In Arts & Humanities faculties it is common practice for Universities to offer academics a period of study leave (also known as research leave, or sabbatical) in order to allow them dedicated time – free of lecturing/teaching and administrative responsibilities – to focus on a significant piece of research. This week, I started a period of Study Leave which gives me a full semester out of teaching and admin to crack on with my next major research project.
Dealing with Study Leave
When I tell people I am going on study leave, I am met with a variety of responses. From immediate colleagues, it is often a sense of ‘lucky you’, with a hint of envy that I have that thing academics call “time” to research and write my next book. From friends not in academia, it is often a questioning look, a little cynical implying perhaps ‘you slacker’, mixed with another mild dose of envy that I am completely free to decide when and where I work. From students, it is often a sense of disappointment that I am not sticking around (they feel like they’re being ‘passed on’, no matter how carefully I try to manage the handover). For me, it is primarily a sense of relief and release: I can finally get on with what I am really passionate about, my research into Baudelaire song settings. But this exhilaration is tempered by mixed emotions: I won’t get the daily contact with colleagues and students, I will miss teaching, I won’t be involved in final degree examination boards where important decisions are made about students who I’ve worked with for 3-4 years. A colleague who has just returned from study leave is excited to be back, looking forward to meeting her students again. Seeing this reaction has bolstered me, particularly because she is also happy with where she had got to with her research. This strikes me as a rare thing (my past experience of study leave had me feeling frustrated that I hadn’t managed to wrap up everything I wanted to / needed to for my last book before I was back in the throes of teaching again). My aim this time is to get to the end of my study leave as positive and upbeat as possible, and having achieved as much as I hope to research-wise.
Last autumn, at a Departmental Research Away Day, we held a very frank and open discussion about what is achievable during a period of study leave. I thought it would be worth rehearsing what we discussed here:
- Set targets, but allow for these to shift
- Don’t do every conference that comes up
- Acknowledge that number of ‘outputs’ will vary: 2-4 articles / chapters is typical
- Strike a balance between starting new research / finishing existing research (dealing with any ‘backlog’ from term-time)
- Use the time to build on contacts and collaborations (especially ‘impact’ activities)
- Balance time spent away (e.g. Paris archival research) with time at home (writing)
- Acknowledge influence of REF cycle on planned research (UK HE sector)
It’s a helpful checklist (and one that I hope other colleagues will find useful). For me, just beginning my study leave this week, my first task is to “set targets”. I have a pretty good idea about what I want to achieve (after all, I did have to outline my plans in my study leave proposal when I submitted it to Faculty for approval), but I haven’t yet set out a full roadmap.
Study Leave Planner
What I have done today (now that I have finally polished off the last few bits of exam marking, and finalised the handover of tutees, year abroad supervisees, and the rest to other colleagues) is to draft my ‘Study Leave Planner’. It has three main sections:
- Core Research
Under each section, I have 3 columns: (a) What?; (b) Details; (c) By When?
I have quickly filled up each of the sections, but will use this as a reminder of my priorities each day, adding to it, and revising it as I tailor what I need to do:
- Section 1 still needs more drill-down into the detail to make sure I set achievable targets, e.g. specifying exactly which chapters of my new book I aim to finish drafting by when, the precise dates of archive/research trips to Cambridge, the British Library, and Paris, etc.
- Section 2 needs attention asap, but my aim with these tasks (e.g. booking conference travel, setting up research mentoring session) is to make them the kind of tasks I can quickly tick off (to help with a sense of achievement!).
- Section 3 is the one I need to keep an eye on: these are tasks that need to happen (I am still responsible for supervising research students, and I cannot completely ignore some of my other admin duties), but which must not dominate my time – here it is a question of making sure I have the balance of my priorities right.
By using planning tools and checklists, sharing experiences on here and via social media, I aim to make the most of my study leave. Wish me luck!