Saturday, February 11, 2017

On Sabbatical


Sabbaticals might seem a strange thing to students, administrators, politicians, the general public, and – well – everyone who doesn’t take them. A common perception is that professors who take a sabbatical are “taking a year off” – and certainly that sometimes happens. As a result of perceptions such as this, some countries don’t allow paid sabbaticals, some states within countries don’t allow paid sabbaticals, and some particular universities don’t allow paid sabbaticals. In many other cases, only partial support is provided or the time between sabbaticals increases beyond the normal every-7th-year. In this post, I make the case for fully paid sabbaticals every 7th year as the greatest benefit to everyone.

About the above: I started my Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics book on my first sabbatical and finished it on my second sabbatical! Only sabbaticals made it possible. For more see https://storify.com/EcoEvoEvoEco/peoplewhofellasleepreadingmybook

Teaching (and service) improves

Most people who do not attend university – and even many people at universities – think that what professors are for is teaching (and various committee-style “services”). Certainly, most professors do a lot of teaching, which is how most students know them. So, if the role of professors is to teach, and they don’t teach on sabbatical, then they aren’t doing their job on sabbatical – so they shouldn’t be paid. This logic is precisely why legislators in some countries and states forbid paid sabbaticals. Professors have other important jobs besides teaching and service – and those other jobs (research!) benefit dramatically from sabbaticals. However, I first want to make the point that even teaching benefits from sabbaticals. The main reason is that: “The biggest thing for the professors is they get the chance to refresh themselves and to escape. They come back … invigorated.”

Teaching the same course year after year after year (or even different courses year after year after year) can whittle away at enthusiasm and the motivation to make major improvements. A year away can completely re-invigorate a professor’s motivation to teach, teach often, and teach well. (Part of this motivation comes from the guilt a professor feels when his/her colleagues have to teach those courses for a year.) From my own experience, I definitely feel this benefit is critical. Just this fall – right after my sabbatical – I taught three courses: my graduate class in Advanced Evolutionary Ecology, an undergrad class in Evolution, and our Introductory Biology class. I also took over coordination of the last of these and gave guest lectures in a number of other classes. Teaching was exciting again – fun again – motivating again. I wanted to do new things, exciting things, more things. This sort of excitement and motivation really improves with a year away from teaching.

Importantly, classes rarely suffer from sabbaticals in the sense that most of the classes are taught anyway – just by other professors. Hence, the long-term benefit to teaching does not come with any major short-term costs. Sabbaticals are good for teaching!



Research improves

The primary thing that many professors do is research. In fact, research at many universities is what professors are supposed to spend most of their time doing. This is critical. Universities are not just about the transfer of information and ideas from experts (professors) to trainees (students), they are just as much about the generation of new ideas and new knowledge. Moreover, this generation of knowledge benefits the transfer of knowledge because students respond much more strongly to professors who are speaking from their own experience – and often injecting examples from their own work. And then undergraduate (and graduate) students can become involved in the research and thereby have real “hands-on” training. In my lectures, I specifically emphasize research conducted by McGill undergraduates who were sitting in the same seats as the current crop of students in the class. Research benefits teaching!

Sabbaticals have a HUGE effect on research because they afford the time and motivation to learn new methods, write new grants, publish that backlog of papers, do intensive field or lab work, etc. Some professors travel to places where they can get training in new technologies. Some professors travel to places where they can be close to their field work, or their collaborators, or important infrastructure. Some professors remain local and focus on publishing papers. On sabbatical, professors have the time to think about science, do science, write science, learn science. Sabbaticals are critically important for research success, particularly “taking it to the next level.”

Apparently not everyone (or every study) finds that average research productivity goes up after sabbaticals. This doesn’t mesh with my experience. Some years ago, Keith Crandall was telling me a story about how he was fighting to convince the administration of a university of the value of sabbaticals. Among other things, he showed a graph of his publication rate in relation to the timing of his sabbaticals. When preparing this post, I asked Keith about graph and he was able to recreate it from Web Of Science – showing big jumps in publication productivity with each sabbatical. 

Keith: thanks for the idea and the graph!

I did the same calculations for myself and found the same thing – big jumps in productivity with each sabbatical. Beyond benefits accruing to the professor and the people influenced by his/her research, universities are often ranked based largely on professor research productivity – and these rankings can have major consequences for funding, recruitment, and continued success of a university.



As an aside, you will see another message in the graph – starting a faculty position is often coincident with a big drop in productivity. For all you new profs out there worried about your slow start, take heart, it is only temporary. It takes time to build up a lab and a research program – and this is the case for EVERYONE.

Sabbaticals rule

In summary, sabbaticals are good for everyone involved. Ok, fine, a politician might say, but “we don’t need to pay the full salary – go out and get some yourself.” To those people, I would say: “Sabbaticals when you travel are extremely expensive, particularly if you have a family.” If you don’t provide full pay to professors, they are much less likely to go to new places, which is of great benefit to many. (Of course, a great sabbatical can also be had while staying in the same location.) My own university provides full support for sabbatical every 7th year (or 6 months support after every 3 years) – THANKS MCGILL – KEEP IT UP. However, even then, I lose money. The only way I can make it work is because I can stay almost for free with family in California and, most recently, the wonderful Miller Institute for Basic Research helped fund my sabbatical at UC Berkeley.


So, please everyone, from someone who has now had two sabbaticals, keep full support for sabbaticals every 7th year. Everyone wins – except those countries, states, and universities who don’t have them. 



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To be honest, some graduate students might not benefit so much from their professor going away on sabbatical. Physical proximity between a professor and his/her students is more conducive than is skype to progress on their thesis. Of course, skype, joint field work, and visits can help minimize the cost to these students. Personally, I need to be better in this area on my next sabbatical.

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