Several years ago, during an internship in the NIH Director’s office, while fulfilling a requirement for my Master’s of Health Administration, I learned an interesting fact. In an internal review of when and why researchers falter in their request for NIH R01 grants, it was determined that revised applications become increasingly necessary after the 3rd 3-5 year cycle, and rejections peak after the 4th and 5th cycle. At that point in their careers, researchers are often no longer at the cutting edge in their field and, despite the benefits of experience and accomplishments, are less competitive for NIH grants.
For these applicants, there is a need to retool: to learn new techniques, gain new skills, and get fresh insights and ideas. One of the most efficient and enjoyable ways to do this is to take a sabbatical year. The origin of the term sabbatical is a “year during which land remained fallow, observed every year by the ancient Jews” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Ed. p. 1082). In modern academic parlance, it means a leave of absence with financial support given to tenured faculty member for the
purposes research in a new venue, academic study and writing, and related
travel. However, from there the working definition diverges, depending on the university and department you’re with.
Having a more competitive faculty member with his or her battery recharged would seem to be in the best interests of both the institution and scientist, but institutions don’t always encourage sabbaticals, or support them well. I spent the first half of my career at Harvard; I’ve spent the last half (so far) at the University of Wisconsin. At Harvard, sabbaticals were encouraged, facilitated, and well supported. At Wisconsin, sabbaticals are less common and, in the medical school at least, require outside funding and considerably more advance planning, personal effort, and perseverance. A university’s policy toward sabbaticals depends on precedent and culture, as well as finances and manpower issues. If you have a sabbatical in mind, the time to explore an institution’s policies on sabbaticals is during your recruitment.
In my experience, a successful sabbatical requires at least 3 years of planning. First, you must figure out what you expect from the experience, your personal goals for the sabbatical. Then you have to match them up with the available opportunities, finding the best people and environment to help you achieve your goals. The best way of investigating this is professional interactions at meetings, conferences, and collaborations, and preliminary, exploratory visits. You may need to visit several labs before you find the right situation, or it may be obvious early on which situation is best. You may select a laboratory half a world away, but you could also end up in another laboratory on your own campus.
Traditionally, home institutions will support a semester away at full pay or an entire academic year at half pay. Departmental and institutional support varies widely; you may need to find supplemental support, especially for a year-long sabbatical, through the host institution or a funding agency. Happily, targeted support for sabbaticals from government agencies and foundations is generally not difficult to obtain, and is often generous. Almost all are posted on the Internet and easy to find and apply for.
Well in advance of granting leave, all institutions require that the faculty member make provisions for the supervision of his or her laboratory and the fulfillment of teaching and administrative responsibilities. You may need to twist your colleague’s arms or do some horse trading. It is also important to know what the host lab expects. Often you’re expected to teach as well as learn, which can come as a shock if you haven’t worked this out ahead of time.
My own experience has been that housing is not a problem if the sabbatical term is spent at a major institution. At any one time, a portion of an institution’s faculty is on sabbatical, and many institutions own faculty housing, so there are good housing options available at reasonable cost; housing can be arranged through the institution’s housing office. Sometimes, though, housing arrangements aren’t made until the last minute; it can be disconcerting not knowing where you will live.
Your home institution is likely to require written assurance that you’ll return after the sabbatical and remain for a year or two — which could be inconvenient if your very successful sabbatical leads another institution to offer you your dream job soon after your return.
Is sabbatical worth all the trouble? My answer is an emphatic YES. Ask the scientist who just returned from a sabbatical — which is a very good place to start your planning.