There are many ways to define oneself beyond job title and profession. Doing so can expand one’s sense of self during a busy career and also ease the transition to retirement.
By Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board
I spent 30 years as an engineering professor and two as an interim associate dean. In addition to teaching, many of my days were spent helping students with their co-op/internship/job searches. I enjoyed helping them with their resumes and cover letters. I always loved to write and was comfortable and adept doing so. Add that to years of reading and working crossword puzzles, and I have a pretty deep vocabulary, and I love to help wordsmith documents when asked.
Most of my students found writing very challenging and an excruciating process. Similarly, the faculty and staff of the college of engineering understood that those first interviews were going to be challenging: the unknown questions to be asked. So, we also helped students develop their elevator speeches. You know, that one-to-two-minute blurb that you can recite if you happen to meet someone riding an elevator or sitting next to you at the coffee shop or even on a plane. Interviewers also like to start an interview with the ever frightening, “Tell me about yourself.” Students loathe this one the most, but they typically start out with something such as, “I’m a junior in electrical engineering and … .”
I was struck by a similar situation as I was reading the bios of the FY22 Society of Women Engineers board of directors. The majority of them start off with a very similar sentence, such as “<insert name> is a <job title> engineer at <insert company name>. She holds a B.S. in <insert engineering discipline> from <insert university>.”
One director, however, began her bio in a very different way. Rather than defining herself by her position or her major, she described herself in the first line as “a daughter, sister, niece, aunt, friend, engineer, collaborator.” This person (Lisa M. Rimpf, SWE FY22-23 secretary) also happens to be a friend of mine, and I discussed this with her the last time we got together.
We observed how the majority of engineers define themselves by their profession, their major, their company, their work title. Thinking back a few years, I realized that I, too, would answer such a question by stating, “I am an associate professor of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron.” During our discussion, I began to wonder how I would answer that question today, three years after retiring.
Making self-identity in retirement an expansive process
I’ve watched many of my colleagues, as well as my father, struggle with the retirement process. When my father, also an engineer, retired, he immediately hired back as a consultant with his former company. It is quite common in academia for faculty and administrators to retire and then “rehire,” or at least continue teaching or working on a part-time basis. A week ago, I ran into a recently retired campus police officer I knew and congratulated him on accepting a position as the lead for off-campus security. All of these occurrences confused me. I wondered why so many people stopped working only to begin again. I believe much of it has to do with identifying ourselves, not as individuals with interests and relationships and passions, but as our jobs.
I began to wonder why I didn’t have the desire to continue working in the same or similar job I had just left, and for quite a while I told myself I was just burned out from it and thus wanted to go in another direction. However, that is not completely true. I have always been an equally right- and left-brained individual. As mentioned earlier, I enjoy writing. I also have always loved to draw and pursue other artistic activities. I seriously thought about becoming an artist or writer when I graduated high school. I equally enjoyed math and physics, however, and truthfully, I knew I wanted to make a decent living as my engineer father did.
I assumed I could pursue my other interests during my career. Other than finding a passion for photography during graduate school, pursuing those other interests didn’t work out so well, given the demands of my profession. Instead, it became my plan to write and create in other ways once I stopped being a college professor. I believe that having this plan in mind, although not completely fleshed out, gave me that sense of purpose and accomplishment once I retired. I felt no longing or need to return to work to define myself.
Three years after retirement, I am content and feel no need to present myself as I used to. I think my current “elevator speech” or answer to the “tell me about yourself” question would be something like: “I am a retired college professor, a loving sister, adoring godmother, and a loyal friend. I am passionate about volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and other organizations designed to help people. I love photography and have opened a small business selling my pictures at arts and crafts shows. An avid wanderer, I love to hike and will visit four more states next year, completing my travel to all 50 states.”
Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, is an associate professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. She is immediate past chair of the SWE editorial board, was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.