Sabbaticals: no longer so open-ended or available?

Five academics detail how taking leave of the grind has turbocharged their work – but can everyone get a break?

April 16, 2015

A year focusing on research without the interruption of departmental meetings, lecturing commitments and workplace politics sounds like nirvana to many academics. Luckily for them, they have chosen a profession that values intellectual space and knows the merits of sabbaticals that allow them time away from the daily grind.

Sabbaticals offer academics the chance to explore new cultures, to learn how higher education works in other parts of the world and to immerse themselves in a project.

But that coveted care-free leave, once seen as a drawcard of a career in the academy, is changing. Its open-ended nature is being constrained. Some universities now require certain outcomes while academics are away from their teaching and administrative duties, and at others, a break to focus on research is not guaranteed and academics must compete to win a sabbatical.

The sabbatical is deeply entrenched in the history of the academy. Michael Miller, a professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas, says that early US colleges first used them as a tool to attract faculty members in the 1800s: as part of their benefits, academic staff were granted leave once every seven years.

By the early 20th century, public institutions in the US began to offer similar programmes focused on research, and by the 1960s, career development had become central to the practice: academics applied for sabbaticals with specific projects in mind, such as improving their teaching or working with industry, Miller explains.

Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, argues that although the sabbatical is an “integral” part of academic life, it no longer exists in its true form. In the UK, an increasing number of universities, Warwick among them, now refer to it as “study leave”, which in practice does not give people the time and freedom to rest, relax and re-engage with their discipline, he argues.

Study leave requires academics to state up front what they will produce during their time away from teaching and administration, he says. An example could be completing a specific publication for the next research excellence framework. But Docherty believes that sabbaticals should be viewed as unstructured time in which an academic cannot predict the outcome of his or her research.

Money, university league tables and a “false idea of efficiency” based on productivity are behind the changes, he believes. As a result, far from being periods of reflection, sabbaticals or study leave can become “quite stressful” as promises need to be fulfilled in a specified time and “there is no possibility of surprise”.

Maureen Spencer, principal lecturer in the School of Law at Middlesex University, accepts that the sabbatical has become “heavily managed”. But, she believes, institutions do have a responsibility to funders to ensure that academics make good use of the time. “It is reasonable to expect a definable research output – but perhaps this could be treated more imaginatively,” she suggests.

Spencer has published several research papers on the sabbatical, focusing in particular on their use in the disciplines of law, history and business. She has found that institutions tend to place an “overemphasis on output and quality” during sabbaticals, and that universities tend to prefer outputs in the form of journal articles rather than books. But she adds that if an academic does not achieve the expected outcomes, the sanctions that a university can apply are “limited”.

Approaches to sabbaticals vary by discipline. In her studies of the strategic use of sabbaticals in history departments and business schools at UK universities, Spencer found that history departments tended to have a “less utilitarian view” of them than business schools.

According to a paper co-authored by Spencer, “A comparative examination of the use of academic sabbaticals”, published in The International Journal of Management Education, history departments use sabbaticals to retain good staff and to help them develop new skills and knowledge. Business schools, in contrast, “are less conscious of the social mission of education in a broader sense”, Spencer observes.

Her work also identified inequalities in the provision of sabbaticals: they are more likely to be available in pre-92 universities than in post-92s, a hangover from their days as teaching-focused polytechnics. Change is afoot, however. Spencer’s research on law schools suggests that sabbaticals are becoming more popular in research-focused post-92s. “The distinction between post- and pre-92s…does seem to be blurring – but it is taking a long time,” she adds.

Neither the University and College Union nor the Higher Education Statistics Agency collects data on the availability and take-up of sabbaticals or study leave in UK universities. But Rob Copeland, policy officer at the UCU, says there are concerns about a lack of openness in the granting of sabbaticals. Policies at some universities are not transparent, and some higher education institutions do not even have guidelines on the process, he says.

Anecdotal accounts suggest that men are more likely to be awarded sabbaticals than women, and that those who have been included in a university’s REF submission may be considered more favourably for time away, says Copeland, although he is careful to admit to a lack of “hard evidence”.

