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Coming Up for Air

Written by: Cormac Taylor
Written on: Monday, 14 October, 2019

During the course of an academic career, one inevitably accumulates responsibilities through the requirements to contribute to the administration of the home institution. While it is important to contribute in this way, the increasing time taken up by administrative responsibility which grows with time and seniority can severely erode the intellectual headspace formerly reserved for the key academic activities of reading, writing and reflecting. As a consequence, intellectual burnout as a result of immersion in administrative responsibilities can negatively impact upon both the capacity of an individual academic to perform and innovate and also, on a personal level, to derive pleasure from their career.

The need to intermittently generate some distance with the administrative roles in the home institution in order to allow a reorganization of responsibilities can be hugely favorable both for the individual academic as well as the home institution. Recent personal experience has taught me that one way of affecting this is in the taking of an academic sabbatical.

A well-planned sabbatical can be a life-altering and career-defining experience. However, there are some key pointers which should be kept in mind when planning one. Firstly, for a sabbatical to be effective, one must remove him/herself both physically and intellectually from the home environment as much as possible. In these days of constant and immediate electronic communication, this can be easier said than done! An effective sabbatical requires careful planning in terms of choosing the timing, the destination and the host lab. It is vital that your peers know you are on sabbatical and that you are not available for “business as usual”. A common error is to use the sabbatical as an opportunity simply to get on top of current commitments. This will be a short-term solution and the full menu of benefits that could be gained will not be accessed. I recommend at least a two year lead-in time to allow organization of the sabbatical and a sabbatical period of one year to get the maximal benefits. It is also a wonderful time to provide a senior member of your team to take the helm for a period of time and gain some invaluable leadership experience.

During the sabbatical, it is important to put time aside for non-academic pursuits. This is where much fresh thinking actually happens. Do not do your usual work. I also found that choosing a writing project (such as a review) gave me a focus as well as an academic output. In addition, try to provide advantages to the host lab in terms of brining your expertise and experience into the environment.

The first emotions I felt as I sat in my rented apartment in a new city far from the familiarity of home was loneliness and a strange quiet. The second was guilt. It takes time to wean oneself away from the day-to-day responsibilities and truly learn to delegate. Trust me, they will be waiting when you get back. At least the important ones will be.

The benefits of a sabbatical are not restricted to the individual taking the sabbatical but extend also to the host lab. As a recent host to a sabbatical taken in my lab by Prof. Kim Barrett, I was first hand witness to the positive effects of bringing a senior academic into the lab as reflected by student development and input into manuscripts.

In a nutshell, If you are lucky enough to be in a position where taking a sabbatical is an option, then my advice is to take advantage of this for the sake of your future productivity. A successful sabbatical leads to an invigorated and intellectually refreshed academic returning to the home institution with new ideas and a fresh angle…

Glossary:

Sabbatical remorse: A temporary and self-resolving condition which manifests in the early stages of a sabbatical where feelings of guilt relating to the temporary cessation of administrative and teaching duties occur.

Sabbatical panic: Typically occurs in the mid-sabbatical period with the realization that the sabbatical will pass quickly and the goals set out may not be fully realized.

 

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