Monday, December 13, 2010

Sabbatical Scenarios

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?


Anonymous said...

I was a student of two advisors on sabbatical (at different times). One advisor was completely negligent (all the time) and didn't even tell me he was going on sabbatical. But then, since I didn't like talking to him much anyway (he once told me, when I was babysitting for a friend while he was teaching lab, "You shouldn't show things like that around the department", meaning the baby). The other professor tried to be in touch, but he was rather out of touch the whole time he was in Europe. He came home for one week for a final exam and was basically inaccessible otherwise. I was house sitting for him, so he was obligated to read my emails in case they were about the house. I was the only student in the group to get any attention.

Anonymous said...

Just as I was finishing my Ph.d., my advisor offered me to stay on for another year to work on a specific project with her. Once I decided to stay (and had turned down other offers), in fact once I'd already started my year as a new postdoc, I found out by someone else that she was leaving for a sabbatical for a year, a month after the start of my postdoc.

When we discussed this, she said she didn't feel she had to warn me. I did travel for short visits at the institution where she was on sabbatical, but I would not have taken the job if I had known.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed when my advisor went on sabbatical because it forced me to be more independent. I believe this particular even made all the difference, and was the key reason of why my postdoc search was successful. All I need in my research is a computer. I am not sure if this situation applies with students in labs.

Anonymous said...

My advisor was on sabbatical for the first half of the final year of my thesis. I did some fun reading in an area that I wouldn't have explored otherwise, we corresponded regularly by email, and I went out for a 2 week visit during which time we nailed a problem that we'd been stuck on for over a year. So all in all it worked out fine.

Sadly I may never get the chance to find out how it works from the other side since I now have a faculty position in a country that doesn't have sabbaticals.....

Anonymous said...

I've experienced sabbatics of two of my advisors. Both took the "write more grants" approach, but for one, this included many semi regular and longish (couple weeks at least) trips to various far-flung places, counter balanced with a lot of time working at home. (The other took one long trip to give a lot of invited talks). In neither case did I feel "abandoned," but in both cases I practiced a lot of independence.

Yes, there were email conversations to patch things over, and for more immediate concerns, both lab environments were very supportive. But one adviser was so very particular about how things are done, I was hesitant to move ahead without his advise, worrying he would make me go back and repeat things. Research progress didn't halt, but it wasn't exactly full steam ahead, either.

I must say, the adviser who was also interim chair for a semester was MUCH more available (and approachable, and helpful...) when we went on sabbatical than when he worked as the department chair.

Anonymous said...

My advisor went on sabbatical and has not even bothered to send me an email or inform me before going. I changed advisors and thats the best thing that happened to me. It meant starting a new topic in my 4th year but there was no choice.

Anonymous said...

My advisor went on sabbatical my first year of graduate school. I was completely lost and eventually left the program with a masters for greener pastures. I don't know how much of that can be attributed to his absence -- the program was never a good fit for me. It's possible that his absence actually helped me realize that I had made a big mistake that much faster. (It was a tough decision to leave at the time, but in retrospect seems like such a no-brainer).

I am planning on taking my first sabbatical next year. I'm not worried about my current students, but I am worried about my incoming grad students (assuming they actually show up).

Anonymous said...

It seems to me the affect on the students is related to communication- about what is going to happen and actually communicating while gone. If advisors would bother to keep their students informed, we'd be less inclined to be so concerned. My advisor is going on sabbatical and she has not bothered to tell us what she is doing (read: what country will she be in even) and has become terrible at answering emails lately. Not confidence inspiring.

Anonymous said...

My advisor went to the Middle East during last year in graduate school. He left me with the job of grant management as the senior graduate student. He was pretty hands off so it didn't really make much difference progress-wise. he would read my chapters and send back comments. I defended without him and that went fine. I would characterize his role as negligent but his typically hands-off style had me well prepared for this.

Anonymous said...

FSP, thank you for two great posts on sabbaticals. Since you invited further questions on the topic, here they are:
How important is the sabbatical for one's career? First sabbatical? Second? How should one strategically plan these? For the first sabbatical, is it worth it taking the trouble to go to an international location (for building your next promotion) or a good domestic place would be just fine? I understand it makes sense for the institutions to pay you 1/2 of the salary and you take a whole year of sabbatical. But what about the faculty member? Is 1yr or 6 month the right choice for your career? How can you find funding for sabbatical leave? For example, I cannot go on sabbatical without any funding even if I get paid 100% because I can't afford mortgage and rent at the same time. Does that mean that I must do Humblodt or Fullbright, i.e. go abroad? Does doing a sabbatical within driving distance from your institution make any sense career wise (assuming you are doing it because of economical and family contraints?)