“Any policy a university has should be transparent and should be open to all, regardless of types of contract and subject area,” Copeland argues.

Sally Sambrook, professor of human resource development at Bangor University, says that, in her experience, study leave is “now almost entirely linked to the REF”. For business school academics, this means publishing in journals ranked 3 and 4* by the Association of Business Schools, she explains. “The feeling is: if you haven’t published in ABS-listed 3 and 4* journals, or – more importantly – the organisation’s REF strategy deemed you weren’t submittable, don’t bother requesting study leave.”

As universities place more emphasis on teaching, however, it will be “interesting to see” whether institutions begin to use sabbaticals to reward academics who do well in this area, Sambrook says. “Anecdotally, [sabbaticals] are more available to research-active academics…The recent focus on National Student Survey scores – and renewed spotlight on teaching and learning – might serve to redress this disparity.”

To discover how universities differ in their sabbatical policies, Times Higher Education surveyed higher education institutions and received 34 responses. Five post-92 universities and the London Business School did not offer their academics sabbaticals or study leave, or did not have an explicit policy on them.

The terms and conditions of the 28 institutions that provided details of their policies varied hugely. At some universities, academics earned the automatic right to apply for a semester of sabbatical or study leave for every two to four years of continuous service (at the University of Oxford and Birkbeck, University of London, for example). At others, time away from regular duties was awarded on a competitive basis via an application process (such as at the universities of Bath and Northumbria).

Some institutions said that the awarding of breaks depended on the predicted outcomes from an academic’s leave. One – St Mary’s University, Twickenham – explicitly mentioned its REF 2020 submission.

The length of sabbatical allowed also varied, but the most common period was one of between a single term and a full year. Researchers at 18 institutions remained on full pay for the duration of their leave, whereas those at four – Bucks New University, the University of Northampton, Royal Agricultural University and Bath Spa University – had to forgo their salaries during sabbaticals.

Also notable were big differences in the number of staff typically awarded a sabbatical each year: from a single person at the University of Chichester (in the past 12 months) to about 80 people at the University of Leicester, according to the information provided.

For those lucky enough to be granted a sabbatical, it can be life- and career-changing. Here we hear from five academics who took the plunge into new research directions and new cultures.

Pink balloons in a net

‘It is one of the best things I have ever done’

The day that Malcolm von Schantz left Brazil, after a year’s sabbatical leave there, was a sad one. At the airport, a passport official picked up on his mood and encouraged him to return to the country soon.

Luckily for von Schantz, a reader in molecular neurobiology at the University of Surrey, he has already had the opportunity to go back to Brazil. The time he spent at the University of São Paulo in 2014 has blossomed into a fruitful research collaboration funded by Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Development. Return trips to the country he grew to love so much are now on the cards for the next three years.

Surrey and São Paulo share a postdoctoral researcher who is continuing von Schantz’s work in Brazil and Surrey under the universities’ joint supervision. “For me, that really adds tremendous value to the sabbatical,” he says. “Luckily, I have built an exciting new direction in my research, and I have also found the wherewithal to sustain it.”

Von Schantz found that the funding available in Brazil, and São Paulo in particular, has a huge impact on the “dynamic and exciting” atmosphere in the country’s universities. “It is an environment where, if you have a good idea, you have a good chance of getting funded.

“There is an excitement and a joy to the whole scientific endeavour [in Brazil] which in Europe and North America is tempered by the huge efforts we have to [make] to get funding for good research.”

Von Schantz’s sabbatical came after four years of working as associate dean for international relations at Surrey, the last six months of which he served as pro vice-chancellor. In this role, von Schantz helped to set up a partnership with North Carolina State University and the University of São Paulo - and through this he discovered a “very exciting potential research link” in his field of sleep and circadian rhythms at São Paulo.

Armed with a visiting professor’s grant from the University of São Paulo to cover his travel and accommodation expenses, his regular salary from Surrey, and with the majority of his teaching responsibilities covered, he set off for South America in January of last year.

