Study leave: a right, not a privilege

Tim Birkhead dreams of time to work, free from day-to-day interruptions

August 27, 2009

When I first started as a lecturer, one of the carrots dangled in front of me was the idea of a sabbatical - the promise that for one year in every seven, the university would fund a period when I would be free from teaching and administration to focus on my research. It never happened, so I reckon I'm still owed about four years. Actually, that's not strictly true: in 1983, the head of department gave me six weeks' leave during term- time so I could do some fieldwork in Labrador. The paper I produced from that strategic bit of study leave had a disproportionate effect on my subsequent career. Since then, I have been fortunate to have obtained external funding for other periods of study leave.

The term sabbatical has the same roots as "Sabbath" and means "ceasing" - God ceased his labours on the seventh day, etc - and in the strict sense of the term, a sabbatical lasts a year. Today a sabbatical refers to any extended period - usually less than a year - of leave. And, according to Wikipedia, sabbaticals are taken by "professors, pastors, cartoonists, musicians, programmers and sportsmen". But contrary to my innocent expectation, in most universities the sabbatical is considered a privilege rather than a right.

Almost imperceptibly, the idea of sabbatical leave - in some universities at least - seems to have evaporated, leaving only the faintest stain on the academic worktop. In other institutions, however, colleagues seem to spend most of their time on sabbatical. The sabbatical culture seems to vary enormously between establishments. One reason for this is that in some cases the word sabbatical is no longer used, and instead, the appropriate phrase is "study leave". Is this an example of administrative sleight of hand?

Overworked Academic (innocently): "Dear Head of Department, I'd like to apply for a sabbatical."

Overstressed HOD (smirking): "Sorry, sunshine, that scheme finished in 1984".

OK, the academic thinks, I'll try asking for study leave.

Overworked Academic: "Dear HOD, I'd like some study leave."

HOD (wearily): "Oh, yes? On what grounds? Well, OK, but only if you are really worth it and only if you can either: (i) persuade one or more of your colleague(s) to take on your teaching and other responsibilities, or (ii) you can find the funds to pay someone to assume your non-research duties."

Reciprocal arrangements, in which colleagues take on extra duties, exist in some institutions. In institutions with no such tradition, they can be difficult to establish, but are worth trying to set up.

There exist several funding bodies that allow academics effectively to buy themselves out of teaching to take study leave. Note, however, that the term "study leave" is an oxymoron, and can be interpreted in different ways. Outside the academic community (and occasionally within it), people imagine someone on sabbatical lazing around on a tropical beach, on leave - literally - from their studies.

In truth, most academics on study leave spend their time studying; that is, doing research (or seeking the funding for research) and doing so more effectively, since they do it without the numerous, normal interruptions. But this is a two-edged sword. It is all very well securing funds to buy yourself out of teaching, but too many academics from the same department on study leave at one time could mean that most of the undergraduate teaching is done by younger, less well-trained people.

Of course, it is also true that in some cases these temporarily employed replacement teachers do a better job than the original academics. There's also the argument that having a year's teaching practice is a wonderful opportunity for a budding academic.

Sabbaticals were established originally to allow academics to have a change of scenery; to experience a different university or research institute; to learn new techniques, to develop collaborations, or to write papers or a book. A change, as they say, is as good as a rest, and certainly in my case, after visiting other institutions while on study leave, I have returned refreshed. In fact, I have usually experienced one of two feelings. Usually I count my blessings: my department/university is so much better than this. Less often, I'm envious of the space/facilities/funding that I see elsewhere.

The worst sensation is visiting a well-resourced institute where the research is relatively unexciting. But regardless of what one discovers, whoever it was that dreamed up the scheme recognised the huge value that a change of scenery can have on someone's outlook and productivity.

There's a major downside to study leave, which is that it is rarely possible to take full advantage of the scheme. It is a lucky academic whose partner isn't tied to a job and who could take off for several months. Some researchers are reluctant to abandon their research students for too long, but in most cases the research students love having a break from the supervisors and they thrive. The other possible downside is that universities could potentially introduce unpaid periods of study leave - as occurs in some industries - as a way to save some cash during the recession.

I dream of study leave because, like most academics, I crave periods of uninterrupted time. In fact, what we all need is an email sabbatical: an entire year without having to check or answer emails. Wouldn't that be great?

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Nice blog.

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