Prep the ground for your time off

May 18, 2007

Plan and plan some more if you want your sabbatical to be a success, says Harriet Swain. Otherwise, you are in danger of falling into helping out with day-to-day work or not achieving all you set out to do

Only another few months to go and you'll be out of there - free of your boring colleagues and moaning students, free of the research assessment exercise, free to go where and when you please.

Not quite. A sabbatical is a way of escaping the day-to-day routine, but you'll need to get a few things sorted first - such as making sure that you have checked the policy of your institution and/or department. If you aren't automatically entitled to sabbaticals after a certain period of time working, you need to find out what normal practice is for taking them, says Helen Scott, executive officer for the Universities Personnel Association. If you are entitled, you need to work out whether you want to take a short break as soon as you qualify, or build up entitlement to a longer absence.

If the work you intend to do on the sabbatical is likely to be in the institution's interests - for example, if you want to carry out a piece of research that will score well in the research assessment exercise, and if you've worked out a way to pay for someone to cover for you in your absence - usual policies and practices may be overridden, she says. But it is important to check them first.

It is worth thinking about all this well in advance - even three years ahead if you want to have the best chance of getting a grant to fund your travel or cover your work. You may also want to sort out a swap with an academic from another institution, perhaps in another country, which will take time.

And don't be too down on your colleagues and students because you'll need to depend on their goodwill. Either the institution will need to stop running the courses you deliver for a time, or you will need to get another colleague to cover for you - and may need to return the favour later.

You'll also need to think about whether you will continue to supervise your PhD or postdoctoral students and, if not, what sort of provision will be made for them. This is especially important if you supervise them in a lab, where they would usually expect regular contact and where there may be health and safety issues, Scott says.

Steve Wharton, who has taken two years away from his job as a senior lecturer in European studies and modern languages at Bath University to serve as president of the University and College Union, says it is a good idea to bounce ideas off colleagues when you are planning a sabbatical.

Those who have already made successful grant applications may be able to offer advice on how to do the same, and they may also be able to highlight potential problems with your plans and suggest some solutions.

Bryan Cunningham, a lecturer in education at the Institute of Education who took a term out in 2005 to write a book on mentoring, says he wishes he had taken more notice of the academic calendar when he was planning his sabbatical. The spring term when he took a break turned out to be particularly short. It was also very busy because students were in the process of applying for jobs, and he found himself regularly contacted for advice from staff and students, as well as marking work from the previous term and planning work for the next term. "You need to find a balance between being too soft and being flexible," he says. His advice is to set clear boundaries about how staff and students can keep in touch.

On the other hand, it is a mistake to try to cut yourself off from the university completely, however tempting it may be, says Peter Beck, who took a break from his work as professor of international history at Kingston University for a year in 2005. He advises at least keeping track of e-mails - if only to prevent being snowed under on your return.

He also warns that you need to be realistic about the amount you can achieve in the time available and advises setting up as much as possible before the sabbatical starts. It is usually important to have a book contract in place before you start writing, for example, and to leave time for checking references and making edits.

Katherine Barkwith, senior awards officer responsible for the research leave scheme at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, says that it is common for academics to be overoptimistic about the amount that they can achieve on a sabbatical.

To be successful in applying for the AHRC scheme, she says applicants have to present a credible timetable for the work and to make sure their proposal complies exactly with the aims of the scheme, as well as being of high quality and significance.

Elspeth Farrar, communications director for the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, says that it is vital to think about what you want to get out of the sabbatical and to plan carefully how you are going to achieve it. "It's amazingly easy for it to rush past very quickly once you are into it," she warns.

She says that it is also important to make sure your institution approves of your plans. While some institutions will allow you to do whatever you like while you are on sabbatical, others will not be happy if you use it to take on other paid work or choose to carry out research unrelated to your university specialism.

Finally, you need to think about what is going to happen when you come back. Wharton says if you take a long break you need to start "re-entry discussions" a few months before your return. Plan what teaching and research you will be doing and keep up with the gossip.

In terms of career progression, Farrar says, it is certainly better if you can show you have achieved something constructive on your sabbatical rather than simply having a long holiday.

Further information

Arts and Humanities Research Council, which runs a research leave scheme: www.ahrc.ac.uk

Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services: www.agcas.org.uk

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