How to get the most out of your sabbatical

I’m just coming off sabbatical (ok, so I still have the summer, but it FEELS like it is almost over) and thought discussing how I made the most of sabbatical could be a good blog post. A little background first. I am at a small liberal arts school with high teaching and service loads. Traditionally we haven’t had much expectation for scholarship, but that is changing. I’ve had a modest research program mostly focusing on the same questions as my dissertation using the same techniques and managed to get a couple publications out since I’ve been here. My goal was to update my approach by learning next-generation sequencing and analysis of microbial communities and to get some more pubs out. I’m really pleased with what I’ve been able to accomplish thus far and I think there were some key decisions that made my sabbatical so successful.

  1. Get out of town, if at all possible.

It can be far too easy to get sucked into the campus milieu. For the most part, you’ve probably earned a sabbatical because your colleague respect you and want to know your opinion on things. If you’re there, they will find you and suddenly your time is frittering away into discussions of curriculum, the latest power struggles, and, let’s face it, gossip. I know, I’ve seen it happen to colleagues; heck, I’ve probably done it to colleagues. Sabbatical is not just about jazzing up your scholarship, but it is also about recharging and it’s hard to do that if you don’t remove yourself from the day-to-day. Where to go? For field biologists, that’s often easy—go to your field site. For me, I knew the techniques and questions I wanted to get up to speed on and made some connections. If you at least have money to support yourself, other researchers are often happy to host visiting scholars. You bring a new perspective to their lab and even if you are untrained in the area in which you’ll be directly working, you pick up things fast and don’t take much of their time. And heck, you’re cheap (free) labor! But I have kids, significant other, pets, etc., you say—how did you do this? I don’t have kids, but I did have to leave behind a spouse in another professional field. Luckily, my sabbatical campus was only 3 hours away and we usually saw each other 2-3 times a month. I was able to find an affordable, quiet, furnished apartment that even came with a cat! For housing, check with the provost/grad/research dean’s office. They often have short-term leases posted for incoming faculty and post-docs (often other faculty on sabbatical away from their campus).

  1. Set an automatic reply on your campus email and don’t reply before at least a week has gone by.

So you got out of town, but email can reach you anywhere you go. Be sure to set an autoreply on your email (at least to any domain associated with your home campus) that states when you are on sabbatical and that you are not checking your email regularly. Because I was the director for the biology program up through the term before my sabbatical leave started, I knew I would still be getting emails from students, faculty, and vendors that need contact with the director. I listed the current director and his email (sorry James) for time sensitive issues. I also tried to resist the urge to respond to advisees and colleagues as soon as I saw an email (because of course, I was checking it). By taking a week at the beginning of my sabbatical to respond, people bothered me less as the term went on. Also useful—see if you can unsubscribe from any campus-based listserves while on sabbatical.

  1. Learn something new.

Sabbatical only comes every 7 years (if you’re lucky), so make it count! Think of sabbatical as your own mini-Kuhnian paradigm shift. Having 100% of your time to focus on research means you can go outside of your comfort zones. Sabbatical also means that you have tenure, so you can take more risks. I have viewed sabbatical as the kick-starter for the next 7 years of my research program. Instead of struggling with the same issues, I’m reinvigorated about science in general. Learning something new also means working with new people and thinking about problems in a completely new way. This is another advantage to going to visit another lab on sabbatical.

  1. Make an exit strategy.

So you’ve learned lots of new things and now it is time to go back to your home campus. How do you keep the momentum going? I chose to spend the semester (4.5 months) at my host campus focusing primarily on lab work, my summer will be back at my home campus analyzing data and writing manuscripts. I’m also spending some of the summer figuring out how to physically and financially set up my lab here for my new research interests. One of the ways I’m going to get my new research program up and running is to incorporate it into one of my upper-level courses. This will allow me to generate preliminary data and because it is for a course, the college will cover the costs.

My sabbatical was (IS—it’s not over yet!) an amazing, rejuvenating experience. Make sure that you protect and take advantage of this precious time.

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One Response to How to get the most out of your sabbatical

  1. duffinlab says:

    Great tips!!! I think the leaving campus bit is the most important.

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