacy, flexibility, and resilience are particularly valuable here. Again, individuals who are more open to sharing their thoughts and plans ahead of time may be more successful in accurately assessing what will turn out to be the right path or in making the necessary midcourse adjustments.

5.        Grappling with the issue of one’s legacy in a changing world.  For many senior faculty, a significant part of their professional identities revolves around seeing themselves as leaving something lasting to their institution.  Whereas some may have the resources and desire to make one or another kind of monetary contribution (e.g., some type of institutional gift or endowment), many others strive to make their mark more directly or more personally by helping to nurture the next generation of faculty (Bland, Taylor, Shollen, Weber-Main, & Mulcany, 2009). Thus, a more elusive but no less significant consideration is the challenge presented by the culture change seen over the last decades on university campuses across the nation, most notably at institutions where teaching has traditionally been a priority and a point of pride. [2] For example, fully a third of the senior faculty who participated in a professional growth and renewal retreat program on our campus indicated that their greatest wish was to mentor junior colleagues and help them through the tenure and promotion gauntlet. While heartening in many respects, this generosity of spirit is not unproblematic, as the nature and demands of the faculty role have evolved significantly since they themselves launched their own careers. How valuable, for example, could their counsel be for current junior faculty if they themselves came of age at a time when expectations for scholarly productivity were far more modest than they are now? How relevant could their insights about teaching effectiveness be if they spent their careers perfecting the art of lecturing whereas now faculty are feeling pressed to adopt more student-centered and technology-enhanced pedagogical methods? And with radical changes just now being made to the state-employee pension plan, assumptions that soon-to-retire faculty could safely make at the outset of their careers about their pensions no longer apply for newly hired faculty. Thus, advice that senior faculty may be inclined to share with their younger colleagues, although well intentioned, may be counterproductive at this point. Efforts to help these faculty identify what they can share that would be of greatest value could go a long way to helping both the retirees and the junior faculty they seek to assist.

….. Conclusion

Demographic trends across the nation are clear: over half of faculty members currently holding university appointments are eligible to retire. As a result our collective challenge in higher education is to assist senior faculty to plan for a graceful exit and a meaningful connection to home campuses as they transition from full-time work to full-time retirement. At SJSU we acknowledge the individual nature of that transition for each faculty member; the dilemma of disclosure/nondisclosure; the ambivalent feelings about retirement; the differences between a clean break from the university or a gradual, phased departure; and the hope for a personal legacy and a sense of accomplishment for a life’s work.

Taken together, the resources we have described in this chapter – the professional growth and renewal retreats, the calculator, and the ERFA welcome wagon – have proved to be effective tools for our faculty as they chart their new direction and set sail for the next port, armed with a sense of the future. Each is relatively easily replicated or adapted to other universities, and each is relatively inexpensive to develop and sustain.

Author Note

1.    Resources might include a wide variety of people (campus benefits office personnel, emeriti faculty, student assistants to help them wrap up projects) or online resources and readings. See Foster, Naiditch, and Politzer (2011) for a more detailed discussion of faculty ambivalence about retiring and potential institutional responses and supports.

2.    This cultural sea change may also prompt senior faculty to consider retiring sooner than they had originally planned, as they may come to find themselves less current and out of step with campus innovations.



Bland, C.J., Taylor, A., Shollen, S.L., Weber-Main, A.-M., & Mulcahy, P. (2009). Faculty success through mentoring. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Clark, R.L., & Ma, J. (2005). Recruitment, retention, and retirement in higher education: Building and managing the faculty of the future. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Conley, V. (2007). Survey of changes in faculty retirement policies.  Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors.

Foster, J., Naiditch, L., & Politzer, L. (2011). Motivating reluctant retirees in higher education: Interviews with college administrators and senior faculty. Research Dialogue (TIAA-CREF Institute), 103¸ 1-24.