Regarding graduate students/postdocs with advisers on sabbatical, I actually never got what's the big deal about this "attention" that lab members demand. I always avoided the boss' "attention" and preffered to be left alone to do my project as I please. But I noticed that the general opinion is disproportionately different than mine. I currently have weekly meetings with each member of the lab. When I go on sabbatical I intend to keep my weekly meetings, but just making them electronical instead of face to face. Otherwise, I'd worry that nobody does anything.

Anonymous said...

I was a postdoc in a top university with a top professor in a hot field. The guy came one day to a lab meeting and announced he was leaving for a sabbatical the following week. He stated that he expected us to continue producing as we were, since he felt he had nothing to do with our productivity anyway. He never answered e-mails and never contacted us in any way. The following year we had to listen to his detailed accounts of the wine tours he had enjoyed during his sabbatical in Europe.

Susan B. Anthony said...

My adviser went on sabbatical at the perfect time: right after my prelim exams, but before I was deeply into my thesis research. As several others have commented, his absence made me more independent. I had to supervise the research lab while he was gone, which at first scared me to death. But it turned out I was good at it, so it became something to be proud of and has led to lots of other good things since then.

Anonymous said...

I had not yet joined my postdoc lab when our advisor went on sabbatical, but by all accounts, there was basically no contact by email or otherwise during the year he spent abroad. (This is not shocking given his general hands-off approach, and there were technicians and senior scientists in the lab, but still.)

I am planning to take a semester off soon myself, and since I am at a SLAC, there is zero hope of research progress in my lab unless I stick around pretty much the whole time to supervise and work with my students (although I will say that this is my favorite part of the job). I'm just counting on the time off teaching to allow me to finish up some experiments and get a paper out.

Anonymous said...

I don't really mind if any of my supervisors went on sabbaticals. I'm pretty independent anyway and apart from getting forms signed and sending regular updates to my supervisors they usually just leave me be, which I absolutely love. It's more frustrating for me to be checked up on a regular basis and told to do what and when. Still, there are no signs that they will be doing that anytime soon.

MathTT said...

My advisor went on sabbatical the first semester of my final year. I completely panicked when I found out he was going on sabbatical (about 8 months before). I don't know if it was because of the panic or what, but I pretty much solved my problem over the summer while he was still around. I spent the fall he was away writing, writing, writing. And applying for jobs. He was pretty responsive to email and only gone for a month to six weeks at a time, so I actually got a couple of meetings with him, too.

I'm now a faculty member on the TT... no sabbaticals yet, but if I get tenure there will be one shortly after. So I have lots of question:

- When you say you're planning for your sabbatical now... how does that work? Do you call around to colleagues to ask about visiting for the semester or year?

- My husband is non-professorially gainfully employed at the same university as me. We spent a year apart during my postdoc years, and it sucked sucked sucked. So should I seriously consider a sabbatical somewhere far away? Or should I just stick around and travel for little bits of time? I don't even have kids (but I do have lots of pets)... but how do people with families do the sabbatical thing? Surely spouses don't simply quit their jobs to travel every six years.

Alex said...

MathTT raises an important point. My wife isn't a university professor. If I want a sabbatical out of town, we can't work to synchronize our sabbaticals and find institutions or locales that are useful for both of us. We'll either spent 6-12 months apart or she'll quit her job. Since she has a kind of lousy job with low pay, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if she quit, moved somewhere with me, and found whatever she can find there for a year (especially if the place has a lower cost of living), and then went job hunting again when we came back. But, yeah, it would still be hard. And if her work situation improves, it will be even harder to just walk away from the job.

So, what do people with non-academic spouses do about sabbaticals?

Anonymous said...

@Alex and MathTT:

When I was growing up, my professor father had two sabbaticals. The first round, he took the whole family along with us. My non-academic mother was employed as a marker at the university, but was still at that point a "stay-at-home mom", so it was doable.

The second time, however, my mother had gone back to work and the my sibling and I were in junior high, so it wasn't so easy to pack the whole family up. That year, my father went overseas for 4 months in the fall, came home for 2 months, and then went back for another 2 months.

That's how we got around that in my family. Yes, it was difficult when my dad was gone the first time; however, by that point email and instant messaging made it possible to keep in touch on a fairly regular basis without needing to break the bank on long-distance phone calls.

