Exam Time

An academic sabbatical: ten reasons why it works

Fashion designers, world leaders, chief executives and academics have long recognised the importance of sabbaticals of varying duration (normally weeks to a year) to provide clarity of thought. However, before their first sabbatical, I doubt any of them could truly gauge the profound impact it would have on them. As I prepared for my sabbatical, (currently in New Zealand on month 4 of 6) sure, I expected to get more done without the daily demands of teaching and administration. What I did not expect was that the sabbatical would draw out creativity and ideas like I had never had before and that a sabbatical could be the foundation for a lifetime of meaningful work.
I have kept a file on my laptop called ‘Generic Educational Pieces’ since around 2010. In this folder are book quotes, blog posts, videos and newspaper articles that usually identify the values I believe are central to a life well-lived. Sometimes in more broad conversations with students, I reach into this file to share some gathered wisdom. My time on sabbatical has reminded me, almost incessantly at times, about the importance of these values. I guess a sabbatical provides the time to solidify a philosophy and write it down. These are 10 things I think it is important for an academic to develop; although they can be applied to many people in many professions with some thought:
1) Meaning: In the words of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, it is worth thinking about your ‘work’ and also ‘your life’s work’. Work reflects a set of demands made of you from an external source. Your ‘life’s work’ refers to a set of tasks you’ve determined based on the meaning they hold for you. Understanding the difference is the first step to developing strategies to maximise time spent on meaningful work. For an academic, it may be the realisation that they can in fact give up doing the science they realised they had little interest in some time ago. Often, academics and people in general continue down the path of least resistance, unsure of what else to do, which raises the issue of mentorship (See Point 7).
2) Autonomy: Linked to the last point, once you have identified meaning, a sabbatical provides complete autonomy for you to start to put the building blocks in place for your ‘life’s work’. Autonomy is a corner-stone of life satisfaction. Workers who are overly constrained in the decisions they are allowed to make tend to be less satisfied than those with greater freedom.
3) Mastery: Away from the pressure cooker of your familiar life, with meaning established and autonomy plentiful, you can take your time. After all, no-one really wants their life’s work to be rushed. The focus becomes about quality not quantity.
4) Satisfaction: Research suggests and I can attest, points 1, 2 and 3 increase satisfaction. People are happier when they spend more time engaged in self-determined activities they want to pursue and less time fulfilling demands from external sources.
5) Deliberate Rest & Creativity: Much has been made of the 10,000 hours of practice required to become ‘elite’ in a chosen field. Psychologists with an interest in skill acquisition will tell you that it is not just practice but ‘deliberate practice’; in other words, the quality of your practice (see point 3). Often overlooked is what the ‘elite’ do when they are not practicing. A more accurate representation of the process would include the hours of rest and sleep required. Some of the most profound scientists of our time worked early and for no more than 4-6 hours per day before taking long walks to set the creative part of their brain free. On sabbatical, I have experienced this intense creativity which initially is overwhelming and can give you trouble sleeping. A routine to harness it and master it before it masters you is key. Allow some time to switch off before bed.
6) Self-control: Self-control is needed more than ever in academia and the wider world. A system that rewards quantity over quality can make it more difficult to do good science, journalism or anything worthwhile. A high stress environment means we are more likely to spend time engaging the primitive part of our brain too much and the rational part, not enough. This doesn’t just have consequences for our ability to delay gratification in pursuit of good science, it also has consequences for how we treat one another. Reactions to the actions of a colleague can be overly emotional and reviews of others work overly critical when we are in a competitive environment that holds little meaning (see point 1) except competition for competition’s sake. Too much meaningless work, a perceived loss of autonomy (due to trying to keep up) and less opportunity for mastery fuels a toxic culture. Understanding the behaviours of others and the brain’s role in driving them can help you exert greater control over your own behaviour.Aspiring leaders must master self-control.
7) Graduates and junior staff: Spending time with these people is perhaps one of the only ways of removing fuel from the fires of academia. A sabbatical allows you time to eat lunch with and hear the concerns of early career researchers. They’re at a crossroads where they sense their meaning might be beginning to drift in a sea of competition and the chasm of the power differential between them and their superiors. You can throw them a life raft – ‘no, you don’t have to destroy that paper because the last reviewer destroyed yours’. They’re nice people, often have had interesting lives before academia and they’re grateful for your time in encouraging them to consider point 1 and point 6 from their perspective and that of others.
8) A critical eye: Not so much for research papers, academics have that already. A sabbatical allows you to obtain a clear view of the University environment and the higher education system you are part of. Of course, to borrow an overused cliché; it’s good to see how they do things somewhere else. However, you might be surprised to find the same daily dose of academia. I tend to learn most from one or two individuals within a University (those who have already considered points 1 – 7) rather than a University itself. The problems with your current work environment will reflect a glare so bright it will almost blind you (watch out and see point 6).
9) A Philosophy: The points I have summarised above come not from the pursuit of my chosen subject specialism but from having the time or more importantly ‘head-space’ to read books from some of the greatest minds outside of my field. These books help you develop a philosophy that becomes the glue between points 1 – 6, the thing you share in point 7 and how you solve some of the problems you see in point 8. Reading outside of your field reaffirms the need for collaborative work. The magnitude of the question developed in point 1 should make you realise you can’t possibly answer it alone.
10) A Reflective Capacity: The doctorate of philosophy teaches us to reflect on why things are the way they are in a very narrow field. Often missed is the need for reflection in relation to the bigger picture. The ability to reflect on our behaviour, values, science, university environment and that of others, will play a significant role in our success or otherwise. Points 1 – 9 require significant reflection. To some, reflection is innate, others must work very hard for the same enlightenment. The point is that we all need it.
If you guys are interested in any of the sources cited in Peter’s article, here’s a list of references:
1. Kalanithi P, Verghese A. When breath becomes air. Random House; 2016.
2. Soojung-Kim Pang A. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Basic Books; 2016.
3. Martinez R. Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for Our Future. Canongate Books; 2016.
4. Sternberg R. Career Advice From an Oldish Not-Quite Geezer. The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Career-Advice-From-an-Oldish/2303352015.
5. Kahneman D. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan; 2011.
6. Ericsson KA. The road to excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, sports, and games. Psychology Press; 2014.
7. Kiely J. Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven? Int. J. Sports Physiol. Perform. 2012;7(3):242-250.
8. Mischel W. The marshmallow test: understanding self-control and how to master it. Random House; 2014.
9. Alm D. An Elite State of Mind: Learning Humility from the Fastest Runners in the World. Running Times. http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/an-elite-state-of-mind: Runner’s World; 2013.
10. Lovell J. George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates. The 6th Floor Eavesdropping on the Times Magazine. https://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/?_r=0: The New York Times; 2013.
11. Micolich A. 12 Guidelines for Surviving Science. Fear and Loathing in Academia: A savage journey to the heart of the academic dream. https://pacificsoutheast.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/12-guidelines-for-surviving-science/2015.