Ask the grumpies: How to plan a sabbatical/faculty development leave?

Nikki asks:

How do you sabbatical? Whole year (half pay) or half year (full pay)? What planning needs to happen? How do you choose a project? How do you choose someone to work with? Go it alone? Go somewhere or stay or a mix?

Lisa adds:

+1 on this – I’m dying to sabbatical but haven’t been able to work it out yet. How do you convince the family that they can also sabbatical?

So far I’ve done two of these, both whole year at half pay.  If you can swing it financially, whole year/half pay is pretty awesome both for getting lots of research done and for being unreachable for doing service (it takes them almost a year after you get back to remember to start burdening you again).

Most of the sabbatical planning guides I’m seeing online are all about the work part.  I think they’re all from an era in which the wife took care of all of the details.

Here’s some just logistic stuff.  What planning needs to happen… wow, there’s a lot.  Note I’m assuming a domestic sabbatical– if you’re doing an international sabbatical, there’s more steps.

  1. Save up financially so you can do the full year at half pay.
  2. Figure out where you’re going to go (if you’re going to go) and talk to the people you need to talk to or submit applications where they need to be submitted.  The earlier you do this the better– deadlines are surprisingly early, and your professional network may need some time (sometimes even a full year!) to get things in place for you to visit.
  3. Figure out what your university’s rules are.  Do you need to apply (competitive leave is also often on a schedule that doesn’t fit well with 2 above– just blindly do what you’re going to do anyway, assuming that you get the leave approved)?  When do you need to tell people?  Are there classes of yours that will need to be covered?  Will they have to hire a VAP?
  4. Figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your family– what do they need to do to come with you if they’re going to come/
  5. Find a real estate agent who will take care of your house if you own a house.  You’ll probably find a renter yourself via sabbaticalhomes.com or some other academic listing, but you don’t want to have to deal with the property management etc. long distance.  Unless that’s your thing or your significant other’s thing.  IMHO, it’s worth the 10% fee to have someone else deal with repairs.  Decide if you’re going to try to rent your place furnished or unfurnished.  If unfurnished, figure out where you’re going to store your stuff.
  6. Figure out where you’re going to live.  If you have kids, figure out what the school situation is going to be.  Again, if you can find something on sabbaticalhomes.com that’s likely going to be a good bet because they understand the need to live someplace for only a year and they’re more likely to have furnished places that don’t cost commercial business prices.
  7. Figure out how you’re going to deal with your graduate students while you’re gone if you have any.
  8. Figure out how taxes are going to work– currently under the TCAJA I believe you are not allowed to deduct work expenses (BUT check this! don’t take my word for it!), but I expect that some point in the future the tax break for unreimbursed work expenses will come back.  If it does you will want to see if there’s a time limit — for example, it used to be that if you were gone less than 365 days you could deduct your rent(!)  If that’s the case, you want to be sure you leave a couple days early.

How do you choose a project?  You don’t actually need to choose one, but you may have to write one up for the Powers that Be in order to convince them to let you go.  In that case, pick the project in your pipeline that would most benefit from getting off campus (do you need a dataset?  archives?), from collaborating with people off campus, or that sounds most impressive (are you in a book field?  do you have a grant to finish or grant proposal to write?).

How do you choose someone to work with?  Again, you don’t have to do this… work (or not) with whoever you would be working with anyway.  Now, you might be asking, how do I choose where to GO based on the people there.  You may or may not end up working with the people in question.  You want to go someplace where the people there do things you’re interested in and you can benefit from the research environment.

Like I said, if you can do it, going somewhere is the best, though some of my (male) colleagues will go multiple places (the wife takes care of all those pesky logistics for them), and it works out well.  I imagine a childless person could benefit from that too.  Going multiple places if you have to figure out a spouse and daycare/schooling etc. is kind of a non-starter.  You’ll spend all your time planning and either lose out on the work or the leisure.

How to convince the family to sabbatical?  Well, the kids and pets don’t get a choice.  They’re going because they can’t stay home alone.  It’s really just the significant other… and that’s got to work with the significant other’s work.  My DH has been really supportive– he took a year of unpaid leave and worked for a start-up for our first leave, and then was telecommuting for his second leave.  The only big change for him was dealing with taxes, which were crazy.  He’s really enjoyed spending the year someplace totally new and getting to know various paradises.  On his first leave, he did a project to find the best croissants in the greater metropolitan area that we were staying.  And there were a lot of bakeries to try.  (The secret:  cultured butter.)  He also really got to know a lot of local coffee shops.

We will have another one or two posts on sabbatical/leave coming up as there were more questions!

Grumpy Nation, do you have experiences to share with Nikki and Lisa?

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