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Careers Café

Do I stay or do I go now? Sabbatical strategies

BY NICOLA KOPER | DEC 12 2011

You’re overworked. Swamped. Exhausted. You have five years of data filed that you’re just itching to get at. And finally, after years of struggle, you’re looking forward to the opportunity to catch up on everything that you’ve had to put aside while starting your academic career. You have a research leave, or sabbatical, coming up, and you’ve earned it. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.

So do you use that time to catch a breather and analyze those data? Or do you give yourself even more work by taking the opportunity to travel and collaborate with colleagues at some distance to your home university? I remember the temptation to settle back and just focus on writing and research. But just before my first sabbatical, a colleague close to retirement told me that the most important thing I could do was to take the opportunity to expose myself to new ideas. So I took his advice, and traveled to work out of another research facility for part of my sabbatical.

That turned out to be one of the most rewarding periods of my career. It was enormously rejuvenating to collaborate with new people. I came back to my university with new ideas and new perspectives on my research. I regained my enthusiasm for my subject. Most importantly, I came back a better teacher, researcher, and scientist, and thus my students and colleagues back at home also benefited from “the new me.” Now I’m hooked … I take every opportunity to visit other labs, and I really can’t put into words how much these visits have helped me. There are some things you just can’t do over Skype.

So is a traveling sabbatical right for you? I think the answer for most people is yes. I didn’t realize how jaded and run-down I had been before I traveled to another university during my sabbatical. And it was the travel that was important, not the break … I had spent several months at home before traveling but it was the trip that was inspiring. I suspect that I was not the first young academic to have forgotten some of the joy of learning. I regained that by working with new people in a new environment. I suspect that most young academics would benefit in the ways that I did.

I was reminded of the transformation that I underwent during an academic trip I recently returned from. I maintained and built on many of the research collaborations that I initiated during my sabbatical, and the last few weeks I took advantage of these partnerships to help me prepare a proposal that will take my research in a slightly new direction. Again, I came back rejuvenated and more knowledgeable about my research area. So I urge all the young academics out there to take advantage of research leaves and go somewhere new. I expect the benefits will far outweigh your expectations.

ABOUT NICOLA KOPER
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  1. Gunnar Ólafur Hansson / December 15, 2011 at 03:02

    This all sounds very rosy. However, as someone who just returned from a “stay-at-home” sabbatical leave (my first sabbatical), I simply cannot imagine how I would ever have been able to afford going anywhere for an extended period during that leave. Nor how I ever will be able to, in any of the precious few sabbaticals that lie in wait between this first one and retirement. After all, I am merely one-half of a dual-income household, we’ve got a hefty mortgage that will stay with us well into our old age, and are just managing to make ends meet as it is. There is absolutely no way we could ever have survived on just my sabbatical pay (80% of regular salary) if my wife had had to give up her job(s) in order for the family to be able to go gallivanting about with me to some exciting and no doubt intellectually stimulating places. I suppose I could have taken leave of my family for the better part of a year (“Buh-bye, I’m off to go think interesting thoughts; have fun managing without me!”), but that seems a big price to pay. After all, if there’s anything I would have thought a sabbatical would be good for, it’s for your spouse and children to get to see a little more of you–and in a less harried, distracted and sleep-deprived state. In short, I would *love* to go spend one or two terms at a different university during a sabbatical, but I’ll be damned if I think I can ever make that happen financially. So pray tell, you adventurous away-from-home sabbaticants: are you all single and childless, independently wealthy, or married to fellow academics with wonderfully synchronized sabbatical clocks?

  2. Jane / January 3, 2012 at 06:19

    There’s no need to be so bitter Hansson.

    I believe the author did said that she “urges all YOUNG academics” to go on a sabbatical leave. My take is that “young” academics are often people who are single and not tied down by either a spouse or children, unlike yourself.

  3. Gunnar Ólafur Hansson / January 4, 2012 at 17:31

    Apologies for sounding bitter! My comments were not rhetorical, I am genuinely curious about how people manage this aspect of their sabbaticals.

    As the second youngest faculty member in my department, and someone who just recently got tenure, I hope I can be forgiven for thinking of myself as a “young” academic. In my experience, most people are at least pushing 30 by the time they finish their PhD, if not already in their early 30s. Even if we assume that everyone is lucky enough to land a tenure-track position fresh out of grad school, then given that the first sabbatical leave usually doesn’t come until 6-7 years into such a position (that is, once tenure is in the bag), I would suspect that your average “young academic” about to go on their first sabbatical is going to be in their mid-to-late 30s. I would be very surprised if being both single and childless is the norm for that age group.