This year I celebrated my 65th birthday (if that is the right word; almost nobody noticed).
But for a recent change in the law, that would be that so far as employment goes. I would not be able to continue in my job without a big fight. I was gearing myself up for the fight when the law changed; now I could stay on indefinitely.
Despite this, I have decided to retire at the end of this academic year.
There are many negative reasons for this. I have said here several times that the purpose of a university has changed, so that good teaching and research are no longer management’s priorities; I no longer feel that this profession is congenial. I am sure that my employer is in the middle of the pack in this respect; but a number of problems, each manageable on its own, have combined to make the job far more stressful and unpleasant. These include, in no particular order, the following.
- Research activity is measured primarily by grant income, and only income which brings overheads to the institution counts; so I have been wasting my time as a partner investigator on an Australian grant, running a programme at the Newton Institute, and attracting postdocs who come with their own funding.
- Lots of things are being centralised; these include IT support (so we lose crucial support for Unix), student information (the database is so badly programmed as to be almost unusable, and decisions with academic consequences are made on the basis of what it can’t do), PhD admissions (only students who will work on “approved projects” can be admitted).
- Poorly-designed student questionnaires and inappropriate processing of dodgy data are being used to put pressure on staff who don’t get all the right boxes ticked.
- Performance management: I thought I could probably dodge this, but the documents obtained by the UCU and available here (look at the D3 documents linked at the bottom of the UCU page) give a chilling vision of what the future has in store.
- I could say a lot more, but I would really rather not …
In addition, the College has started up a Centre for Discrete Mathematics; you may be a little surprised to learn that I have no role in this centre.
One thing has made my decision difficult. We are designing a new first-year course, aimed at instilling good mathematical habits in the students; I was involved in the design of this course. (I managed to get a quote from my favourite poet into the course description: it will be “precise but not pedantic”.) Had I stayed, I would have taught this course, which would have been a wonderful experience, and I am genuinely sorry not to be doing this.
But there are positives as well as negatives.
As a baby-boomer, I am part of what a recent Nature feature described as “the bulge in the anaconda” which will take up to 20 years to pass through the system. Ignoring the uncomplementary description, it is true that if I retire there is more chance that openings will be created for bright young mathematicians, and I wish the department well with appointing such people.
In any case, I do not think this is the end of my career; rather, I am moving to a new level, with new challenges and opportunities. Part of my problem at present is that, because of the stresses of the job, I have good work which is not getting written up for publication. I hope that retirement will allow me to get on with this. Also, I hope that it will make it easier for me to travel; I look forward to accepting invitations for research visits and collaborations which I have had to turn down because of pressure of work. Maybe even a bit more walking (the From X to Y walk?)
Perhaps you’d like me to come for a visit? Let me know!
The picture is a birthday card sketched by Neill; it shows me striding on to the next stage.