When I began my sabbatical this past January, I was unexpectedly and overwhelming cognizant of a marked imbalance in my life. With a teaching semester juxtaposed next to a sabbatical period, a dramatic shift in daily activities resulted in one of the most pressure filled and lonely times I have spent (only comparable to preparing for my comprehensive exams during my doctoral studies). Prior to my sabbatical, I was in constant physical and intellectual motion. Generally, I spent the greatest share of my time meeting expectations of students and colleagues, and the least amount of time conducting or writing about my own research. There was a definite imbalance between time required for daily, necessary activities and time remaining for research activities.
I struggled to understand this experience given that I had been on sabbatical before. In hindsight, I realized that this unique challenge arose from at least three factors. First, my previous sabbatical was 12 months whereas this one was only six months. Second, my first sabbatical began after a summer of research activity, whereas this one began immediately after marking final exams. Third, my first sabbatical involved planning for and collecting data in many schools, whereas this sabbatical involved data analysis, reading and writing. In particular, for this sabbatical I transitioned from an intense teaching semester, for which I spent a majority of my time “outside my head”, almost directly into six months spent “inside my head.”
Not only did I experience this unique transition from chaos to quiet, but for the entire six months I felt time passing too quickly. The outcome was a daily conflict between a desire to move forward on research activities while simultaneously feeling a need to interact with anyone. Generally, though my work was progressing, I felt disconnected from the very social day-to-day existence that I am accustomed to. Ultimately, my sabbatical was less enjoyable than I anticipated.
Now in hindsight, I am aware of some factors to consider for those who have never taken, but are contemplating, a six month sabbatical.
First, it is important to anticipate the potential impact of beginning a sabbatical following a teaching semester. Though many individuals may enjoy the solitude of focusing single-mindedly on research, especially following a hectic period of teaching, others may find this transition too stark and would benefit from beginning the sabbatical before the fall semester.
Second, and related to this issue, it is important to prepare for a sabbatical, but the key is that the preparation cannot be solely work-related. It must include planning some opportunities to socialize. In my case, scheduling time to see friends once a week became a necessity to alleviate some of the social isolation I experienced most weeks.
Third, it will help you if you actively acknowledge all short-term and long-term goals as they are achieved. My goal was to keep momentum. As a result, I only began to consciously take note of completed tasks at the end of my leave, when planning my sabbatical report. I believe I would have had a more positive outlook at the end of my sabbatical if I had tracked completed tasks as they occurred.
Finally, feeling isolated and not taking the time to pause or take breaks away from work arose from incorrect execution of my sabbatical plan. With only a six month sabbatical, I knew I had to hit the ground running. I had my research tasks lined up, but I let myself think that since the sabbatical was imminent I could postpone doing any research part-way through the fall semester, when I was still teaching. My sabbatical would have been more productive had I not allowed my course work to squeeze out my dedicated research days. I now realize that when you have only six months, you have to start your sabbatical work before your sabbatical begins.
Though I recognize that we all have different levels of tolerance for change, still, how we anticipate and manage the transition into a sabbatical is significant. Sabbatical leave is a vital element to research success particularly for those of us with high workloads at primarily undergraduate institutions – so we want to make the most of it.
Shannon Gadbois is an associate professor and chair of the psychology department at Brandon University.