He joined a research project at the university’s Heart Institute, which studies a unique population of the small town of Baependi in the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil, where locals have a traditional, conservative lifestyle governed by the rising and setting of the sun. His work looks at the genetic markers found in people with preferences for mornings and evenings, and takes in sleep disorders. “It is a novel sample for me, and I get my teeth into big data and work with genome-wide association studies,” he says.

The experience exceeded all of von Schantz’s expectations, and he “loved every aspect” of it. “It really is one of the best
things I have ever done.” A sabbatical affords “a chance to focus on the points of the job that you enjoy the most – so it probably doesn’t matter where you are”.

“I came back with a very different attitude. I [still] feel energised and excited, and I have more of a perspective on my research. I am approaching a lot of the topics that I teach in a different way,” he notes.

Von Schantz was also intrigued by cultural differences he observed. One of the most striking was faculty greetings – the norm in Brazil being to exchange kisses with female colleagues and hugs with male ones. “The tactile style that comes naturally to Brazilians would make an Anglo-Saxon human resources department run for cover,” he jokes.


‘It has turned into a really meaningful, collegial engagement’

One thing Alex Smith learned a lot about during his sabbatical was basketball. That had nothing to do with his research; it was more that he spent six months at the University of Kansas – where the sport was popularised by its inventor.

“The academics take it seriously,” observes Smith, a senior Leverhulme research fellow and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, who notes that sport is not always held in the same high esteem in the UK academy.

Smith was an early career researcher, and had completed his PhD, when he took his family to the college town of Lawrence, Kansas, to complete fieldwork as part of his research fellowship into American democracy. At the time, he was a Leverhulme early career fellow in the now-defunct sociology department at the University of Birmingham.

The practicalities worked out nicely. He was sponsored as a visiting scholar by the department of political science at Kansas to get the necessary visa. As well as continuing to draw his salary, he received a grant from Leverhulme to cover his fieldwork costs. A grant from Birmingham covered the cost of a rental car and other minor items. And during his time in Kansas, he house-sat for a local law academic who was also on sabbatical, so he only had to cover payment of the utility bills.

Smith was “pleasantly surprised” by the quality of the research he encountered and by the commitment to writing books among his US colleagues. In the UK, “with the research excellence framework, a lot of emphasis is placed on getting articles done; but I think there is a real commitment in American academia to the monograph as a significant intellectual contribution. I was really excited when I met lots of other academics who are passionate about writing books.”

Towards the end of his six-month stint in the US, the university’s sociology department invited him to present a paper about his work. “It was one of those funny little moments when you meet your audience and these people just instinctively understood what the project was about and why it was important,” he says. Many were interested in the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism, which is in line with the theoretical interests of his work.

The department offered Smith a position as an adjunct assistant professor alongside his Birmingham position, and since then he has built up a project about democracy and religion and has returned once or twice a year for fieldwork. “It has turned into a really meaningful…collegial engagement.”

He also sits on a PhD advisory board at Kansas and has sponsored several Kansas scholars to visit the Warwick Institute of Advanced Study.

Smith views the links that he has built in Kansas as “crucial” to his research. Colleagues from Kansas were able to put him in touch with “really useful gatekeepers” high up in the local political scene. “I could have done a version of what I am doing without them, but the study would have been impoverished had I not benefited from those links,” he explains.

Taking his family with him on his sabbatical also paid unexpected dividends. His daughter, who was then 11, attended a local elementary school and there befriended the daughter of the state’s attorney general. “He’d come and pick [his daughter] up, and we’d have a beer in the lounge while they finished playing. I’d talk about my research and he’d offer help. It was just brilliant.” Smith’s wife, meanwhile, took a period of unpaid leave from her job at a further education college in the UK and volunteered at the local hospital and homeless shelter in Lawrence.

But the highlight of his trip was the “hospitality and intellectual companionship” that he found in Lawrence.

On one occasion, a professor of political science at Kansas invited Smith and his family to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. This led to another lasting effect of his sabbatical - an aversion to pecan pie. Smith was the only one of the 20 or so gathered who ate it and subsequently developed food poisoning. “I’ve never been able to eat it since,” he says.


