Last week I discussed Sabbatical Economics, and explained why paying a professor 1/2 of a 9-month salary every 7 years so they can focus on research or other creative endeavors can make both short- and long-term economic sense for an institution, not to mention for the individual on sabbatical.
Today I will discuss some another aspect of sabbaticals. Please write with questions or suggestions of sabbatical-themed topics I haven't covered.
Myth: Faculty on sabbatical abandon their students, occasionally checking in from the other side of the world (or country or town) just to make sure that everyone is working hard to keep the research machine ticking along while the absent faculty member does whatever it is professors do on sabbatical.
I certainly won't claim that no professors ever do this, but, from what I've seen, it isn't common.
When I was a graduate student and my adviser went on sabbatical, we kept in touch by e-mail, and this was fine with me. In fact, it was great because he had a rather large group of graduate students, most of them very assertive and verbally agile young men, and I never really felt like I had my adviser's attention to the extent that these guys did. In fact, these guys, who were my friends and mentors, were in some ways more aware of my research than my adviser was, although I typically talked to my adviser a few times a week to update him and ask questions.
The reason the sabbatical year was great for me was that I was better at sending frequent, articulate, informative e-mails than my fellow grad students were. I finally got my adviser's attention, and he later told me that he enjoyed these e-mails from me, and for the first time appreciated my work (and work ethic).
I have also enjoyed being a professor on sabbatical. On my last sabbatical, I went to Europe for most of an academic year, although I returned to the US once for some student preliminary exams. Everyone who needed to take their exam in a particular term and who needed/wanted me on their committee took their exams during the week I was back. It was an intense week, but it worked out well. And while I was away, my students were well taken care of by co-advisers or committee members or postdocs or each other, and we all kept in touch by e-mail etc. As far as I can tell, no one felt abandoned and no one's research progress suffered.
For my next sabbatical -- still a ways off but in the preparation stages -- I plan to have some research funds to pay for the travel of at least one graduate student to visit me to take advantage of the facilities and collaborations at the institute that has offered to host my sabbatical. There will also be other opportunities for travel home and abroad involving other colleagues and students (visits, conferences etc.), and, if all goes as planned, it's going to be very cool. I think my research group as a whole will benefit from my sabbatical, even if I'm the only one who will be jumping up and down chanting "No faculty meetings for a year, no faculty meetings for a year" with glee.
If a professor supervises a lab at their home institution, presumably they don't just leave untrained students to run around in it, tossing hazardous chemicals around and exposing themselves to radiation and carcinogens. Professors with labs like this typically have a supervising research scientist, highly trained technician, and/or colleagues who share the lab. Departments have safety officers, everyone in the lab should be trained in the relevant (and many irrelevant) safety issues, and there should be no problem if the supervising faculty member is not in residence for all or part of an academic year.
There are so many ways to stay connected these days, and so many interesting ways to involve students and postdocs in sabbatical-related research experiences, that a sabbatical can easily be an exciting opportunity, not as a selfish thing that faculty do if they don't care about their advisees.
In any case, sabbaticals are a normal part of academic life, and chances are that students and postdocs will be affected by the sabbatical or research leave of one or more faculty. It is therefore useful to discuss ways in which sabbaticals can be organized so that advisees are not inconvenienced or in any way harmed by an adviser's sabbatical.
Questions of the day:
If you have gone on sabbatical, how did you organize things to minimize disruptions for your research group?
If you are or have been a student or postdoc whose adviser/mentor went on sabbatical, how did you deal with the situation? Was it OK or a problem?
6 years ago