Anonymous said...

My Master's supervisor was away for most of my final year, and it was the best thing possible. I would e-mail her analyses and chapter drafts, and she would return them promptly with comments. She came back for ten days right around the deadline to defend to graduate in May (and thus not pay more tuition...) so I HAD to defend, or lose my only opportunity for months. Who knows how much longer I would have mucked around with my data if that hadn't happened?

Ria said...

My postdoc advisor went on a year long sabbatical, but he had advised me that he was going on sabbatical when he hired me (about 9 months prior to the sabbatical) as well as telling me that he expected me to run the lab while he was gone. What he and I both did not expect was that he would have every single grant that he had written in the semester prior to the sabbatical get funded (5 RO1s, and a PPG). I got a crash course in overseeng multiple projects, directly managing/doing experiments on two RO1-level projects, and managing a growing lab (went from 6 people to 25 people in the space of 6 months while he was away). It was great managerial experience, but the unfortunate side effect was that I simply didn't have time to write up manuscripts during that all of my postdoc manuscripts are coming out now that I'm in a faculty position.

We stayed in contact primarily via skype and email (daily emails, weekly skype calls). He came back every 3rd month for a couple of days to do meetings/student exams, etc. The only real problem that I had was in learning how to manage so many varied personality types in such a tense environment...there were a few personality conflicts, but everything was resolved and the research progressed rapidly.

Anonymous said...

I have two advisors. One was on sabbatical my first year, which was mostly okay, as the first year is course-heavy. However, later on I missed having those first-year lab group discussions to help get me focused on dissertation research sooner. I also got a late start to summer field research that first summer; I needed more guidance than I had anticipated. In addition, that advisor teaches an important (for me) course every-other year. Because of the sabbatical, I couldn't take it until my 3rd year -- though this would have been true whether the course teacher was my advisor or not.

My other advisor does field work on another continent and is gone for all or part of a semester and summer every year. I find it *easier* to stay in touch with him when he is away because he leaves his Skype account logged in. I can reach him just about any time, and he is always willing to talk. When he's at the home institution, he works at home, so communication requires setting up a meeting a week in advance, sending reminders, etc. -- a lot more hassle.

I now find myself in a sort of grad student-sabbatical. My husband has a post-doc at another R1 university and we have a baby, so the whole family moved across the country. I mostly just have analysis and writing to do, so I should be able to finish up my PhD away. One advisor has helped me find a lab home at the new university, and interacting with my host lab has been very invigorating. I've been keeping in regular touch with both advisors via email, phone, and Skype. In particular, I've still been able to attend my home lab meetings with a Skype connection.

Anonymous said...

My advisor went on sabbatical three months after I began my phd and was overseas for ~9 months. It was a little challenging, since I was a new student, and would have liked more face time than I was able to get, but it did teach me to become indpendent very quickly. Since my PI is very hands-off in general, this was a useful skill to learn.

One additional consideration is that while my PI was away, we didn't have our typical weakly whole-lab group meetings. Since this is where you generally find out what people are up to in a semi-formal setting, I found it to be detrimental, in that I was somewhat clueless about the goings on of my labmates for a long while (yes, you can obviously talk to people about their projects but I find it is not the same as more formal lab meeting updates)

Anonymous said...

My advisor is on sabbatical this year and I can't say it has been easy. When I started grad school there were 2 students in her lab, but they both graduated before the end of my first year. So I basically got a crash course from the second (the first defended in the fall, before I'd joined the lab), just a few weeks, and then I was on my own.

When my advisor left on sabbatical I'd basically had four months of experience in her lab; keep in mind that my previous research experience was theoretical chemistry so stuff like Rebuilding Equipment were completely alien to me.

Somehow I've managed to survive. I've debugged both the new methodology and the old one so they're ready for field samples. I've trained a first-year grad to run one of the methods so we can each be working on one when we get out in the field next year. I freely admit that I would have been a LOT more efficient if Dr. Hand-Waver had been in her office down the hall instead of 2,000 miles away, but I always managed to figure things out eventually.

How I am surviving: basically, we spend one hour per week on the phone or Skype. And we email a lot. Of course there are weeks when she's so wrapped up in what she's doing that we end up canceling the weekly meeting and just send more emails--but that happened when she was here, too. I would say that overall we communicate about as much as we did before--the only difference is that we no longer say hi as we pass in the hall.

Oh, and she's talking about bringing me out to the East Coast in the spring, once the waterways have thawed, so we can do fieldwork together. Yay!!

