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How to Plan a Life-Changing Sabbatical

sabbatical BELatina

Those who know me in real life, know that I was fortunate enough to go to graduate school in an esoteric, quickly-disappearing field of study, and that unlike many other PhD candidates I met during that time, I never intended to go into academia. I wish I could say I had an alternate master plan all along, but the truth is that I didn’t. I was living in the moment, grateful to have a chance to dive deeply into literary criticism and interpretation, to learn more about philosophy, and to spend some of my adult life still learning and picking up more languages. I didn’t know what awaited me on the other side of that process, but I was mostly content to find out.

Being a graduate student is an exercise is test-driving the workload of a professor with a tiny taste of the perks. My colleagues and I worked hard to run discussion sections, prepare guest lectures, and take care of the exam and term paper grading. Professors bore a different brunt of the load, serving in various administrative positions, bearing the pressure to publish, and enduring the new culture of student evaluations, which in turn influenced their enrollment numbers and the college’s satisfaction with their job performance. 

As graduate students, our perks were free advice from our mentors, free pizza when we worked late, and access to databases with grant and fellowship opportunities that would allow us to develop a taste for independent scholarship and sabbatical periods for writing. Professors’ perks were, mainly, their right to full-scale, paid sabbaticals.

As I worked to make sense of my prospects, the tides of entering the academic job market swelled around me. Others in my field struggled to snag the few remaining career openings, hoping for the retirement of long-tenured professors and willing to move anywhere, even far from spouse and family, to accept any job, even short-term contract positions. The climate around securing one of these positions seemed to deteriorate by the minute and the tension sent pretty much all of us scrambling. 

Swept up in the turmoil, I panicked. If other candidates were having such a terrible time securing jobs in academia, what on earth was I thinking? How could I pretend my degree qualified me for anything but the scant spots in schools around the country that seemed to slip through our fingers like sand. I did the only thing I could think to do, which was to reach out to my professor, examiner, mentor, and friend Svetlana, and ask her advice. 

She was, as always, wise and practical, if a little irritated with me for revisiting a topic we had repeatedly and categorically disagreed about and that I had declared open and shut when she had brought it up to me a few months before. “You already know what I think, Esther. I still think you need to try for a job in a department like ours or in Spanish. I’m not sure why you are so stubborn…or scared. You have to try when you have ideas to share. This is a dream job, if you can get it — think of the sabbaticals.”

Embarrassed by my own wishy-washiness, I tried to follow through. For two years, I sent out my curriculum vitae (as resumes are called in academia), wrote cover letters, sample syllabi, sample lectures, gathered writing samples, sent out articles for publication. In between these disparate activities that were all supposed to get me to the same place, I dreamed of my first year-long sabbatical. Svetlana’s carrot, the only one she knew would help me overcome my gut-rejection of the hiring process and the pressure to publish, was powerful enough to get me back on track even in the moments I felt most lost.

Such is the power of a sabbatical, an opportunity to take a step back from life to see that life more clearly. The Greeks, inspired by the Hebrew word shabbat, meaning “rest,” came up with their term — sabbaton. This is the origin of the word “sabbatical,” which is typically associated with a break from an academic endeavor, either teaching or studying, to conduct research, travel, or writing, commonly for a one-year period. Sabbaton also retains its religious overtones, the root for many cultures’ term for “Saturday” or the day of rest from work. History’s first sabbatical-taker, was God, who after working on the world for six days, rested on Saturday. 

More recently, a sabbatical has come to mean an extended break from one’s job, either unpaid or, in an ideal world, subsidized by an employer who stands to benefit from the experience. This latter set up is decidedly rare and sometimes job security is a sufficient request, since the concept of a sabbatical usually implies returning to our previous, regular life, even if we are ready to make changes to it when we do. 

How to Make Your Plan

If you are currently employed and feel the need for a sabbatical rising up within you, creating “the pitch” is the first step toward getting that break. If you are between jobs, imagine your pitch to be how you would account for that time on your resume to a future employer. Not only is this a pragmatic way to begin, but the exercise of explaining to someone else why you feel compelled to take a sabbatical is good way to clarify your own motivation for yourself, decide on logistics, and refine your plan. According to a 2010 NIH (National Institutes for Health) study, taking a sabbatical leave notably improved the stress levels and burnout rates in the sample group. There is no field I can think of in which this would not be a useful refreshment for the laborer.

There are a series of questions you will need to answer in order to come up with the’ pitch you need to convince your boss — and yourself in the process. The order in which you answer depends on what most inspires you to begin. While some of us are moved by the desire to travel somewhere specific (we will answer “where to?”), others are driven by a particular project (“what to do?”). The important thing is to realize that it’s your sabbatical and you make the rules. Don’t be bound to a particular length of time or even the need to go somewhere. Perfectly great sabbaticals can happen right at home. 

