Publication Date

April 13, 2022

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Career Paths, Professional Life

During the summer of 2021, I came to the decision that it was time to retire. At a series of the now-familiar Zoom-borne committee meetings during the run-up to the fall semester, I informed colleagues that I intended to retire at a date to be determined in the 2022–23 academic year. Of course, I also shared this news with my department chair. When I had first revealed my intention to the colleague with whom I work most closely, I told her that it had been the second-easiest decision I had ever made. The easiest? Proposing to the woman to whom I’m still married. In both moments, my choice appeared overwhelmingly self-evident—it was time.

David McDonald, a white man wearing a patterned tweed blazer and blue tie, gestures in front of a chalkboard.

For , the decision to retire while he was at the top of his game was an easy one. Bryce Richter, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I had regarded retirement as a distant prospect. Even with the passage of time from my mid-30s into my 50s, retirement seemed somehow to recede, like the shiny patch at the junction of road and sky on the horizon of the Canadian prairie highways that I have driven since my teens. However, I noticed that as I passed into the mid-60s, that prospect morphed into an increasingly imminent fact, one for which I was well prepared. Having watched two generations of colleagues retire out of our department, I had come to learn the rites of this passage. Given our generous and, thankfully, solvent state pension fund, supplemented by tax-deferred annuity accounts and Social Security, financial planning was relatively simple.

For my professional obligations, I had to stop accepting graduate advisees. I did so four years ago while still uncertain as to the actual timing of the next step, and I remain engaged in the training of those admitted by my colleague in Soviet history, as well as serving on the committee of the odd dissertation by graduate students in Russian literature. My current advisees have passed their preliminary examinations and are embarked on their dissertations. Under our university’s rules, I will be able to serve on dissertation committees at the request of colleagues or students. I also hope to maintain some active connection in my university’s innovative partnership with a fledgling university in central Asia, whose leaders seek to emulate the ethos and mission of North American research universities. Thus far, it has proven a bold experiment that has succeeded admirably, despite the new instability stalking the region. Both the advising and the partnership remain unfulfilled commitments but have finite end dates within the next three years or so. I also had to start wrapping up certain work while consigning other research projects to the “retirement” files on my computer. In an illustration of the proverb “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good,” the semiseclusion imposed by the COVID pandemic allowed a British colleague and me to vet and submit for production six or seven book manuscripts that form part of a large international publication project in which we serve as general editors with another American colleague. There now remain two books to complete in what has become a 22-volume series on Russia’s experience of wars and revolutions in 1914–22. And so, by the spring of 2021, the editing done and the pandemic showing signs—illusory, as we now know—of dissipating, I started to face the question of when to retire.

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each colleague had retired in their own way.

If the initial decision had come surprisingly easily, in the spirit of our discipline, one might also call it overdetermined. As I reflected on colleagues’ retirements over the last 25 years, I realized that, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each colleague had retired in their own way. Some avidly anticipated and embraced it. Others found themselves obliged by illness to retire against their preference. And yet some, to put it cryptically, stayed in their positions longer than they should. I hasten to add that there were still others, including my current more senior colleagues, who maintained or continue to achieve enviable levels of performance into their 70s. Ultimately, I chose to leave, in the old sporting cliché, near the top of my game. I also knew from experience that my colleagues deserved fair and timely warning for planning future staffing priorities.

Two examples lurked at the edges of my thinking during the last three or four years: one an encounter with my predecessor, the other my own father, himself an academic in a very different field. First, my predecessor told me in a conversation during my on-campus interview that despite a sterling reputation as an innovative teacher and with a book in progress, he had decided, after 35 years in harness, to make way for someone new, given the inevitable changes in the field, but was also mindful that, even then (as I have to remind my own graduate students), there was an alarming lack of openings for recent PhDs in Russian history. I have continued to reflect on that conversation and the professional generosity that had informed his decision.

