The sabbatical isn’t what it used to be


Before I was a professor, I had heard of sabbaticals. That’s when a professor spends a year away from the university and visits a distant land to gain new skills, build new projects, and make new connections.

Then I became a professor and learned that (most) universities don’t pay for a full year of sabbatical, they only pay for one semester. They’ll let you take a year, but at half of the pay. So finding a half-year of salary from grants is needed for a full sabbatical.

Then I became eligible for a couple sabbaticals, and experienced how the travel-to-far-lands part isn’t necessarily what happens either.

I had a sabbatical eight years ago. I was going to move to Perth for a year with my wife and preschooler, and spend some time with amazing Australian ants and Australian people. (My wife was positioned to take a leave-of-absence or quit at the time. A complex situation, as most things are.) But instead, I ended up using the sabbatical to finish a job search and move to a new city.

I’m looking forward to another sabbatical next academic year. But I’m not going to be spending a year in a distant land. I’m taking a stay-batical, and will take periodic trips to amazing places for up to few weeks at a time. I’m definitely keeping away from my own university, as the sabbatical is intended. I’ll figure out which local academic institution wants to give me a temporary academic home.

So, sabbaticals aren’t what they used to be. This isn’t a bad thing.

I have two excellent reasons for my stay-batical choice: 1. My wife and 2. My kid.

My spouse started a new position this year, and there is no way that this could involve going away to some distant place for several continuous months. While in some ways, my kid would benefit from extended international living, for a bunch of reasons this probably wouldn’t be a good idea next year. (He’s not inexperienced with immersive international experiences, so I don’t think we’re massively depriving him.)

The stay-batical is common, and academia is evolving (though far, far too slowly) to accommodate the fact that faculty have lives and families outside their academic positions.

The popular image of a professor on sabbatical – the elbow-patched, pipe-smoking chap who trots off to a grand European center of learning – is contingent on having a portable family. Or no family, or a family temporarily that is abandoned.

A bunch of my friends have taken extensive international sabbaticals – some are on them now! They all meet one of a few conditions. They’re single, married to other academics, or are married to people who can quit their jobs or work remotely or just not work.

So my sabbatical is going to mostly be a stay-batical. This happens for many academics partnered to people with non-portable careers.

Historically, it was common for men to depart for months and years with very little consideration of their wives and families. It was also common for men to leave all parenting obligations with their wives. Going off on a sabbatical without family could happen. (A move towards gender equity in families has also caused big changes in biological field stations.)

After Darwin returned from his trip on the Beagle, he raised a family and stayed very close with his kids. If it’s good enough for Chuck, it’s good enough for me. I do, however, have the benefit of planes that can fly around the world in a day, which will be very convenient.

I have little interesting in going away for a year without my family. I’d miss my family, and a whole year of my kid’s life, and also it would be very unfair to transfer all parental obligations like that. I have little interest in asking my family to go somewhere on sabbatical. It would be putting my career above my wife’s career in a way that is unacceptable to us. Staying home for my sabbatical is a no-brainer.

I will be spending my sabbatical* picking up new skills, working on a new ambitious project, and working on a backlog of manuscripts. And working in cool exotic places with great people. And best of all, I’ll be spending most of it with my family.




*(That is, if my university awards my sabbatical. My application is currently in review.)

5 thoughts on “The sabbatical isn’t what it used to be

  1. Dan Hoyt

    Director, Social & Behavioral Science Research Consortium & Professor of Socology

  2. Interestingly, I am currently on sabbatical and it is one of those “stay-baticals” as I chose to write a book relating to needs that I have seen in my classes over the years and in fact did the same 7 years ago. One difference for me is that even though we are supposed to dissociate from the University during this time, in some cases it is difficult to do that 100%. For example, in addition to being a professor of biology I am also the pre-health advisor. Regarding the former I do not teach classes or have advising hours during my sabbatical; however, as a pre-health advisor, it is almost impossible to dissociate 100% from the students that you have been working with to help get into professional school, especially at a time that is critical for their progression, e.g. writing a LOR! For me that is not a problem, i.e. maintaining a connection, as that is who I am AND because it does not impede my progress to accomplishing what I proposed to do on my sabbatical, i.e. write my book. After all, as professors, we are about educating and assisting our students for their future careers, 100% of the time.

  3. Terry – Agreed completely – my most recent sabbatical (which was also my first) was a stay-batical for exactly the same reasons you enunciate. I did find an interesting way to go away without leaving home, though. I found an office in our Department of English, and saw colleagues there as much or more than I saw my Biology colleagues. This made sense to me because I was working on my (forthcoming) book about scientific writing, and so I thought I’d hang out with people who thought about writing a lot, but in different ways. A few hints of this flavour might even have made it into the book – although only a few. I even gave the weekly English department seminar – which was terrifying, as I related here:

    Like you, I’m up again next year, and like yours, it will be a stay-batical again. My wife’s career is just as important as mine.

  4. Thank-you Terry for writing about this topic. I wrote a similar post a few months ago about why I would be doing a stay-batical.
    I struggled a lot with the decision because I felt guilty about not going away and “wasting” the opportunity, but also felt guilt over asking my partner and family to make such huge sacrifices for my career. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t I guess!
    It’s helpful to hear that others feel the same way that I do.

  5. Terry – a nice post.

    I recently struggled with my (now approved) first sabbatical application for the same reasons. With two small kids and a spouse with a demanding and non-portable job, packing up and leaving for 6 months just didn’t seem right.

    In the end, I decided to plan a few short trips to re-energize my work with a past collaborator. Otherwise, I will be spending much more of my time in my home office. I like Steve’s idea of moving within the institution. Whatever the approach, the main thing is to get jarred out of old ruts I think.

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