Strategies for Optimizing Your Sabbatical for Professional and Personal Growth

By Dr. Bryn Harris, University of Colorado Denver

In 2016, I submitted my tenure dossier as well as my sabbatical application, hopeful that I would obtain both. I had been going, at what it felt like, warp speed while on the tenure track, constantly focused on getting out that next publication, updating syllabi, and the many other tasks that occupied my day but didn’t have a place on my vita. The idea of taking a sabbatical felt incredible—I could work on new projects and reflect on my career in a unique way. At the same time, taking a sabbatical felt overwhelming. How would I structure my time? What projects would I focus on? How could I reinvigorate my connection to academia? I also had two young children (ages 3 and 1) and felt a huge need to be more present in their lives during this time.

For some assistant professors on the tenure track, like myself, the idea of taking a sabbatical might be a motivator to obtaining tenure. However, once an academic meets that milestone, they may struggle with organizing sabbatical in a way that increases productivity and recommitment to a career in academia. After obtaining tenure and approval for sabbatical, I started contacting colleagues to learn about their activities during sabbatical. I was searching for tips, strategies, and generally helpful advice that would increase my research productivity and also allow me some much-needed time to reflect on my career. The first emails I received were telling; I wasn’t the only person wondering how to best structure sabbatical. I received many “I didn’t think much about sabbatical, I wish I would have thought about it differently” and “I didn’t have a good plan and I wasn’t as productive as I could have been” emails. Most of the emails I received were people asking me to share what I learned about structuring a sabbatical. A quick google search reveals few resources available regarding this topic. This felt like a stark contrast to the mentorship opportunities that were available to me while on the tenure-track.

I received a few recommendations from fellow academics regarding structuring sabbatical to optimize productivity. I also read multiple articles and resources pertaining to academic burnout, and how to avoid it. Based on these anecdotal and research-based resources, I am reflecting on the things that increased my productivity during sabbatical and beyond. Here are the recommendations I want to share with other scholars:

1) Reflect. For me, reflecting on my career during this time was the most important aspect of sabbatical. I asked myself questions including (1) What are my favorite aspects of academia? Relatedly, how can I engage in these activities with more regularity?; (2) What skills am I lacking that could enhance my professional endeavors? How can I obtain these skills?; (3) How can I better integrate work-life realms?

2) Recognize that everyone has diverse emotions regarding sabbatical. It is completely normal and understandable to feel such things as confusion, exhaustion, and lack of motivation when beginning your sabbatical. It is important to consider that a critical component of sabbatical should be self-care. Allow yourself to have those feelings, but also reflect on why you are feeling that way and seek solutions for returning from sabbatical in a different mindset. Allow yourself time to rejuvenate that does not include research, teaching, or service endeavors.

3) Obtain mentorship. Sabbatical can be a wonderful time to start (or finally finish!) a new project, collaborate with a new colleague, or receive advice regarding future career planning. Seeking additional or new mentorship can be invigorating for your career and assist with accountability during a traditionally low-structured time.

4) Create a schedule. One of the best pieces of advice that I received was to create a daily schedule, of which each day included time to spend on your sabbatical priorities. For me, this meant at least 1 hour of writing per day, often more, working out at least three times per week, and spending more time with my family in the evenings.

5) Increase your visibility. During my sabbatical, I repeated the same activity I did my first year on the tenure track. That was to reach out to one new person per week in an effort to build research partnerships, create new connections with school districts, or forge relationships with state or local agencies or organizations. This activity contributed to being asked to keynote a presentation and a dual academic appointment on our medical school campus, among others.

6) Remove yourself from activities that take you away from sabbatical goals. Don’t worry, your service responsibilities will be there when you get back from sabbatical. Take this time to disconnect from non-essential work. Plan in advance for this. This may mean saying “no” to sitting on a new committee or serving on a search committee and setting explicit periods of unavailability. Saying “no” may feel uncomfortable as many early career scholars must engage in certain service endeavors while on the tenure track. However, this work may take you away from other priorities, and leave you feeling less productive than you hoped.

7) Do or learn something new. Reflect on the things that are holding you back from accomplishing more in your career. Sabbatical is a wonderful time to increase your knowledge in a particular area or challenge yourself in a new way. For me, this meant taking a biostatistics course (thank you, tuition benefit!) and going back to practice as a school psychologist one day per week. I also completed a certificate program in Research Leadership through the University of Pittsburg Medical School, something that would have been more challenging to complete during traditional semesters.

8) Create a new plan. Many people obtain their first sabbatical soon after obtaining tenure. Often, we have a plan for working towards tenure, and when it is obtained we may think, Now what? Use some of your time to reflect on what the next period of your career may be. Seek mentorship if you are having difficulty creating this plan.

If you had a productive sabbatical, that includes rest and rejuvenation, you will be a more productive scholar. What ideas do you have for structuring your sabbatical? What questions do you have about sabbatical? Join us Friday, October 26th, at 4:00 PM EST / 2:00 MST to chat about this topic. Sign up here for more info.

4 thoughts on “Strategies for Optimizing Your Sabbatical for Professional and Personal Growth”

  1. Thanks for writing this piece, Bryn! I’m going on sabbatical next semester and you gave me some helpful ideas to think about.

    1. Jess – I am so glad this piece was helpful! I would love to hear how your sabbatical goes next semester. Have a productive and energizing sabbatical!

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