In the case of my father, a highly accomplished and respected professor of medicine whose work had helped shape provincial health care and national legislation, I greatly admired and looked to him as an example. He continued to practice and teach until the age of 80, when his dean persuaded him to retire. In a process he could have predicted from his own research, my father seemed bereft and sometimes angry at the loss of a position and role he had filled for 50 years; he had really enjoyed being “Dr. McDonald” and felt the loss of it very acutely. Within a year, he suffered a serious stroke, which brought in its train a protracted decline, leading to his death four years later. His almost visceral attachment to his professional persona was something I wanted to avoid in myself.

And so it came to pass that in the summer of 2021, having long discussed the issue with my wife, I decided the time had come to step down. As I say, the decision came almost unbidden but was obvious; I haven’t regretted it since. I have had a full and, dare I say, fun career. I have spent my entire professional life in an excellent department that has proven a stimulating intellectual home, all the more since my colleagues have consistently excelled in finding exciting scholars to join and enrich our ranks. My closest disciplinary colleague has been an exemplary friend and partner in our shared educational endeavors. I have benefited from holding a generously endowed chair that has supported research travel, lectures and conferences, and student fellowships. As much or more, I have loved teaching undergraduate students and training a cohort of graduate students who have all found their ways into interesting callings, including outside the academy. Following an unconventional path, I have played many roles in the department but also on our campus at large, ranging from the cursus honorum of curricular, search, and tenure committees to a four-year term as chair, then chairing searches for a provost and our incumbent chancellor. I’ve also served as an administrative troubleshooter, a duty that has taken me far afield, including four years as a senior administrator in our university’s athletic department.

The end of my academic career seems to be occurring at the same time as the closing of a circle that opened at its beginning.

In the context of my specialization, this seems a strangely appropriate time to leave. I started my career just as the Soviet Union had embarked on an accelerating process of disaggregation and collapse. The following decades saw a welcome reorientation of our field and its parameters. No longer trammeled by 1917 as a glaring telos, and, ironically, divested of the federal grants that had fueled our rise as the resident experts on the Great Other, we got to reimagine Russian and, as the archives opened, Soviet history. Questions of empire, religion, nationalism, sexuality, and gender, among many others, took root and began to flourish. Our notions of periodization altered, while the immediate prerevolutionary years now became terrain for reexamining late imperial society, its binding ties, and the better-known forces that modernity and crash industrialization had released. Above all, our colleagues in the erstwhile USSR now rode their own impressive surge in innovative historical scholarship, slipping the surly bonds of dialectical materialism for the exploration of new Western theories and methods that they adapted to understanding their country’s past. Happily, many of them have joined the North American and European academies, enriching our field with their knowledge and perspectives. As important, over the last three decades, a true scholarly and social exchange has evolved between two large communities that had regarded each other with a mutual suspicion. In that vein, the international project that I helped oversee offered an excellent example of the sorts of collaboration possible after 1991.

And yet, as I write these lines, the armed forces of the Russian Federation, in a seeming fever dream of imperial revanche, have invaded the territory of a Ukraine that has enjoyed the longest stretch of sovereignty—more than 30 years—in that nation’s troubled history. In tandem with that aggression, the Russian government has reinstated controls over public speech and freedom of inquiry and publication in a step-by-step process that seems to presage a great turning back of the clock to the Soviet years of the governing generation’s childhood.

From that point of view, the end of my academic career seems to be occurring at the same time as the closing of a circle that opened at its beginning. The immediate future looks dire, although the middle and longer terms inspire more confidence, given the cruel consistency of actuarial statistics and the relative liberalism of Russians who have come of age in the last 25 years. All of this is occurring at a time when Russian history is less and less represented in North American history departments and Cold War stereotypes have begun to revive. Ironically, just at those moments when Russia is discounted as “irrelevant,” its leaders find ways to challenge that assumption. The consolation I take in the face of these prospects is that my colleagues have made their own not-so-easy decision: to search for a historian of imperial Russia. I look forward to meeting that person.

David MacLaren McDonald is the Alice D. Mortenson/Petrovich Distinguished Chair in Russian History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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