Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Sabbatical Lies

national-lampoons-vacationSo, for those of you who know me, you know I am pretty honest. Some might say blunt. One comment on my 360 said that I do not “suffer fools.” I accept this about myself. I think it is a defining characteristic of scientists to seek truth and report it. Part of the drive behind this blog is to expose truths. So, that’s why I have to tell you this truthfully: going away on a sabbatical is hard and kinda sucks. And the worst part was that no one told me! All my friends who went on sabbatical in Japan, France, UK, San Francisco, they left out a lot of the hardships. It reminds me of people who have kids and they try to get others to have kids, too. They don’t tell the truth of the horror stories. It’s like a weird cult that they want others to join and buy-into. So, since I am so blunt, I will tell it to you straight. Going away on sabbatical is hard and parts of it are not fun. Of course, I am going to detail all the ways that sabbatical is tough. Some, you can probably guess, but others might not be so obvious.

Sharing your Office: When you go on sabbatical, you aren’t the big shot. You are a visitor. You will likely get a desk somewhere, but you will have to share an office. It has been 9 years since I shared an office, and I have forgotten the etiquette for office-matery. My first roomie was also a professor like me. We both realized pretty quickly that we were going to be annoying to each other as we held 2-5 Skype meetings every day. I brought headphones to try to be less annoying, but he did not. We also both traveled a lot, so that helped us to be less annoying to each other.

My first roomie left after a few months. He was a visitor, too. My next officemate is a new postdoc in some lab in the department. He is nice and quiet. I am annoying and loud on my Skype meetings. We never discussed how we would do the locks, but we figured it out through trial and error. We have now been joined by a new grad student in the same lab. The postdoc and student are from the same country and speak the same native language. They have a lot to talk about, but they don’t talk when I am there. If they were talking, they stop talking when I come in. I feel bad about this, but I haven’t exactly oppressed them. They just have a training to be respectful because I am a professor.

The worst part about sharing your office, especially if you aren’t used to it, is that you can’t really fart in your office anymore. I know you do it. We all do it. It’s OK because most of the time you are alone. If you have a single officemate, you can’t fart because it will be obvious it was you. Now that I have two officemates, I might be able to get away with it when they are both there. But, then I suppose they could talk to each other in a language I can’t understand to confer that it was me…

Leaving your House: I’ve had a previous sabbatical report from another WomanOfScience who described some sabbatical woes about renting out her house. That sounded bad, but the distress I am feeling is not so much worry about my house (since we are not renting it and had to have work done on it while away), but more a desire for normal size of our house. We are renting a small, two-bedroom apartment with a single bathroom for the 6 months of our sabbatical. No matter how nice, a rental is never going to have all the comforts of home. This place is really small – there isn’t even enough room for all of us to sit on couches or chairs in the living room at the same time! So, we are basically all crowded in this one small room. If I ever thought our house was too large, I definitely don’t think so anymore. It will be nice to get back to our small, but not too small, house in a few months.

The other thing is the completeness of our house. We are renting a furnished apartment with a lot of utensils and items you need, but it is always missing something. Here is an incomplete list of things that we have standard in the house, and I know exactly where they are: batteries, tape, decent scissors, knives that can actually cut, trash bags, a decent sized trash can, Band-Aids, extension cords, bags for groceries, sand toys, picnic basket, a drying rack, plastic cups, sippy cup lid closers, a bottle brush, and cable TV with basic network access. We have made due, but it is clear that “all the junk” in our house is actually stuff that we use – if not all the time – frequently enough to make it worth having and having a place for it.

Getting into the Lab: I have said before that it was hard to get into the lab because of the coordination with the PI, but really, it is also because the PI doesn’t go into the lab! I realized about a month in, that if I wanted to get into the lab, I had to make friends with the grad students and postdocs and shadow them on their work. Until I got a key to the lab, I also had to coordinate with one of them just to get into the lab. Then, there is the actual training of how to do things in the lab. I remember being a new postdoc and going into a new environment and needing to try and fail with a few things before feeling comfortable enough to get work done. This is even worse because I am sort of an intruder in these labs where the grad students and postdocs have their stuff working perfectly. This is also why befriending and working with the students is super-important!

New Schools: You might be worried that your kids would have a hard time adjusting to a new school with new kids and a new system. I think we should give kids more credit than that. Meeting new kids and having new experiences is exciting to them. On the other hand, figuring out a new system is difficult and burdensome for parents. My oldest kid’s new school apparently wants us to be helicopter parents and communicate directly with the teacher all the time and be all over our kid. Simultaneously, my kid’s teacher is disorganized and uneven. The school has a ton of projects and weekly reports on top of regular work that feels less important and more like busy work. My kid is very excited about all this, but HusbandOfScience and myself are less enthusiastic. It isn’t clear that our kid is learning the basics with these projects. Plus, they aren’t fun or easy for us, since we don’t have access to our normal slate of materials, supplies, and reagents (see Leaving your House, above). Unfortunately, our griping is starting to affect our kid, too. Kid is not excited about the busy work anymore (although the kid still likes the projects). My younger kid is the same here as back home – hates school when not there and loves it when there. Younger kid has also been complaining about wanting to go back home. I think most of these gripes are based more on the fact that we are squished in a tiny apartment and getting on each other’s nerves.

