Saturday, May 14, 2011


Wikipedia tells me "In over thirty languages other than English, the common name for Saturday is a cognate of "Sabbath"," and the same root is that of a sabbatical leave. So what day could be better than a Saturday (usually a slow day in the blogosphere) for writing about my upcoming sabbatical?

Whenever I think of a sabbatical, I think of the chorus in this 1983 song by Culture Club (what can I say? I was an impressionable preteen):

you come and goooooo,
you come and goooo-o-o-oh...

Once I am done grading my final, I will have 15 teaching-free months.
Technically, I am on sabbatical just in the spring (every 7 years, we get 1 semester off at full pay or 2 semesters at 60% pay) but I managed to get the fall off as well through a teaching overload last fall and some course buyout. Next year will be my eighth year as a professor and my first sabbatical. People ask me where I am going; nowhere, as I am about to have a baby. I really cannot leave my poor husband alone with three kids for a significant amount of time, even after the baby is a few months old. Plus, there's the issue of nursing, and the boobs come with me. I suppose I could go somewhere with just the baby, and leave hub with the other two kids, but even that is really pushing it. I think this sabbatical leave is simply going to have to be of a staycation kind.

But this whole sabbatical business got me thinking about how long and how short 7 years actually are. When the time comes for my next sabbatical, my oldest son will start college; my middle son, who's 4 now, will be starting 6th grade; the baby, who hasn't been born yet, will start second grade! Yet, in the grand scheme of one's career, 7 years is really not all that long: we work for 35+ years; 7 years is about two back-to-back 3-year grants, so easily less than the duration of a long-term research project. In some fields, 7 years may be a not-so-uncommon duration of a PhD. It has been 7 years since I received mine.

My sabbatical plans include 3-4 months home with baby while managing research group via email, Skype (loved Namnezia's post "The Portal"), and occasional group meetings before going back to work full time in October or November (depending on when exactly the daycare has an opening for us); writing a gazillion grants and papers; editing a special issue of a journal in my subdiscipline; organizing a fairly major conference in my field in the spring 2012. I may sneak in a few shorer trips with my trusty breast pump in the spring, but otherwise it's business as usual sans teaching.

What I have been looking forward to the most in regards to this leave is trying to reignite the fire between me and my research. As I have written several times before, I am going through a bit of an existential crisis in research, in that I spend a lot of time chasing money to support students and, more often than I'd like, end up doing what's fundable and/or trendy regardless of what I find interesting. The money chasing also leaves me exhausted as I am constantly trying to scratch the surface of ever new problems where the funding is, and seldom have the time to sit down and dive into a difficult, long-term problem with gusto, as I used to be able to as a grad student and an idealistic/naive n00b assistant professor. Somewhere on the tenure track I developed a serious case of research ADD and now it's hard to really focus in depth, which is the type of work that used to give me the greatest pleasure, back in the day when my group was small and I had ample time to work on my own.

So I am looking forward to having some time to learn and grow again, read for real some new technical books, and perhaps even pick up a new technique or two. But maybe I'm just deluded and will end up eating bonbons and watching TV in my PJ's all day.

If you are a faculty and had a stay-at-home sabbatical, what did you do? Did you do all that you planned? Did you end up procrastinating/spending days in your PJ's/watching TV and eating bonbons or was it largely a professionally enriching experience? Was it always better when you went elsewhere for a sabbatical? Do you find it that you are more productive when you come back from a sabbatical, because the structure of teaching and meetings helps you maintain productivity? Even if you aren't a faculty, how would you spend a sabbatical year?


Namnezia said...

Oh boy, George...
Kidding aside, I'm also technically scheduled to have a sabbatical next spring, I did it in case I need to take more time off. But ideally my wife is pushing for all of us to pack up and go live somewhere else for six months. So if that's the case I will probably postpone it until the following fall. I have collaborators in interesting places, so hopefully I can set something up.

Laura Trutoiu said...

I'm not in any position to have a sabbatical (yet) but, after listening to this TED talk, I believe even more in stepping out of your routine every once in a while.

GMP said...

Namnezia, you are lucky your wife wants you all to go someplace -- if I were you, I'd definitely do it (especially if your kids aren't in school yet and she can take time off work). If my spouse were supportive, I would totally go. My hub could in principle take a leave of absence from the university without any detriment, but he doesn't want to go as he says he'd be bored with me working and him having to take care of the kids (at least some of them) all day, especially if we go to a place where he doesn't know the language. And there's the complicated but not insurmountable issue of the kid who goes to school... A colleague of mine just spent his sabbatical year in France with wife and 3 kids; apparently the logistics (place to live, schools) was nontrivial, but it all worked out and the kids' French is great.

Laura, thanks for the comment and the very interesting link!

Alex said...

Oh, to have the time to just sit down and read a technical book and really work through and digest everything. Not just a chapter, not just the tidbits with techniques or data that I need, but really work through the whole thing, take notes, think about it. Heavenly.

If I had the time to do that, I might not even read a book on my subfield. I might just sit down and read a technical book in a different subfield, just to learn something beautiful and different.

Alas, I don't predict having that time for a long, long time.

prodigal academic said...

I know a few profs in my department who have done stay local sabbaticals, and they all really came back primed to be extra-productive (even if at least one of them spent a lot of time in PJs at home!). All of them did spend short (like a week or so at a time) periods traveling to other labs, which I think is helpful in recharging the research batteries.

Prodigal Spouse really wants to live abroad for a year, so we hope to do this for my first sabbatical when the kids are young and flexible. It is a ways off, but I am already thinking in the back of my mind of places it might be good to spend a large chunk of time. Who knows if it will work out, though.

A said...

Take the kids on sabbatical! Especially if they are pre-high school!

Our whole family went with my Dad on his sabbaticals - when I was 8 to Australia and when I was 15 to the UK. My sister would've been 6 and 13 and my brother 2 and 9.

They were definately worthwhile. We went to school in both places and while the second trip was hard in terms of school - in some subjects I was miles ahead of the UK kids and some miles behind - I coped and learnt more overall from having gone on the sabbatical. My siblings agree.

Anonymous said...

I'm about to take my first... it's not technically a sabbatical but rather a six month untenured leave to allow tenure track professors to get a break from teaching so we can focus on research and writing (I'm at a SLAC). I was originally considering the possibility of spending it elsewhere - no family or even pets, so I could do it with a minimum of fuss if I really wanted to - but I've since decided that what I really need to do is write up and continue assisting my ugrads with their experiments, so I've decided to stay here. Since I don't even have a tech to supervise, I don't think that I could keep any research going here if I left. Maybe if I could afford to take a full year, it would be worth shutting my lab down and relocating.

-Principle Investigator

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