Sabbatical Leave: Will it Become a Thing of the Past?

by Dr. Catherine Armstrong

This article explores an issue very dear to the hearts of academics employed in a permanent job: sabbatical leave. We will explore what this leave is and what it is used for, and whether the financial situation of universities will prevent sabbatical leave being offered in the future.

What is it?

Academic life is not the only career in which one can take sabbatical leave. It can be available to people in other professions and is increasingly used as a type of adult gap year. However, for university staff, sabbatical leave is a fixed period of leave (usually up to one year) where time is taken off from regular work duties (i.e. teaching) in order to focus on other activities (such as the researching or writing of a book). In an academic environment, you are required to have worked in a particular job for a number of years, usually five or six years, before you are eligible to apply for sabbatical leave.

You do get paid for this period of leave, although if you take a full year you might not get full pay for the entire time. Each university does its own calculations for salary given during a leave period. You are not automatically entitled to sabbatical leave. First you must apply for it via your line manager who will then pass your application to the higher management of the university. Your leave period must not go unrecorded. You will be expected to keep an account of your activities during this time in order to justify your leave of absence. Your teaching duties will be taken over by either a junior member of staff in the department, or someone brought in on a temporary contract.

It is not usually possible to take sabbatical leave and then hold another academic post (e.g. a visiting fellowship). Make sure you read the small print and work out what activities are permitted during your sabbatical.

When do you take it?

You cannot take sabbatical leave very often so it's important to take it at the best time for your career. Usually a sabbatical is only permitted once every five or six years. Most people find sabbaticals useful for undertaking a specific piece of research or writing up, so when you apply for your leave make sure that it is the right stage in the process to make best use of your research time. You need to have a long-term plan of the progress of your research and your goals in order to decide the year in which to take sabbatical leave.

Of course other factors will need to be considered too, including the teaching demands of your department and the financial position of your institution as a whole. You may be refused sabbatical leave in a particular year if a number of your colleagues are also taking leave at that time, so discuss the matter with others in your department. If you are a PhD supervisor it is also important to think about the care of your doctoral students during your leave time. Will you still be able to meet with your PhDs during the sabbatical? Or will you be going away to research? If it is the latter, a substitute supervisor or the guarantee of regular contact with you by e-mail is necessary for the benefit of your students.

What alternatives are there?

The problem is that not all institutions have a system of sabbatical leave. This means that alternatives have to be sought. However, even scholars in institutions where a system of sabbatical leave is in place should consider every option in case a sabbatical request is rejected.

There are two main alternatives when looking for an extended period of leave: internal and external funding. Even institutions that do not offer sabbaticals might have some small amount of internal funding available in order for scholars to be ‘bought out' of teaching for a short period, usually just a single term. Although this is not the same as taking an entire year off, it could make all the difference if you are trying to finish a project while working to a tight deadline. Again, this will depend on the financial situation in your department and university. Sometimes money will be available for this sort of leave, other times it will not.

The most obvious alternative to sabbatical leave is to apply for external funding to pay for your time away from university. This external money will provide you with research expenses and will pay for someone to be hired to do your job while you are away from the department. Each subject area has its own funding bodies to apply to, and you will need the support of your head of department and the university's research office. Applications for this sort of external funding are extremely competitive and you may need to send off a number of applications before getting a positive result. Different schemes offer different leave periods, so decide how much research time you need and then choose a scheme accordingly.

Have sabbaticals got a future?

Universities and their members of staff have differing views about this. Some institutions that value their research reputation see the sabbatical leave system as a vital part of the intellectual and academic life of individual members of staff and of departments as a whole. However, other universities see the sabbatical system as an inefficient use of staff time, and in those cases the financial resources that would be devoted to this sort of scheme are channelled elsewhere. This is often the case in universities without a long history of research excellence. Certainly in times of financial hardship the sabbatical system is threatened, just as the hiring of new members of staff is curbed. It seems, however, that there is enough will at management level in many universities for the sabbatical system to continue alongside other means of acquiring leave in order to pursue research.

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