‘The main thing I got was confidence. I learned so much’

It basically changed everything,” Alan McNally, a reader in microbial genomics in the School of Science and Technology at Nottingham Trent University, says of his sabbatical. “I know that sounds very evan­gelical,” McNally says, but he insists that the time he spent in 2012-13 made “a huge difference” to the trajectory of his research career.

The reason for his enthusiasm is that McNally’s sabbatical steered him into a new area of research. When he made his application, he was a senior lecturer working in the area of classic bacterial genetics, and he had a PhD student who was working on genome sequencing techniques - an area that McNally felt he could learn more about.

“I started to feel that, as a supervisor and a principal investigator, my skill sets weren’t where they should be,” he says. “I felt that if I were going to do this work properly, then I really needed a good working knowledge of the methods that were used.”

McNally worried over this for about a year before he received a departmental email soliciting sabbatical proposals. He replied with a proposal involving his spending a year learning about the processes involved in genome sequencing, arguing that it would allow him better to supervise his students and also strengthen the department’s research.

Nottingham Trent uses some of its quality-related research funding for a sabbatical scheme that buys out the teaching duties of selected staff so that they can concentrate on research, McNally explains. During his leave year, he went on training courses and spent time at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, with which he had worked before.

He also spent some time in Germany in the laboratories of collaborators at the University of Münster and at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, a publicly funded research institute.

McNally is married and has a young son. He arranged his sabbatical schedule to spend only relatively short periods away from home so that he did not miss too much family time. The nature ofthe work meant that he could continue to do a lot at Nottingham Trent, he adds.

The sabbatical allowed him to dive into an exciting new research area, but, he says: “I think the main thing that I got was confidence. I learned so much in the year. I built up a huge number of new collaborators and got access to lots of new datasets, and as a result of the analysis that I did that year we published five new papers on genome sequence analysiswhich then got me invited to a couple of really big microbial genomics conferences where I got to present.”

He adds that his “publication trajectory has just improved no end, and I am finding it much easier to go to the leading people in the field and ask them if they would like to collaborate on grant proposals and papers. My research profile just totally changed as a result.”

McNally secured a promotion to reader last year, and he is “convinced” that the effects of his sabbatical made all the difference. His advice for others thinking of taking one is to “just do it”.

A group of pigeons

‘It was almost cathartic to have the mental space to complete things and to think’

Sonia Livingstone enjoyed being able to think things through and set her own “intellectual direction” while on her two‑year sabbatical. “If I imagine myself doing that, I am probably sitting in a cafe somewhere in America. You just take your laptop; nobody can reach you, you can just concentrate – and someone keeps bringing you more coffee.”

She was disappointed by the lack of similar establishments when she returned home. “When you finish your coffee in London, they look at you like, ‘Time to go!’, and you can’t get out your laptop because there is not enough space on the table,” says Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics.

But there was not always time for quiet contemplation over a coffee; Livingstone finds academic life a “juggling” act, and her sabbatical spanning 2012-14 was no different.

It came after a three-year stint leading the LSE’s department of media and communications. At the LSE, those who have been head of department “earn” one semester per year served to concentrate on research, a “vital” perk to help the transition back into research from administration, Livingstone says.

But the second year of her sabbatical was exceptional, and the additional time was cobbled together from a mixture of teaching relief for serving on a research excellence framework subpanel, teaching buyout for her work on a European Commission project and a secondment to Microsoft in Massachusetts.

In fact, she was away on sabbatical so long that, on her first day back at the LSE, she got lost. The institution had acquired a new teaching building, and she went to the wrong place for a class.

The two “completely wonderful” years away form a “landmark” in a “rushed” career, she says. “There was something almost cathartic in having the mental space to really complete things in a way that I felt satisfied with, and in having the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do when I returned.”

She began her sabbatical with three weeks in Venice Beach “decompressing” and getting her “mind back into writing”. She was visiting the LSE’s partner institution, the University of Southern California, which put her up in Santa Monica.

