Retirement: Making a Successful Transition

by William S. McGurk, PhD, ABClinP, and the Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance

November 8, 2005 — For many psychologists, retirement is not merely an endpoint. Often it is a process of transition from full-time employment as a busy practitioner to not working, with different stopping points in between. The approach varies among psychologists, and what works well for one practitioner may not work well for another.

Whatever the approach, careful preparation is essential to ensure a successful transition into retirement. Psychologists are particularly aware of the fact that making the necessary practice-related and financial preparations is not nearly enough. Practitioners must attend to important psychological needs and considerations as well.

This article outlines special considerations for psychologists who are nearing retirement, as well as ways to deal with potential challenges and stresses of retirement.

Planning for Retirement

Practical Considerations
Attending to practical considerations, such as personal financial planning and the details of ethically closing a practice, while planning for retirement helps reduce some of the stress and allows for a smoother transition.

  • Be aware of professional obligations. In retiring from practice, psychologists typically face a host of responsibilities and must fulfill legal and ethical requirements. Practitioners in organizational settings should also be aware of institutional requirements and regulations concerning retirement. For specific considerations related to closing a practice, read "Checklist for Closing Your Practice."  

  • Anticipate your financial needs in retirement. For details, see "Planning for a Secure Financial Future: It's Never Too Early to Start."

Psychological Considerations 

  • Assess your motives for retiring. The decision to retire is likely the result of many factors. Whatever the reason(s) for retiring, psychologists should deliberately examine their motives for retiring. Self-reflection may identify personal vulnerabilities that could be magnified by retirement. Addressing these vulnerabilities can help prevent them from posing problems as you wind down your practice or from worsening during your retirement. 

    • Take a hard and honest look at your reasons for retirement and the related advantages and disadvantages. Ask yourself: 

    • Why am I choosing to retire? 

    • What are my hopes and expectations? 

    • What personal vulnerabilities might be exacerbated by retirement?

Discuss your answers with family members or colleagues so that you can enter retirement prepared to address any identified vulnerabilities. It may be helpful to consult with colleagues who have already retired. 

  • Recognize and address the possibility of burnout. Psychologists are at risk for burnout given the unique demands and personal challenges involved in dealing with intense therapeutic relationships and challenging client behaviors. Burnout can be a particularly insidious motive for retirement, and practitioners should address the issue beforehand. The first step is to recognize the early signs: absenteeism, physical complaints, drug and alcohol abuse, insomnia, interpersonal/marital problems, irritability outside the office, decreased work effectiveness, and loss of belief in one’s effectiveness (Farber, 1990). Consider seeking consultation if these factors are interfering with your work or driving your motivation to retire. 

  • Cultivate outside interests. Decreased self-esteem upon retirement is most common for those who have not developed strong outside interests. Cultivating interests outside of psychology well before considering retirement not only may prevent burnout (Stevanovic & Rupert, 2004) but will also provide activities to pursue once you have retired. Without outside interests, it can be difficult to give up the sense of belonging and feeling needed that providing professional services can offer. 

  • Consider new challenges you might face as you retire. New stresses are likely to occur with retirement. For example, you will no longer be able to retreat to work and seek support, stability, status, security or routine. In addition, time is less restricted and committed once you retire. This can result in the availability of more choices and increased need for continual monitoring and active personal decision making. Further, motivation becomes less externally controlled. You may need to more actively plan or structure free time and your daily routine than you did prior to retirement. Allow for ample time to make the transition and consider the possibility of retiring in stages, which some practitioners may find preferable.

During Retirement

Once you are no longer practicing psychology, you will want to remain active and health and may want to stay connected to the profession. To do so, consider periodically reviewing the following steps and adjusting your actions accordingly.

  • Assess your emotional, physical and spiritual well-being on a regular basis through self-reflection and monitoring. Changes in diet, medication or alcohol use may be an indicator of increased feelings of stress that should be addressed. 

  • Actively plan ways to meet your emotional, physical and spiritual needs by continuing satisfying activities and fostering new interests and pursuits. Consider keeping abreast in your area of specialty. 

  • Be prepared to consult a colleague should you notice that you are developing feelings of helplessness, emotional swings, angry outbursts, a tendency to ruminate, feelings of bitterness, loss of empathy and/or disconnecting from family and friends.

  • Identify sources of support and be willing to use them early. 

  • Visit the websites noted at the end of this article, which contain useful and relevant information about retirement. 

  • Stay connected. Simply because a psychologist has discontinued practice does not mean that he or she is no longer a psychologist. There are numerous possibilities for staying connected to the profession. Consider getting involved with your state, provincial or territorial psychological association, for example, by making yourself available to mentor younger practitioners. Another way to stay connected is by attending professional meetings such as the APA Annual Convention. Some retired psychologists volunteer by offering presentations on psychological topics to local community groups. 

  • Value your new found time. Retirement affords valuable time to spend with family, travel for longer periods, fulfill personal dreams, focus on self- development, start a new career, teach and/or practice part-time, and volunteer. 

  • Draw on your professional skills and experience to assist you. Helping others deal with transitions and aging over the years facilitates dealing with your own retirement process. Many practitioners discover that the wisdom that has taken so many years to develop in professional life is quite sustaining.

References and Additional Resources

Visit the APA website and type “retirement” into the search box to locate recent information and articles from APA on retirement.

APA Board of Professional Affairs’ Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance (ACCA) can be found on the web.

Chamberlin, J. (November, 2004). Redefining retirement: No desire to fully retire. Monitor on Psychology, www.apa.org/monitor/nov04/desire.aspx.

Corporate Relations and Business Strategy Staff, American Psychological Association Practice Organization (PracticeUpdate, March 15, 2005). Checklist for closing your practice.

Corporate Relations and Business Strategy Staff, American Psychological Association Practice Organization. (PracticeUpdate, April 27, 2004). Planning for a secure financial future: It’s never too early to start.

Maslach, C., & Goldberg, J. (1998). Prevention of burnout: New perspectives. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 7, 63-74.

Norcross, J. C. (2000). Psychotherapists self care: Practitioner tested, research informed strategies. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31, 710-713.

Qualls, S. H., & Abeles, N. (Eds.) (2000). Psychology and the aging revolution: How are we to adapt to longer life? Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Schlossberg, N. (2004). Retire smart, retire happy: Finding your true path in life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sterns, H., & Kaplan, J. (2003). Self management of career and retirement. In G. A. Adams, & T. A. Beehr (Eds.), Retirement: Reasons, process and results (pp. 188-213). New York: Springer Publishing.

Stevanovic, P., & Rupert, P. (2004). Career-sustaining behaviors, satisfactions, and stresses of professional psychologists, Psychotherapy: Theory/Research/Practice/Training, 41, 301-309.

Thinking About Retirement? Time to Think About Your Psychological Portfolio. Retrieved September 23, 2005 from www.psychologymatters.org/retirement.html