Dr. Nano said...

My advisor was the benign neglect kind...he really did like me and wanted me to do well, he really just didn't DO anything active about it. So when he left for a 6-month sabbatical, it basically just meant no horrid lab meetings! :) I continued to run my own research and progress.

Now I'm postdoc-ing and my nonacademic partner is up for an international posting in Europe in 2 years, so I'm conveniently planning to end my postdoctoral stint in time to take my own "sabbatical" with him. We lived apart for 6 months between my end of PhD and postdoc and I don't want to do that again! I've already been in touch with colleagues and contacts, and like FSP said, people are wonderfully open to the idea of having me just show up and do some stuff in their lab and office space for a year or so.

"Personable" Female Faculty Member said...

I actually received this email from one of my first-year students:

"The Walking Dead season finale is on tomorrow, and we are marathoning all the episodes before watching the finale. Would we be able to push back the date for the final, or could I write it in private at a later date? This normally wouldn't be a problem but I haven't gotten much studying done yet and I'm not prepared for the final. Thanks."

Anonymous said...

I didn't hear from my advisor when he went on sabbatical, I was beginning to wonder if he was still alive...the only time I heard from him is if he needed something from me (data, drafts, citations etc)

Ana Maria said...

Please everybody! I just want to know if I should continue with an advisor who did not bother to tell me she would be on Sabbatical next Semester. I am an international Student..I am in trouble right now to pay my tuition and the worst thing She (my advisor)did not regret about it. She is just talking to me like it was normal not saying this!!

Female Science Professor said...

Ana Maria, I don't know the details of your situation, but it's possible that your advisor thought she told you (but didn't) or that she just recently got permission or acquired the funding for the sabbatical (so she didn't know about it earlier). Even if there is a good explanation, the major issue is your funding, and this should be worked out with your advisor whether or not she is on sabbatical. Maybe you have already done this, but is there are graduate advisor in your department, or some other professor you can talk to about your situation?

Ana Maria said...

Thank you so much for your answer. I don't think my advisor didn't know that she was going on Sabbatical because when one of the students who work with me also ask her if she will be next year,etc. She did tell this student and she also helped her to find another job with other professor in the department. This is very weird. when she finally sent me an e-mail she didn't regret as I said before but she told me that she wanted me to help me with my own research,etc....

Well I am still struggling finding a job...Education department does not have too much funding, grants, is a problem. It is sand that I don't feel the same confidence with my advisor anymore. I hope I can take a decision, maybe switching to another career can be a solution but the bad is that I spent one academic year in this career.

Ana Maria said...

I forgot to say, I already talked with her twice about my tuition situation and she told me she just could give me a job if she gets grants each year. Maybe that is the reason why she didn't bother to tell me. So I feel I am not too important for her as the other student who is from her country (she is not American). Maybe I should find a better program where I can find more support, it is kind of frustrating for me.

Anonymous said...

I am in a 2 year masters program, third semester. The program is new, and my advisor is on sabbatical this semester. I believe this is detrimental for a few reasons.

1. He is not very organized as is, and really the only option I have for my research. During the past year, a lot of opportunities were mentioned, but none of them have had any follow through.

2. He accepted new students who I do not feel are up to par for a graduate level education, and really need to have some guidance. Who's to say I wouldnt have acted like I was still an undergrad if no one was around to teach me otherwise?

3. He claimed several times that he would be on campus more often during the sabbatical than during a teaching semester, but often he does not show up, even on days one of us has a meeting scheduled. In addition, he does not email us to let us know the meetings have been cancelled.

4. Since he is not around to see the work we are doing, it is difficult for him to understand why our progress isnt as fast as he believes it should be. The hang ups we are experiencing sound like excuses to him, when we really just need help working through them.

5. With the program being so new, there is not an established system - none of us have anyone else to perceive as a mentor, and the other faculty do not have the same type of research. It is pretty unanimous that we all feel lost, and we graduate next semester.

Overall, my situation is frustrating because it is a new system that is not yet established, and his lack of attention provides us with zero guidance. The newbs are infuriating because they do not have the behavior necessary for grad school, and we are basically asked to babysit them while he is away.

I believe it is a major mistake to leave on sabbatical during this crucial time in the program. It has caused our cohort undue stress and tension is building. We are wondering now if the program will even succeed, and what kind of image its lost students will give it. And if the advisor even cares about either of those two issues.

Thank you for the rant, I am well aware this is an old post.