The Key Questions to Ask Yourself

Here are the key questions you should be prepared to answer: What would you like to accomplish during your sabbatical? Will you need to be somewhere in particular to achieve this, such as archives, libraries, or specific locations? How long do you estimate this task will take you? Will you require additional funding and if so, do you have a plan on how to obtain it? Especially if you intend to request funding or job retention after a sabbatical, the answers to these questions should paint a picture of how your job performance will be optimized through this process. 

Clarity of intention is key, that’s why I recommend doing some soul-searching before starting your main soul-searching. The reason is that you will have to bolster your resolve because as amazing, stimulating, and fun as taking a sabbatical can be, it is difficult to pull off. Rather than become disheartened by the obstacles you are likely to encounter, staying passionate about your break is the best way to keep going. Resolve on one side and flexibility on the other — be mindful that you’ll have the best results if you can keep them in balance, because if something comes up in the course of your leave time that makes it impossible to achieve your original goal, adapting to the new circumstances will be the only way to salvage the rest of your time.

You may have to start planning way in advance, a year or more, especially if your sabbatical includes travel. You’ll have to cover the cost of your current lifestyle in addition to affording your sabbatical. As in any project that requires strict organization, lists are your friends here. Make a list of the things that will continue coming due in your absence (rent, mortgage, car payment, insurance, and utilities) and the ones that will transfer with you, like food, daily transportation, educational fees, and other expenses. 

Take the first list and see how you can lighten the load. Is subletting your home an option? Would someone be interested in covering your car payments while you are away? Are there utilities you can disconnect or place on hold in your absence? Message boards, university channels, Craigslist, social media, and even bulletin boards at your local coop or yoga studio are good places to solicit these solutions. For home swap and other low cost options, try sabbaticalhomes.com and similar services.

How to Nail the Research

Your second list is a research list, which you’ll use to estimate your daily expenses for the length of your sabbatical. You’ll have to add to that the macro charges, too, things like air travel, lodging and any educational or access costs that might be associated with your plan. With so much information available online, these days it is easier to determine whether you will incur a fee to access the archive, if you’ll have to pay for a visa to enter a particular country, which days the museum you long to visit is open. Be sure to take advantage of good deals, such as last minute travel options, like kayak.com, joining coops at your destination, and keeping unnecessary expenses at bay. 

Though the benefits of a sabbatical are thought to outweigh the financial burden, taking a break most often negatively affects our income stream. There is no avoiding it, but there are also ways to find additional help to defray costs. Grants and fellowships through organizations like Fullbright, Whiting and the Guggenheim Foundation, which support independent scholarship and professional projects. 

Depending on your field, there may be additional organizations ready to help you achieve your sabbatical dreams. Health professionals and scientists are typically offered opportunities through nih.gov and nsf.gov; individuals with careers in the humanities might search www.neh.gov and if you’re in the arts, nea.gov. Grants and fellowships are also distributed on the basis of your location (like the Florida Humanities Council), our gender, and our race or ethnicity.

Of course, if your idea is not just good but genius, the MacArthur Foundation might just come looking for you, rather than the other way around. With a $500,000 “genius” grant from them, you won’t have to apply anywhere else. 

If all these options have been exhausted, a GoFundMe page is the go-to, self-subsidizing platform today. Before you start feeling uncomfortable about putting your hand out for contributions, know that I have seen yoga teachers obtain sufficient patronage to fund continuing education trips to India; Chinese medicine practitioners attend workshops thanks to sponsorship from their patients; friends coming together to give one another the opportunity to gain a respite from the daily crunch. If your sabbatical will clearly benefit your friends and loved ones, they may be far more ready to help than you imagine. 

Finally, you may come to the conclusion that none of your options will allow you to physically distance yourself from work. If you have a family or there are too many moving pieces in your life, it might not be plausible to plan a travel sabbatical. In that case, simply getting an agreed upon amount of time off from work to take your sabbatical at home might be in order. Experts agree that such as break can be just as beneficial as a change of scenery, provided you don’t carry your office work into your home. To utilize a sabbatical, try to work on a project that your regular career leaves you no time to tackle. The psychological benefit will be equal to a transcontinental shift. 

As you may have guessed, I never did get a job in academia. I didn’t even get too many interviews. By now, those folders full of letters and writing samples are gathering dust in a filing drawer at the bottom of my desk, behind fresher ones filled with family documents and the type of writing I practice now. To my heartbreak, Svetlana is gone, unjustly taken by rapid illness, still in her prime and much needed by those she left behind. (I know you know I think about you every day and that you, an expert in the knight’s move and phantasmagoria, flicker behind these words). But her advice remains applicable to almost everything I haven’t been too stubborn or scared to attempt: you have to try when you have ideas to share and always, always think of, dream of, reach for the sabbaticals. They are the carrots to life’s sticks.

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