Why and how to take a sabbatical

Long envied by those outside the academy, sabbaticals provide an unrivalled opportunity for intellectual rejuvenation – and a host of other benefits.

Many opt to relocate temporarily and experience an entirely new academic culture. This exposure to unfamiliar ideas, people and practices is energising – and likely to broaden your network, build your versatility, raise your profile and boost your career development. Research shows that scientists who move country gain more citations and a wider network of collaborators, and one effective, short-term way to increase your mobility is through a sabbatical.

Individuals also benefit from rest and refreshment when released from the pressures of teaching, administration and funding cycles to focus in depth on a new project. A 2010 study showed that faculty members who took sabbaticals reported greater life satisfaction and wellbeing, and lower levels of stress, than peers who did not. They also reported these positive changes persisted well after the end of the sabbatical period.

Advantages for employers include improved staff loyalty and retention, a reduction in burnout, and the renewed vigour and vision an employee often returns with when their sabbatical is over. Meanwhile, hosting institutions gain access to new networks and potentially fruitful and long-lasting collaborations.

But great opportunities rarely come without challenges, and sabbaticals are no exception. Expectations differ from university to university. Some last a full year and are paid at 100% of salary, but many are shorter and combine a steep reduction in income with high requirements in terms of outcomes to be delivered. Stepping away from the security of your routine and  familiar work environment can be unsettling. So what can you do to make your sabbatical a positive, productive and enriching experience? Here are five ideas.

1. Start early. Do your prep well in advance and apply for visiting fellowships. These will provide more support than an informal arrangement, and help develop your network and your CV.

2. Sort your finances. With the possibility of relocation expenses coinciding with a pay cut it’s worth researching funding options available for covering the shortfall. Check carefully how your sabbatical will affect your tax and benefits, and look for cost-effective opportunities such as house-sitting.

3. Set expectations for your colleagues and students. Be clear about what you will continue to do – such as maintaining mentoring relationships, for example – and what you won’t. Give people plenty of warning to adjust, particularly those depending on your input for major decisions, activities or grants.

4. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Define your goals and cut out any that can wait. All too soon you’ll be back to normal life and its competing demands. Now’s your chance to dive deep into something new. Relish and preserve the focus – don’t blur it with a long to-do list.

5. Relocate. A fresh start in a stimulating new environment brings significant benefits. But if you need to stay close to home, look for somewhere new to base yourself. Temporary anonymity brings freedom and minimises interruption. Find a new physical space – in a neighbouring institution, your home or a co-working hub – to make the most of the new mental space offered by your sabbatical.

Whatever shape it may take, the rewards of a well-spent sabbatical can be life-enhancing, long-lasting – and career-changing.

Further reading

Detailed and practical advice from the University of Hartford’s Associate Professor of English and Modern Language, Nels P. Highberg

Brenda Wingfield, Professor of genetics at the University of Pretoria, on ‘The privileges and opportunities of a research sabbatical

Science’s ‘Five steps to a successful sabbatical

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Jo Mitchell
Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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