Study Leave Roundup

Back in the office

When I started this Study Leave Blog back in February 2015, I had an idea what the end-point would look like, but wasn’t sure how I’d get there. From day one, I focused on strategies for dealing effectively with a period of leave from teaching and admin responsibilities, and to help me with that, I devised a Study Leave Planner which I referred to regularly. By the end of Study Leave, I managed to complete everything I’d hoped for, plus a little bit more. This suggests that I was both realistic and optimistic about what I could get done. It wasn’t without its ups and downs, however, so I thought I’d share a few of the key points – both positive and negative – in a Study Leave Roundup.

Why do you call it ‘Study Leave’?

This was one of the first questions I got asked, by a colleague at another university. It’s a fair point. Study leave, or #studyleave if you use Twitter, has other resonances, namely school and college students going off to revise for GCSE and A-level exams. It makes academic study leave sound perhaps a bit simplistic. Other universities, including the one I used to work at, call it sabbatical. This term, too, has other connotations (if you’re on ‘sabbatical’ people think that means you’re taking time out doing nothing). Research leave is perhaps the most self-explanatory, but many outside of academia don’t understand what that means. So I decided to stick with study leave because it’s what my university officially calls it (and all the related paperwork surrounding the period of paid leave calls it that), and I really enjoyed using the #studyleave hashtag to find out what others were doing, whether of school age or academics like me.

How long do you get?

Officially, my study leave covered one semester – so the exact dates of the teaching term + the exam session attached to that semester. In reality, there are some issues with this. Other universities automatically include the long vacation that either precedes of follows, but mine doesn’t (recognising that summer is often ‘research time’ for most academics anyway, although there remains a moot point about exactly when you stop or pick up admin duties). In all, got about 4.5 months, or about 18-19 weeks, but there is some flexibility in the system. My first official week of leave was taken up still with marking and related exam admin from the previous semester, so I didn’t really get going properly until what should officially have been the second week of leave. This bleed-through of admin duties is an unavoidable feature of an academic’s career, but it needs to be handled sensitively and carefully, being respectful to other colleagues who take up the load when you’re on leave.

What did you get done?

My main achievements were:

  1. A detailed book proposal fleshed out and sent to publisher (who responded positively requesting to see 2 chapters)
  2. 3 book chapters written = 32,000 words / 90,000 planned total. 2 chapters sent on to the publisher as requested
  3. 2 articles written and submitted to peer-reviewed journals (both c.8,000 words)
  4. Proofs for 1 article and 1 book chapter arrived in my inbox during leave, both corrected (with article now in print, and book chapter due to come out this summer)
  5. Awarded £590,000 research grant from the AHRC to conduct The Baudelaire Song Project. Project starts 1 July 2015 and runs to 1 September 2019 examining ‘all the song settings ever’ of this major nineteenth-century French poet. Proposal had been submitted in October, but reviewers’ reports came through in week 2 of leave, so a full week was dedicated to turning around the PI response (which obviously paid off!)
  6. Delivered a paper at major subject-association conference SDN in Glasgow
  7. Abstract submitted for 2 conferences later in the year, both accepted (for Baudelaire post-1900 panel at ICMSN conference Glasgow, and NCFS Princeton on Contamination)

In essence, I completed everything on my Study Leave Planner:

  1. Core Research: this was the section that expanded as I went along (to include new conference papers and remaining book chapters).
  2. Research-Related: all ticked off by end of June
  3. Teaching/Admin-Related: all ticked off by end of March.

I had set myself a mental writing target of 34,000 words by end of July. I completed 32,000 words by end of June, leaving me space to focus on revisions of the 2 articles I had submitted right at the start of study leave in February during June/July.

What did you fail to do?

I had thought I would need to do a number of tasks to make progress with my research and writing, but the needs for these changed as leave progressed:

  1. I didn’t go to Paris for an extended research trip as expected. The reasons for this were both practical/logistical and personal, but in fact the research needs changed (I can go to the BnF in the summer months instead, which better suits the chapters I’ll be writing then)
  2. I didn’t launch a project website for the Baudelaire Song Project. Instead, I focused on developing the project Twitter feed and launching an infographic. The website will come in July/August 2015 instead
  3. I didn’t complete the revisions for the 2 articles I had submitted in February. I wanted to prioritise completing the book chapters; the revisions can be done during July

Were there any issues that got in the way of researching?

There were quite a few things that cropped up that I didn’t know quite how to factor in:

  1. Working on 2 major building projects – one at my own home, one at my parents’ house 3 hours’ drive away.
  2. My mother fracturing her hip/pelvis in a cycling accident in February just as my father was about to head to Australia on a 2-week business trip.
  3. Student references needing urgent turnaround (for MA or job applications)
  4. Grant proposal right of response (7 day turnaround, inclusive of a weekend!)

The way I dealt with these was to refer to my Study Leave Planner, and tweak the dates for each task, assigning ‘process’-type tasks to weeks when I was on the move and/or on a building site, and saving up the ‘thinking’ tasks to weeks when I had a clear diary.

Other duties are not relinquished during study leave, and these also needed to be balanced with the core research work, including:

  1. Editor role for Dix-Neuf, handling article submissions, peer review, and copy editing, as well as revising submission procedures and guidelines
  2. External examining for BA French programmes at another university (Limerick)
  3. PhD supervision (including supporting one student in the run-up to submission)

What helped you to keep up momentum?

The most productive thing I did was to change my working environment at different points of my research. My main ‘base’ was my home office, but I worked in a number of other spaces. These included:

  1. A number of 3-day research trips to Cambridge and London
  2. Borrowing a friend’s flat to write in (during the weeks when the builders were doing heavy drilling and banging at home)
  3. A couple of local cafes
  4. The university libraries

I never did any work in my office, although I did pop in from time to time to sort bits and pieces of admin and/or collect some paperwork or books I needed.

Top tips

  • Use a Study Leave Planner. Mine looks something like this (heavily redacted!):
    Study Leave Planner_redacted
  • Balance process tasks with thinking tasks
  • Change your working space from time to time
  • Keep focused on what the main outcomes are, to avoid getting bogged down in the smaller stepping-stone tasks
  • Write a blog about your leave – it builds interaction with others

And finally

Being back in the office is wonderful. Catching up with colleagues, and getting back into the swing of ‘normal’ academic life is not a downer like I thought it might be. I loved my time on leave, but I’m relishing the chance to get on with other things now leave has ended.

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