A new career in retirement:

from biochemist to novelist

Published August 01 2017

After retirement, what next?

Retirement from an active career in science often presents a life crisis. The last research grant is expired, its funds depleted; the lab is closed, emptied and being remodeled for a younger colleague. Now what? Most scientists are intensely — even passionately — engaged in their work. The retiree needs a new focus for his or her creative energy. But what?

This is the dilemma I faced in 2008 when I closed my lab at age 68 after 40 years of research and education in biochemistry and microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I had approached retirement cautiously. I moved to emeritus status and gave up teaching in 2002 but continued to do grant-supported research for six more years. These last years were rewarding ones. We solved many — never all, of course — of my outstanding research problems, and I loved working with my last students and postdocs. I knew that I would miss research, but I also had to admit that my most imaginative years were behind me and it was time to make room for new faculty.

Many retired biochemists seek to continue their research programs, but in an era of intense competition for grant funds, this is increasingly difficult. Others turn to education, public service or work in the scientific for-profit sector. These are all good solutions to the retiree’s need for new creative activities, but my wife Bonnie’s midlife switch from elementary teaching to a successful career as an artist inspired my return to a long-dormant love of creative writing.

I had written a few short stories while in graduate school but then was far too busy to write anything other than grant applications and research papers. I began preparing for my new “career” during the last six years of research, when relief from teaching gave me more time to write. I started working on a memoir about family farming.

How did my career switch turn out? Better than I expected. While I haven’t made significant income or appeared on any best-seller lists, I have published some of my writing and I have been having a lot of fun.

Develop your craft

The style of writing used in scientific papers requires extreme compression, information-dense sentences, heavy use of specialized jargon and a frequent use of the passive voice. These habits must be discarded in creative writing. One must learn to use vivid metaphors and varied sentence structure, write dialogue, create lively characters and vivid scenes, and become an entertaining storyteller. You can learn this by reading good fiction writers, by studying books on writing and by participating in workshops — but above all, by writing, revising, writing and revising.

I was too impatient to take formal workshops or classes, but I did benefit greatly from joining an excellent Champaign-Urbana fiction writers workshop. I was welcomed into a group of active writers, most of them published authors of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry, who meet weekly to read and critique one another’s work. Their reviews of my work were searching and critical but very constructive. I began writing fiction with short stories before switching to longer narratives. Whatever you write, it is important to share it with other creative people and to respond to their suggestions. One relevant lesson I learned is that non-scientist readers often have a deer-in-the-headlights response when scientific concepts are introduced. Keep it simple. Metaphors are valuable. For example, I used injured workers on an automobile assembly line to illustrate the effects of mutation in the genes for enzymatic steps in biosynthetic pathways.


Write what you know

This mantra among writers and teachers of writing is good advice. Writing from your own knowledge and life experiences gives your work authenticity and sincerity. Besides, it’s easier than researching an entirely foreign topic.

For my first attempt, I chose to write a memoir about the dramatic decline of small family-operated farms in America, using the example of the farm where I grew up, which had been in the family since 1916. The result, “A Family Farm: Life on an Illinois Dairy Farm,” was published by Columbia College Chicago Press in 2012. Memoir writing is a good way to start. Most of us have an interesting life story to tell — unusual origins, difficulties overcome. With a memoir, the plot and characters are supplied by real life. All the writer has to do (and it’s a lot) is bring the characters and scenes to life and move the narrative along in an engaging manner.

Robert L. Switzer’s first published novel, “The Lady Professor,” addresses multiple themes, including the difficulties faced by women who sought careers in science and academic life in the first half of the 20th century.

I have written three novels and am working on a fourth, but my first published novel, “The Lady Professor” (published in July 2017 by Bedazzled Ink Publishing, a small independent press in California), is also an example of writing what I know. The novel deals with several themes: the difficulties faced by women who sought careers in science and academic life in the first half of the 20th century, an attempt to show the lay reader what it is really like to do science, a woman who has the courage to take on controversial subjects, and a hushed-up case of scientific misconduct. Oh, yes, there’s a love story too! It’s not science fiction, but what Carl Djerassi, another scientist turned fiction writer, called “science in fiction.”

Expect rejection — lots of it

Scientific publishing is completely unlike the publishing of creative writing. Nearly all my research papers were accepted upon submission. Most editors required revisions, sometimes extensive revisions, but the papers eventually were published. The scientific reviews were thorough and detailed. On the other hand, I have written more than two dozen short stories; I have only published one of them, but I have lots of rejections! Small literary magazines (which do not pay royalties) have many submissions on their slush piles. Rejection is often no more than a curt “not for us.” Reasons are rarely given.

The publication of novels is even more difficult. Publishers have to make enough money from sales to survive. They want authors with established reputations and high recognition or writers of popular genre fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, detective stories or romances. Why take a chance on an unknown retired scientist with literary pretentions?

I was incredibly lucky to find publishers for two of my books. In both cases, I was successful because they were small publishers whose areas of interest fit very closely with the subject matter of the books. "A Family Farm" was published by a now-closed academic press that was especially interested in American social geography. The publishers of "The Lady Professor" had announced they were interested in novels featuring strong, interesting women characters. It is important to research publishers’ mission statements to find good matches. Even so, expect many rejections. Don’t bother with the big publishing houses unless you know you have a blockbuster novel and a professional literary agent.

Enjoy your writing

Writing is not a 9-to-5 job. Few creative writers can work at it for long days every day as most scientists work at their profession. However, it is valuable to have a routine in a quiet, uninterrupted place to write and revise. The biochemistry department at Illinois has kindly let me keep my office. I work there in the weekday forenoons and early afternoons, interrupted by a swim in the university pool and lunch. When the writing is flowing, I work longer hours. When I’m stuck, it helps to walk, swim or work in our yard, mulling over plot ideas, bits of dialogue, phrases and word choices. I find it helpful to interrupt the day’s writing when I have a good idea of what will come next — not when I’m against a blank wall.

Creative writing can be frustrating. Expect dry spells. But when it is going well, when the story flows onto the page and the characters come to life and talk to you, you will experience the joy of creation. Don’t forget why you are doing this — not for money (you are unlikely to make much), not even necessarily to get your work published. You are doing it because you are drawn to creativity. A retiree usually has the financial security and leisure time to write for the sheer joy of it, even if you only share your work with family and friends. Be a storyteller. Have fun.

Of course, many retirees — probably most from a life of science — will not become writers. The broader conclusion I draw from my experience is that retirement is not to be dreaded. Rather, it is an opportunity to awaken dormant interests and talents, a time for new growth and self-discovery, an opening to a more relaxed second career.

Robert L. SwitzerRobert L. Switzer is professor emeritus of biochemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His novel “The Lady Professor” is available from Bedazzled Ink Publishing and Amazon.com.