You’re overworked. Swamped. Exhausted. You have five years of data filed that you’re just itching to get at. And finally, after years of struggle, you’re looking forward to the opportunity to catch up on everything that you’ve had to put aside while starting your academic career. You have a research leave, or sabbatical, coming up, and you’ve earned it. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.
So do you use that time to catch a breather and analyze those data? Or do you give yourself even more work by taking the opportunity to travel and collaborate with colleagues at some distance to your home university? I remember the temptation to settle back and just focus on writing and research. But just before my first sabbatical, a colleague close to retirement told me that the most important thing I could do was to take the opportunity to expose myself to new ideas. So I took his advice, and traveled to work out of another research facility for part of my sabbatical.
That turned out to be one of the most rewarding periods of my career. It was enormously rejuvenating to collaborate with new people. I came back to my university with new ideas and new perspectives on my research. I regained my enthusiasm for my subject. Most importantly, I came back a better teacher, researcher, and scientist, and thus my students and colleagues back at home also benefited from “the new me.” Now I’m hooked … I take every opportunity to visit other labs, and I really can’t put into words how much these visits have helped me. There are some things you just can’t do over Skype.
So is a traveling sabbatical right for you? I think the answer for most people is yes. I didn’t realize how jaded and run-down I had been before I traveled to another university during my sabbatical. And it was the travel that was important, not the break … I had spent several months at home before traveling but it was the trip that was inspiring. I suspect that I was not the first young academic to have forgotten some of the joy of learning. I regained that by working with new people in a new environment. I suspect that most young academics would benefit in the ways that I did.
I was reminded of the transformation that I underwent during an academic trip I recently returned from. I maintained and built on many of the research collaborations that I initiated during my sabbatical, and the last few weeks I took advantage of these partnerships to help me prepare a proposal that will take my research in a slightly new direction. Again, I came back rejuvenated and more knowledgeable about my research area. So I urge all the young academics out there to take advantage of research leaves and go somewhere new. I expect the benefits will far outweigh your expectations.