Summary: The worst part about having difficulties on sabbatical is that no one wants to hear you complain. When people ask, “How’s sabbatical?” and I say, “It’s ok, kinda hard.” The response I get is equivalent to a sarcastic, “Yeah right, I feel soooo bad for you.” But, the thing is, it is hard. And you know it is. I know you know because most of you, my colleagues, don’t even try to go away. You do “stay-batticals” where they stay and work in your own labs. This is much easier. You are in their own house, in your own labs, not teaching, not doing service. You might get sucked into things in the department and on campus, but I do too! The difference is that I get sucked in and I’m 3000 miles away and off by 3 hours! So, don’t believe the hype. Doing a sabbatical away is cool and good for you, but it isn’t easy. It takes a lot of planning, prepping, and shipping before you get here. But, being there isn’t a picnic in the park either. Much like having kids, it is worth it, but it is still tough. Don’t be fooled!

So, what do you think? Don’t hold back. What other woes have occurred on your sabbaticals? The time to be honest is now! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "Sabbatical Lies" (6)

  1. robin selinger said:

    1) It’s easier for theorists. 2) It’s easier for people with no kids or kids who are grown and left home. 3) Learning to live without our regular collection of material possessions is hard but a good way to remember how lucky we are to have them. Improvising with what you have is a valuable skill to practice.

    4) For a stay of six months, buy or bring a good pair of scissors, a good knife, a good nonstick cooking pan, and anything else you really need for daily use. You can ship them home at the end or leave them for the next visitor. Consumable supplies for school projects can usually be found at CVS.

    5) People in shared offices need a phone booth type place for Skype calls. Seriously.

    6) No solution for the private fart problem except to invest in a bottle of Beano tablets.

    Going on sabbatical was a good way for me to learn to live with less stuff and less space. Today I am driving a carload of old stuff to goodwill. I feel spiritually lighter. Next week we will downsize to a smaller home. I expect I will be happy there because we lived in a much tinier place on sabbatical.

  2. HusbandOfScience said:

    Like Robin said, I am prepared to go home and get rid of some of the stuff I realize we don’t really need. Thinking about the house, I would love to lose some of the clutter and I think I now have a better picture of what we need and don’t need at home.

    I think you can’t really predict well what you think you will want or need enough to really guarantee comfort on your sabbatical, though. For example, the small apartment we are in has a terrible can opener. It works but barely. Should I go to the store and get a fancy can opener? Sure, maybe a can opener isn’t that big of a deal, but then I own an extra can opener I don’t need so it is a bit of a waste of money. But more importantly, there are countless little things like the can opener. We could spend a lot of money stocking the rental property with extra stuff we won’t want to own in a few months. Where does the madness end? Apparently, somewhere between a new trash can and a new can opener.

  3. Yeah, etiquette about the “How was it?” question seems to be the same for sabbaticals and for intercourse. The only socially acceptable answer for both seems to be, “mindblowing!” Thanks for writing about the awkward parts as well as the good.

  4. We spent a fair bit of money on the sabbatical sprucing up our temporary home, buying all the little things. Some we left there when we departed, some we brought back home.

    We were lucky to make a babysitter connection before we arrived. I’m glad we were proactive.

    When I did an earlier stay-battical, I made the mistake of still being on committees. When I went away on sabbatical, I worked hard to use that as an excuse to stay out of things. It didn’t work 100%, but I did a lot better than the time I stayed on campus. I think it’s likely my next sabbatical will be a stay-battical again, but I will definitely do whatever it takes to be a recluse. Advice I sometimes give: if you’re going to stay in your hometown, if there happens to be another school in town, see if they can give you a temporary office so that you have an excuse to get off your home campus.

  5. Dr. Blossom Dearie said:

    After 3.5 months I’m definitely over those things that you describe as hard. Aspects of the foreign sabbatical can be considerably harder. Visas, housing, school for the kids, transportation. Some of these things are still desperate problems, but I’ve grown accustom….or maybe numb.

    Here in France many PIs share an office with another PI. I share mine with two postdocs and I am grateful to have them around. They both speak English and make for good company. Don’t get me wrong. When I get back to the US I will enjoy my privacy, but for now I need help and exposure. Because of the time difference, we do our online activity with our labs from 9 to 11 pm. If I had to do that with my officemates around it would be a problem.

    Our response to small living space has been very different as well. We have a small two bedroom flat for the four off us. The contents are sparse, but sufficient. Being on the top floor of the old city center certainly helps. The views are nice and it is easy to find something to do. I can’t imagine returning to our humungous house in the woods. I have actually discussed the prospect of living in one of those tiny houses.

    Actually doing lab work can certainly be challenging, but I have the same problem back a home. I don’t do any and could not find anything if I wanted. Yes, I wait around for people to help me and search forever to find the right kind of tape. Here is something people don’t talk about, getting involved in actual bench work again. You lose all flexibility. When the plants are ready to harvest that needs to get done. The molecular work at the bench requires attention. The necessity of attention that some experiments require is difficult to fit with a family life that does not include the regular support of friends or babysitters.

    This gets me to a bold header for your list. Loss of efficiency. Much of everything described adds up to this anyway. When you get to tenure life is fairly well tuned; the commute, parking, grocery shopping, eating out, child care, oh the child care! A nice routine that maximizes time efficiency. Living in a city in France without a car I lose about one to two hours a day with a long commute, or grocery shopping on foot, for example. Good thing I do have fewer responsibilities.

    Risk. Another bullet point. I think a full year in one place is a bit risky and a long time away from a big operation that really does require your attention. Our situation with the school that the boys attend is not as good as we had hoped. Knowing that they have just two months left is a bit of a relief. On the other hand, it is difficult to get very much done in the lab (see above comments of efficiency) in less than one year, especially if you join a lab that does something outside your wheel house.

  6. Thank you for these comments. I am on sabbatical and feeling low and under the weight of too many (self-imposed) expectations. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one who thinks it can be kinda hard, can’t really talk with anyone about it..

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