Over the two years, Livingstone spent a large chunk of her time writing a book about how digital media are shaping the lives of teenagers. The ethnography of 28 13-year-olds is based on research she did while head of department.

Without the sabbatical, Livingstone says, the quality of the book and her ability to meet other commitments may have suffered. “I don’t think it would have been as well ­written and thought through if I was writing it in bits and pieces…which would have sold the whole project short.”

Also consuming her time was the conclusion of the EU Kids Online project, European Commission-funded research that involved 33 countries and began in 2006. As director of the project, she was responsible for writing the final report, budgets and making presentations to policymakers. Without the break, she notes, presenting the findings would have been very difficult to fit in because policymakers do not respect teaching timetables.

She also spent three months at Microsoft’s social media laboratory. During this time, she familiarised herself with related research going on at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which are close by.

Livingstone remembers mathematicians swarming around the whiteboard in a public area of the Microsoft laboratory and scrawling equations all over it. “I would think, ‘Well, I can try to enter this conversation and be multidisciplinary, but I may have reached my limits!’.”

But her time at Microsoft “shook” her up and allowed her “to think differently”, she says. “You can become a little too focused on just putting one foot in front of the other… I feel a new impetus – not only energy but [also drive] to do the best work that I can,” she adds.


‘At the end, I could see that work in a very clear and very different way’

Tim Darvill is something of a veteran when it comes to sabbaticals: the professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University has taken three.

The most recent, which he describes as “very valuable”, was focused on writing up fieldwork reports after an excavation at Stonehenge.

In archaeology, sabbaticals also afford academics a vital opportunity to spend time at historical sites and to visit excavations and museums to examine recently discovered material, he explains, which helps to inform both teaching and research.

Darvill’s favourite moment came while working on pottery from the Neolithic period. “The ability to get all the pottery out from one of the excavations and spend some time with it and understand it…was very fulfilling.

“At the end of doing that piece of work, I could see that pottery assemblage in a very clear and very different way than…if I had done it in a very mechanistic, time-pressured way. The value and the delight was an opportunity to have a piece of work that I could do at my own pace.”

During the year-long sabbatical in 2009-10, half of which was spent at Bournemouth and the other half at the University of Oxford, he also enjoyed finding the time to read documents that “would have been left on the shelf in the priority of day-to-day activity normally”.

His previous sabbaticals were shorter, lasting three months each, and took place 10 to 15 years ago. One was based around a project to set up a system for recording archaeological work, and the other involved a survey of “at risk” monuments for English Heritage.

“So many things are crowded into one’s timetable that, in order to make time for research and professional practice, a sabbatical is almost essential,” Darvill argues. He hopes to apply for another “before too long”.

A lift for mind and body: how to make the most of a study break

A collaboration that began in 1896 with the sabbatical of a young American biologist, Marcella O’Grady, in the laboratory of German biologist Theodor Boveri eventually led her to translate his monograph on the chromosomal theory of cancer, which introduced it to the world – and the pair also got married.

This story highlighting the transformative power of a sabbatical is cited in a paper by Thomas Erren, a professor at the University of Cologne, and Melissa Nise, titled “How to have an effective academic sabbatical: recommendations for what to do and what to avoid”.

Before embarking on sabbatical, they advise, academics should define their goals, including setting realistic research objectives and thinking about how the break might bring new impetus to their teaching.

The timing must be chosen carefully. It’s also worth considering family companionship, which can be a “significant asset of a sabbatical”, says the paper, published in Neuroendocrinology Letters.

While on sabbatical, it is important to take control of one’s time and work, and keep schedules flexible. Academics should also limit contact with their home institution and give themselves time to relax, the authors advise.

“This is ‘a time for renewal, reflection and rejuvenation’, not a ‘pack-as-much-as-you-can-in-a-sabbatical’ vacation,” argue Erren and Nise.

On returning to normal working life, researchers should share what they have learned with their colleagues and nurture the contacts they have made. And they should not forget to thank those who granted and made possible the “special gift of a sabbatical”.

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