Reflections on a stay-bbatical
So my first year long sabbatical ended yesterday, and I thought I'd tell you a bit about what did and didn't work. Firstly, the notion of a sabbatical or a "ceasing" of one's normal day-to-day work in order to achieve some other goal has roots that go back many millennia. In the modern sense, a sabbatical leave is an extended period of leave whereby a person, typically a member of the academy, will take a break from their regular working (teaching) schedule in order to achieve a different goal, such as to learn a new skill set or write a book. Since the 19th century, the concept of a faculty member's sabbatical leave has been one of a complete stepping away from the University - perhaps to travel to far-flung lands (with partner and kids in tow) to gain a new perspective on their area of scholarly work.
This is where I found myself when I set out to request a sabbatical leave two years ago - stuck between a dated perception of this scholarly benefit, and the reality of my actual life. I was a mom of a then 2-year old boy, with a partner who has a full time career of his own, outside of the academic world. How on earth would I uproot my family, pay for a mortgage and an apartment, as well as daycare (possibly in two places!?) We'd be working with only one income, and a reduced one at that. People would sometimes say to me "You need to go away! We took the kids and we homeschooled. It was great!".....but?...."who homeschooled the kids?" I would ask. "My wife" was always the answer ....right.....not helpful. So quickly into my sabbatical leave, I realized I needed a new approach. I needed to redefine what sabbatical leave means in the modern age for not only myself, but also for all those around me constantly asking "Where are you going?" I needed to have a better answer than "Nowhere".
Certainly I had many research goals and was looking forward to the mental break of a sabbatical leave. I asked myself "How on earth can I make this work?" and after some rooting around the internet, I came across the concept of a staybbatical. A staybbatical is a sabbatical leave that is taken in place, without extensive globetrotting. I couldn't find much in terms of resources for what makes a successful staybbatical, but I set out to try my best. Here are my thoughts on what made my staybbatical successful, at least for me.
1. The 4 Rooms Philosophy
Shortly before starting my staybbatical, my senior colleague shared with me a philosophy which I have to say has stuck with me. It goes like this. Your life is made up of 4 rooms: Work, Sleep, Family and Self. While you might spend most of your day in only one or two of these rooms, it is important that each day you take time to go into all four rooms, even if it is just to open the window. I realize now this concept of 4 rooms has much deeper and traditional roots, and that the 4 rooms represent your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings, but I think this is a great metaphor for balance (or at least the attempt to achieve balance!) in ones life.
So the first lesson of a staybbatical - try to spend a bit more time in the rooms of your life that have started to gather dust. Your whole self will be better because of it.
2. Find a Staybbatical Buddy
When I started my staybbatical, my good friend and colleague (and also a mom to a little!) was also staring her own staybbatical. We decided to have weekly video chats, which we called Science Fridays. These chats were awesome, not only for catching up and talking science, but also for just feeling connected to the wider scholarly world. Over time as our staybbaticals became busier we had fewer Science Friday chats, but in the early days it was great to have a buddy who was also navigating this twist on a traditional venture.
So the second lesson - if you can, find a buddy!
3. Go to Conferences!
One thing I really appreciated during my staybbatical was the opportunity to go to conferences which are normally hard to attend since they take place smack dab in the middle of the academic year. I was able to give invited talks at both SciX (September) and Pittcon (March) without having to deal with scheduling substitute lecturers, re-scheduling labs, etc. And it was so good to get away, engage with my fellow scholars and have great discussions, all the while knowing everything at home was fine and my little guy (and big guy!) weren't missing me too much...
Third lesson - Attend conferences that normally take place during the academic year.
4. Explore Ways to Learn New Skills Without Leaving Town
As my staybbatical was starting, I had the opportunity to work with a local industrial partner for the first time in my career. Through two research grants (both applied for and received during my staybbatical) I was able to be a part of really cutting edge research in the field of immunoassay development. This research, still ongoing, is fast paced and exciting, and I have learned so much in the process. This research direction re-invigorated my research program and provided both my students and myself with new skills, and guess what? No globetrotting involved. I still got to have dinner every night with my family, in my own home. :-) I also filled an entire lab notebook for the first time in nearly a decade (see picture!)
