Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Sabbatical Report

cycling_sabbatical_by_katandkitty-d5eakjxI have two WomenOfScience Friends who just went away got sabbatical with entire family in tow. I have been asking them to write a blog entry about the do’s and don’t’s of going on sabbatical, but it turns out, when you go on sabbatical, life gets really hectic when you get back. Note to self: Life After Sabbatical is rough – try to take it easy.

Anyway, despite the huge amount of work and catch-up, I got one to write a little “report” on reflections on her sabbatical. If you like this blog, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.  Enjoy!

My husband and I are both faculty members at the same university. This past year we took an amazing sabbatical for the entire academic year. We called it “Our BIG Year.” We were fortunate enough to both be awarded fellowships that helped to support our sabbatical research. We spent the first half year in Tokyo, Japan. I worked at the University of Tokyo and my husband worked at Keio University. Our two young sons attended day care and kindergarten in traditional Japanese schools where no English was spoken. The second half of our sabbatical was in Paris, France. I worked in a laboratory at the Pasteur Institute and my husband had an appointment at Paris 12th University. Again our two sons attended day care and at that point 1st grade in a typical French school.

For me there were two major concerns going into the sabbatical. The first was maintaining the base I had worked hard to establish in my research group during my first seven years as a faculty member. My second concern was about how my kids would adapt to multiple school situations on two different continents both taught in languages with which they had very little to no experience. I would say that my concerns were appropriate; those were the two major areas that most impacted my sabbatical experience.

When I applied for fellowships and sabbatical, I imagined that I would have a senior postdoc/research assistant professor to act as a stabilizing force in my laboratory while I was away. Due to some unforeseen funding changes, and problems with the visa of the postdoc/research assistant professor, I was not able to have that stabilizing force present in my lab I was gone. I decided to go on sabbatical anyway. Overall, it was a truly amazing experience, and I’m glad that I did it. In case you are considering a “Big Year” here is my list of considerations the next time I consider a sabbatical:

  1. One year was a very long time to be away from my research group without a senior staff member. I think 6 or 9 months would have been okay but one year was too long. I am afraid that some of my graduate students may have suffered a little bit during my absence. One graduate student decided to leave the lab about 5 months into my sabbatical. I think he would have stayed in the lab if I had not been abroad. This was the most significant casualty of my year-long sabbatical.
  2. The kids were extremely resilient. It was very difficult for them for the first month in both Japanese school and French school. Our 1-year-old had never had any problems at daycare drop-off in the US, but for the 1st month in Japan started crying the moment we left the house saying I don’t want to go to daycare. The transition for him seemed to be much harder than for six-year-old son. But after 4 to 6 weeks both of the kids were happily playing with the Japanese or French classmates, so I think the painful transition was worth it. Our dinner table conversations are now conducted in the melange of three languages. My six-year-old son loves to speak French and Japanese and recently told me “I’m thinking about taking up a new language, maybe Chinese.” He certainly takes pride in being multilingual.
  3. For both halves of my sabbatical, I established entirely new interactions with my host labs. I did not have an established collaboration before I approached either of them about being a sabbatical visitor in their lab.   Given the constraints I had with the responsibilities of mentoring my graduate students and the very real need to land and renew grants to support my research program, I could not devote all of my time to working in my sabbatical lab. I think the sabbatical would have been quite a bit more productive if I had gone to a lab with whom we were already involved in an ongoing collaboration. While my sabbatical was productive, I can imagine that a sabbatical could be even more productive under different circumstances.
  4. In both Japan and France I did (some) lab work. Of course it was highly inefficient, because I was in a new laboratory. I thought every day “If I’m going to be spending time in lab it’s really a pity that I’m not spending this time in my own lab in the US with my own graduate students.” On the other hand, I know that if I had stayed in the US for my sabbatical, I would have spent that extra time doing university related work, not lab work – because I’m not good at saying “No.”
  5. Due to financial considerations, we rented our house out. I tried to be mentally prepared for the fact there could be damage done to our house. Still, I was surprised upon our return. In the future I would definitely hire a management agency to deal with the renters, the assessment of damages, and the return of deposit.
  6. I had heard that Parisians dislike Americans and were extremely rude to Americans. I found the opposite to be true for us. We lived in the 15th arrondissement near the Montparnasse station and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. One of my personal side goals of a sabbatical in Paris was to resurrect the French I had studied in high school and college. I spoke to everyone I could in French. I really loved this. Perhaps partly because I was outgoingly speaking in French, people were very welcoming to us. In France parents pick up their children from school by standing outside of the school doors. Every day during this time I would strike up a conversation with another French parent. I will admit that no French parents ever struck up a conversation with me, unless we already had met. Nevertheless I found that all of them were very happy to speak with me. We soon felt welcomed into the community. One mother invited my son to join her son for lunch at their house once a week. This was a highlight for my son. Early on he was also invited to a birthday party where we met many other parents and classmates. Thus we became part of a social group that met for dinner, picnics in the park and play dates. For us having children in the Paris school system definitely helped us to become part of the community.
  7. The time difference between Tokyo and the East Coast of the US was 12 or 13 hours depending on daylight savings time. This was brutal. Because all of the members in my group were graduate students, I felt it necessary to speak to each of them on an individual basis once every other week by Skype. I also conducted our weekly group meetings and our weekly multi group meetings by Skype for the year that I was gone. During the time I spent in Tokyo, I had nearly daily meetings both at 6 AM and 10 and 11 PM Tokyo time. Therefore, although I expected my sabbatical to be very restful and rejuvenating, it was extremely exhausting. Next time I plan a sabbatical I will definitely take the time zone into consideration.

Culturally and personally Our BIG Year was an unparalleled experience for our family. There were so many elements that I loved (the language, the trips around Japan and France, the learning lots of new things, the exciting seminars, the connections on different continents). I am extremely grateful that we had this opportunity and this experience. Perhaps because it was complicated and exhausting and is too fresh in my mind, I am not sure if I would take another sabbatical abroad. Maybe a few years of being back at my home university will change my mind. It is likely that three years from now I’ll be planning another BIG year in some far flung location, but for now, it is great to be home where I can talk to my students casually on a daily basis and my kids can play in their own back yard.

 

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