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Career Advice

Planning an overseas leave

Pack your bags!


Taking a sabbatical to do some research overseas is an enriching experience and a significant career marker. However, many things can go wrong when one ventures far from home, and planning is important to avoid obvious pitfalls and to recover from unexpected ones.

Planning your leave around your family and home responsibilities is of course a crucial part of the process, but this short article focuses only on the academic considerations.

Three years out

Three years out is not too early to start planning. Timing a year-long overseas leave so that it occurs just after the awarding of tenure or promotion, or following an exhausting administrative position such as department chair, is ideal for many people. If there are any deficiencies in your scho-larly output or in the skill set that your leave will require, three (or more) years out is the time to address these lacunae.

This is the time to think about career rhythms and the best year to be away. When will academic and personal obligations be complete? When will board appointments or elected positions end? How will you manage graduate student responsibilities during your absence? How will a leave fit into your grant appli-cation cycle? Consider what you want to achieve on your leave and where these academic ambitions can be met. Write your anticipated leave plans into research funding applications. Develop your overseas relationships and plan to attend conferences close to potential leave locations.

Two years out

By this stage you should have narrowed down your prospective destination to one or two choi-ces. You should have decided on some specific goals for your leave and be considering the application itself. Visit your preferred destination if possible, to assess the research facilities and meet your anticipated colleagues. Meet with the dean or department head at your host institution to arrange for a letter of invitation that clearly outlines your mutual obligations and whether any compensation will be paid. Discuss what you will need to achieve your research objectives and en-sure that the host institution is able to provide them.

One year out

While deadlines vary, a leave application is normally due about one year before the leave starts. At minimum, you will need an updated CV, a letter of invitation and a research proposal. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Write a proposal with three or more objectives so that if one plan does not work out, you can turn to the others. Some elements of the leave application may be predicated on particular people, access to funding or use of specific research facilities. But people move, grants may not be renewed and laboratories can close. Such risks are more difficult to anticipate at a distance. Build flexibility and alternative activities into your leave application.

Six months out

You will require final approval for your leave at least six months prior to departure (notification in December is typical for leaves starting July 1.) Make sure that your passport does not expire until at least six months after your planned return, and apply for your visa. You may require documentary proof of home university employment, income, health insurance, a certified translation of your academic credentials or a criminal-record check. You will need a letter from your provost; it is often easiest to write the letter for their signature. Decide who will handle your academic mail and make sure that any royalty checks stay in Canada for deposit.

Travel planning for a leave is different from planning a three-week stay. You will likely buy a one-way ticket because round-trip tickets are seldom available more than one year in advance. Determine whether paying for excess baggage or courier service is the cheapest and most reliable way to transfer research materials to your overseas destination. If you’re buying a new computer, leave time to ensure that the bugs are worked out and it has all the software and data files that you will need. Register as a Canadian abroad with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Be sure to contact the aca-demic relations specialist at the Canadian Embassy or High Commission in your host country; the officials may offer you some interesting opportunities while you are abroad.

After a year away, you will be happy to head home, delighted to renew collegial acquaintances, excited to restore contact with your home institution, and looking forward to September classes with enthusiasm. It’s like starting a new job!

Ian MacLachlan is a professor at the University of Lethbridge who has enjoyed three one-year leaves – in Mexico City, Edinburgh and Perth, Australia.

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