Preparing for a sabbatical

Careful planning is the key to achieving all you set out to do in a sabbatical

January 3, 2008

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 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 – usual policies may be overridden, she says. But it is important to check first.

It is worth considering these points as much as 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 arrange a swap with an academic from another institution, perhaps in another country, and this will take time.

Consider whether you will continue to supervise your PhD or postdoctoral students and, if not, what sort of provision will be made for them, says Scott. 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.

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.

Those who have already made successful grant applications may be able to offer advice, highlight potential problems and suggest solutions.

Bryan Cunningham, a lecturer in education at the Institute of Education took a term out in 2005 to write a book on mentoring. He says he wishes he had taken more notice of the academic calendar when planning his sabbatical.

The spring term when he took a break turned out to be particularly short. 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 keeping track of e-mails – if only to prevent being snowed under on your return.

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.

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 with the aims of the scheme.

Elspeth Farrar, communications director for the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, says it is 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 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.

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