Requiem for a sabbatical


I haven’t had any service or teaching duties on my campus since May 2016. That ends today. I know, boo-hoo. Now I’m looking back at what sabbatical did for me and what I did for sabbatical.

Did I go anywhere? Not really. I continued to stay (mostly) at home, as my spouse was settling into the 2nd year of a new position, and as my son was completing his last year of middle school. I traveled a bit more. In addition to my normal academic trips to Costa Rica and Australia, I also spent a few weeks in Michigan, and few weeks in New Zealand (that image above is of The Remarkables in NZ). I gave a few seminars. And went to some conferences, and had some quality vacation. When I was at home, I was based out of the Entomology Department of the Natural History Museum of LA County, where they have been gracious enough to host me as a Research Associate (which is closer to my home than campus, geographically if not temporally.)

When folks have been asking me about how my sabbatical went, I have answered in three different ways, all of which are true. Here I’ll share each of my assessments. (This is handy practice because I’ll be owing a report to my dean and provost soon.)

First: “I think I accomplished about 5-10% of what I had hoped to get done.”

Second: “There are three things I set out to do, and I can fairly say that I’ve done them.”

Third: “I had specific plans, but I also went into sabbatical with some kind of vague mission or mid-ish-career crisis, to try to figure out what my next chapter should be. I’ve now been working on all kinds of stuff at my field site in Costa Rica for more than 20 years. It’s been rewarding, and gosh it’s so darn easy to work there, but I realized that if I just continue to run more experiments for 20 more years, I’d be excited and happy but not as fulfilled as I’d like to be. I felt like I need to be doing something more and different, but didn’t know what that was.”

How could I have accomplished what I set out to do, but only gotten 5-10% of it done? I think I just had (typical but) unreasonably high expectations. The three big things were to: 1. land a book contract, 2. publish a backlog of papers, and 3. get proficient with R.

And, yay! I did all three of those things. Sorta. 1. I am now under contract to write The Field Guide to College Science Teaching with the University of Chicago Press. 2. I have some papers accepted, I have some in review, and more that should be ready to go out soon enough. 3. I’m using R for my stats.

But where am I falling short? Well, I’ve had the book contract for months, but the book isn’t done. I’ll make my deadline, but it would have been nice to finish before sabbatical ended. While I’ve been publishing, I still have some very cool papers that I have yet to submit. That’s because I told myself I’d be doing the analysis and figures with R, and doing this in R is still really slow for me. I’m probably not proficient, at least not compared to an experienced R user, but I’m getting there.

As for my vague quest to find a new thing, well, that ended super-duper well. I came in to sabbatical with an open mind, and I was working out of the Natural History Museum because it was a good fit for me to do writing and maybe a little collections-based work. But it’s evolved into much more. The people are great, the science is equally great, and well, museums are just wonderful in general and this one is particularly special. Their brand of public science is compelling, and the capacity of the museum to reach into communities throughout the Los Angeles area is unparalleled. I’m now collaborating with them on public science projects and have gotten a bit of support from my university to continue my work with the museum into this upcoming semester. I’m still doing tropical biology, but I’m thrilled to do science in my own city, in a way that is makes it a lot easier to meaningfully connect to my local community. I don’t know if this is a magical direction that will fulfill me, but for the first time in a few years I’m not compelled to wonder what new direction I should be taking. So I’ll chalk that up as a win.

It was a nice sabbatical. At this moment, the idea of sitting in on a couple campus committees is far less hideous than it felt a year ago, so I guess I’m ready to go back.

3 thoughts on “Requiem for a sabbatical

  1. Hi Terry – What a great sabbatical you had!

  2. That really struck a chord with me. I just returned from a sabbatical with exactly the same feeling! thanks for the post. (My particular problem was overblown expectations)

  3. Sounds like a good year! Thanks for sharing/summarizing. I’m about ~1 year from sabbatical and am gathering pre-/post-sabbatical thoughts from others.

    Looking forward to your book and to hearing more about your local/public science in the coming months and years.

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