Sunday, July 10, 2016

How do you sabbatical?

This was the most common question I heard from junior faculty. At first, I thought that they, like my colleagues, were interested in the mechanics (what arrangements I made, how I planned a sabbatical abroad with a family, etc). For thoughts on planning a sabbatical, see here. But what they actually meant was "what exactly do you do on a sabbatical?" After a few seconds of thought, I realized I had no idea either (before I went and did one), so without further ado, here is "What Prodigal Did on Sabbatical":

ProdigalU more or less doesn't care what we specifically do on sabbatical, as long as it is professional development (especially for the first one). We do have to apply, and there do need to be plans, but the application is a year before the sabbatical starts, so no one will hold you to what you write. I got an old application from one of my colleagues, and used it as a model. When we're back from sabbatical, we have to write a sabbatical report, but I am not sure anyone actually reads it.

I decided I wanted to go abroad, and then worked from that premise when planning. So what did I actually do?

1. Wrote
A lot. Really. It was really nice to be away from my office and all of its distractions. I had long uninterrupted blocks of time for the first time in a long time. When all was said and done, I submitted 6 manuscripts and 3 proposals, and wrote detailed outlines for 2 more.

2. Email/paperwork
There is no escape. Being in a different timezone from ProdigalU meant that I had many work hours free from emails, though.

3. Traveled
Both personal travel around Sabbatical Location, as well as professional travel. I went to meetings I would normally skip due to the expense (far from ProdigalU) and I invited myself to give a few seminars so I could meet with some people in my field I only knew as names on papers due to the distances involved. This is surprisingly easy, btw. A simple email with "Hello, I am Prodigal, and I work on ProdigalResearch. I admire your work. I am at location X for the next Y months, and would love to meet up with you in person. Are you available?" often results in a seminar invite.

4. Read
I actually had time to read literature for pleasure, rather than as a targeted search for a manuscript or proposal. Before I got overwhelmed, this was a great way to spark new ideas and research directions. I found this so beneficial while on sabbatical, that I am trying to keep going with this, and at least actually use my RSS feed ToCs again.

5. Interacted with my host group
It was actually really interesting to see how a different group works (dynamics and all) after setting up my own. This was fun--the stakes are lower, since I am not actually responsible for these students, so I just had fun discussion things (science, professional stuff, whatever) with the members of my host group. I attended groups meetings and other group events as well. One of the goals of my sabbatical was to deepen my collaboration with host group, and this was successful.

6. Learned a new technique
One of the reasons I picked my sabbatical location was because I would have access to an instrument I would like to set up in my own lab. It was great to see how it actually works in practice, and to see how the experts do sample prep and data analysis.

7. Electronic meetings with my group
Very important--email works pretty well, but checking in and discussing things in real time is important too. I had meeting with each student once a week, for 10-90 minutes, as needed.

8. Thought big thoughts
I spent quite a bit of time just thinking about my field, where it is going, and what I think my group should be doing in the next 10 years or so. Also thoughts about science in general. Very important, I think, but one of the first things to drop when pressed for time.

9. Relaxed
I worked fewer hours than normal, for sure. Part of what I needed to do was recover and recharge after the push for tenure. Being away from my "normal" life and routine was really helpful for that.

Things I didn't do:
  • Work in the lab (ha! I had big plans for that one--I do miss labwork sometimes)
  • Attend any regular meetings other than my host group meeting
  • Service at ProdigalU (I still did some reviewing, but said no more often)
  • Visit ProdigalU for the whole time I planned to be away (and I didn't even feel bad about it either)
So that is what I did on sabbatical. I enjoyed my sabbatical immensely, and have no regrets about going abroad.

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