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The Secret to a Successful Sabbatical

Last week we reported that one of our Catalyst Centre tenants, Dr. Tom Gernon, was in the spotlight as a result of research that he undertook during a six month sabbatical from the University of Southampton. He chose to spend his time in the Science Park’s Incubation Centre, developing a hypothesis that undersea volcanoes played a critical role during global glaciations, and in stimulating the origin of animal life. This proved to be groundbreaking research of considerable academic value.

It got us thinking about the value of sabbaticals and how you can make them work for you. For some, largely in the commercial environment, taking a sabbatical is about simply taking a break to fulfil a personal ambition, an ‘adult gap year’ if you like.  For those in the academic world, it’s quite different – sabbaticals are an opportunity to work even harder: perhaps conduct intensive research, prepare a grant application or write a book! For most academics, it is usually a once in a lifetime opportunity and one not to be taken lightly.

Despite the challenges that an absent valuable member of staff creates for an organisation, sabbaticals have been a growing trend in the UK. 20% of companies had a career break policy and a further 10% were considering introducing one according to the CBI survey in 2005. Why? Perhaps because both organisation and employee recognise that getting out from behind the desk or classroom can advance an individual’s career development and encourage staff retention in the longer term. It’s a potential win-win if it’s done well.

Tom said of his experience: “My sabbatical demonstrated how important it was to focus on one scientific problem without any distractions. I achieved so much more – it would have been extremely difficult to work on this paper amid other day-to-day commitments. Going into an environment that is linked to academia, but also with vital connections to the outside entrepreneurial world, created a very thought-provoking environment to work in. The benefits of being in a shared workspace with others interested in research and innovation cannot be understated. Having been immersed in this environment for 6 months I was even inspired to take my idea of starting a business and make it a reality in the Catalyst Centre”.

Our top five tips for a successful sabbatical:

  1. Get the timing right. To ensure that you get the most out of your planned leave – particularly if you are taking refuge to focus on a research challenge – you must be able to leave work behind. That means getting on top of the day job first so that you’re not feeling pressured by what’s going on without you. It also means ensuring that your research is at a stage when your time can be used to best effect. For example, are you ready to start developing a prototype or is it ready to be written up for peer review? If, like Tom, you’re working with others around the world, you need to plan carefully to coincide with your colleagues’ personal plans.
  2. Location, location, location. Many university staff taking sabbaticals find refuge in other universities, but this can be counter-productive as it won’t necessarily stimulate new idea generation. Working in a co-work space like the Incubation Centre here on the Park allows you to broaden your horizons, meet people you would never otherwise have met and keep abreast of commercially-minded developments in your field. It could move your thinking to the next level.
  3. Make it easy on your employer. Think ahead in terms of how your job role (ie teaching commitments) will be covered by others. How will your students be supported without placing undue pressure on your colleagues, or undue expense on your employer? If you think this through and present a solution rather than a problem, it’s more likely to be taken seriously.
  4. Make new friends. Networking is important in any walk of life and the broader your network, the more opportunities you will create for your future. If you’re taking an academic sabbatical, you’ll be motivated by the science and theory of your work initially. However, academics can turn this to their future advantage and be successful in business if they find the right partners to work with. A sabbatical is a wonderful way to broaden your sphere of influence.
  5. Dot the Is and cross the Ts. Make sure that the terms of your leave are unequivocal. Consider your financial position carefully if an element of the sabbatical is to be unpaid and what, if any, impacts there are to be on contractual benefits. It’s also important to understand whether your current role will be kept open for you when you return and if not, how this will be managed. You may wish to visit the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development website for further advice.
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