Fourth lesson - Seek out opportunities to learn new skills in your local area. Reach out to industrial partners who might be interested in collaborating.
5. Make Writing A Priority
As a scholar, one of our central goals is to share our scholarly work with the wider world. One way in which to do this is by publishing written work, be it an article, a book, etc. So during a staybbatical, make writing a priority. Get into a daily habit of putting words "on paper" and try to avoid distractions. Set aside time each day to simply write. During my staybbatical one of my biggest goals was to get papers out. I managed to get three published, two submitted and another drafted. I'm pretty happy with that.
Fifth lesson - Write every day. Write often. Make it a daily habit so that when your staybbatical is over, maybe, just maybe, the habit lingers.
6. Make Time for Your Students
I have the great pleasure of working with a wonderful team of students, from undergraduate researchers all the way up to PhD students. One of the benefits of a staybbatical is that you can spend more time with your own students, as opposed to less. Take advantage of this! Ask them often how things are going. Work alongside them on your own research tasks. Take an interest in their daily lives. Say thank you.
Sixth lesson - Take advantage of your staybbatical to re-engage in your own research program! Go into the lab, and have fun with your students.
7. Update your Online Presence
For me, one of my professional goals for a LONG time was to have a research website that was not only nice looking and informative, but which I could update myself, in real time. I took advantage of the extra time afforded by my staybbatical to finally make this happen, and the result is this website. I have to say it was so much easier than I thought it would be, and there are lots of great tools out there now. I built this entire site in only 3 hours with absolutely no training. If I can do it, so can you! Also, professional photos make a world of difference. If you can't do this, at the very least open up and maintain a Twitter account. Why? Stay tuned for a future blog post on the merits of Twitter!
Seventh lesson - Your online presence matters. It is your first impression and is more powerful that you might realize. Invest time into making it as awesome as you feel you are!
8. Protect your Physical and Mental Health
Remember lesson 1? Make sure you open those windows everyday. Take a walk. Go to the gym. Meet up with a friend for coffee. Snuggle your kiddos. Schedule time to meet with a professional if you have concerns about either your physical or mental (or both!) health, or even if you don't have concerns. Set up a pattern that will take you well into the new academic year. Now is the time to make changes.
Eighth lesson -You cannot pour from an empty cup. Make your physical and mental health a priority now, especially during your first sabbatical. You probably haven't stopped to take a breath since you started on the tenure track.
9. Avoid Distraction
Sitting at your computer for such long periods of time can be a recipe for disaster. Idle chit chat with people in your department, over time, can erode your precious sabbatical time. So avoid distraction and rescue your time! Set limits on non-productive tasks. Install an app on your computer to get a sense of how much time you are wasting with idle things. I installed RescueTime on my personal computer, and was shocked one week to learn that I had only complete 5 hours of useful work in week!! In an entire WEEK! I felt like I was literally on my computer all week long! How was that possible? I was spending tons of time checking email, surfing the net, and away from my computer just chatting with people.
Ninth lesson - If you want to productive, keep track of your time. Keep idleness at bay, and put limits on non-productive tasks.
10. Whatever you do, take a breath and relax.
Whatever you have planned for your staybbatical, remember that it is something you have earned. You've slogged it out for years, and now is your chance to get back some part of yourself that got shuffled into the corner. Enjoy it. Spend time in what makes you happy. For me, it really was my research lab (and more time with my little boy). After awhile, when people started asking me where I was going for sabbatical, I'd just smile and say "I'm going into my lab". (Thanks for the tip V.M!) Also, if you have a colleague going on sabbatical, consider asking them "What are your plans?" instead. Let's normalize this, and move away from the traditional notion of a sabbatical being only for far-flung travel. Really it can be, and is, whatever you and your family need it to be.
Tenth lesson - Breathe. Relax. Enjoy.