During the fall 2010 semester, I took my first sabbatical. It was a few years overdue because I needed to find the right project to pursue since I wanted this scholarly experience to be something special. I am pleased to say that I hit the jackpot. My four months in San Antonio were extremely rewarding, both professionally and personally.
So, how do you achieve the perfect sabbatical? Great sabbaticals require early planning, thoughtful decision-making, and a strong commitment to the tasks at all stages of the process. Sabbaticals should not be viewed as casual endeavors. They are wonderful opportunities for career enhancement and personal growth. And, of course, some much-needed and well-deserved rest.
Select an interesting project. Most sabbaticals focus on teaching, scholarship (research or classroom study), and/or service activities, since these are the main areas in which faculty members are evaluated. But there is a wide range of possibilities here. It is important to select a project that you are passionate about so that it will hold your interest and motivate you for the duration of your sabbatical, and hopefully beyond.
I got sabbatical ideas from articles and books, as well as from a few university colleagues who gladly shared their own sabbatical experiences with me. Ultimately, I chose a unique project that suited me well and that would add value to the counseling services offered to students at my university.
Here is the abstract from my formal sabbatical application as presented to my department, dean, universitywide sabbatical committee, provost, and president:
The attached sabbatical proposal falls within the “Continuing Scholarly Growth” area on which faculty members are evaluated, and would also enhance the fulfillment of my “Counseling Responsibilities.” Given the increasing diversity of the United States’ population, and of Bloomsburg University students, it is important for psychologists to have an understanding of many cultural variables and to be well-versed in a variety of effective counseling techniques. The purpose of my sabbatical is to gain more knowledge about how to provide appropriate and effective counseling services to Hispanic/Latino populations. I would enroll in two on-site graduate-level courses (i.e., either two lecture courses or one lecture and one practicum), at least one of which would be taught in Spanish, that are offered by Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. These courses are part of their Psychological Services for Spanish-Speaking Populations (PSSSP) certificate curriculum.
Establish realistic goals. Clear and realistic goals that allow you to measure your progress on an ongoing basis are necessary for a successful sabbatical. Propose a project that is substantial in nature and worthy of a paid sabbatical leave. But don’t take on too heavy a workload. You can always choose to do more during your sabbatical (as I did) than you first proposed, but you will be spared the extra pressure of having to meet unreasonable, self-imposed expectations. Remember to underpromise and overperform.
As you can see in my abstract, I proposed to enroll in two courses that are part of an accredited psychology program. That's it. I knew the courses – Language and Psychosocial Variables in Interviews and Assessments with Latinos and a Spanish clinic team practicum – would be difficult since they would be taught in Spanish (which is not my first language), but I had also secretly planned to do more than I proposed. I knew that I would try to take Spanish lessons on the side and write about my sabbatical experience in some format, but I did not promise this because it would have added too much pressure that would have overwhelmed me and impeded my efforts. And besides, the publishing world is too uncertain; I don’t have total control over whether any articles or books I write about my sabbatical will be published. So, without a contract for a writing assignment in hand, I was conservative in what I offered to complete during my sabbatical semester. The additional tasks I completed came as a welcome surprise to those at my university. These add-ons (Spanish lessons, attending the National Latina/o Psychological Association conference, book proposal course, and blog) were the icing on the cultural cake. I was proud to include them in my two-page sabbatical report that I submitted to university officials after I returned to campus for the spring semester.
Prepare for the challenge ahead. Some of this preparation will come before you actually apply for a sabbatical. For example, you need to research your options and meet any minimal requirements. For me, this meant: (1) studying Spanish for several years through university courses and short-term study abroad trips, which occurred way before I had even the faintest idea of what project I would undertake for my sabbatical; (2) contacting via e-mail Our Lady of the Lake University to express interest in the bilingual certificate program, find out the minimum requirements for acceptance as an auditing student, and secure written permission to enroll in two courses during my sabbatical semester; and (3) providing documentation of intermediate-level oral proficiency in Spanish as assessed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Oprah said on one of her shows that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. Well, this certainly was true in my case. Years of Spanish coursework (personal interest) and psychology training (career interest) were finally merging into something bigger and more meaningful.
Make sure to keep good records of relevant conversations, transcripts, permissions, and similar items as you will need to include these in your application to support your sabbatical request and show your readiness. If your preparation is nonexistent, disorganized, sloppy, or vague, you will have a hard time receiving your university’s support and funding. While you are on your sabbatical you will be representing your university, so making a good impression counts – and this starts at your home institution.
The rest of your preparation will occur after you have been granted the leave. You may need to make physical and financial preparations for moving, and mentally prepare for this professional interlude. I had to find an apartment in Texas (I was glad to have my sister accompany me for this weeklong trip before my actual move the following month), purchase a plane ticket, mail boxes of my belongings, ship my car, address healthcare and banking issues, and request "premium forwarding service" at the post office (there’s a fee for this but the service is great because you receive all mail, including periodicals and other non-first-class mail, in weekly bundles). As you can imagine, this was a stressful time for me, and I experienced a couple of minor glitches (an undelivered box of personal items and a healthcare snafu), but my preparation made my move much easier.
I found two useful books that helped in preparing me for my sabbatical and I will recommend them to you:
- Sabbaticals 101: A Practical Guide for Academics & Their Families, by Nancy Matthews (New Forums Press, Inc., 2008).
- Six Months Off: How to Plan, Negotiate, and Take the Break You Need Without Burning Bridges or Going Broke, by Hope Dlugozima, James Scott, and David Sharp (Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996).
Enjoy yourself. Once you’re settled into your sabbatical – whether you remain at home or temporarily relocate – you can relax a bit. Strive for balance in your day-to-day life. Immerse yourself in your sabbatical tasks, but have fun too. Sabbaticals are a break in your normal work routine and they should revitalize you while allowing you to pursue work-related interests that will benefit your university and its students upon your return. Contrary to popular belief of the mainstream public, sabbaticals are not luxury vacations where faculty members sip exotic drinks at some European café or beach (but if you can get approval for that, more power to you). There really is work to be done, but you must also allow time to relax your body and mind, engage in hobbies, socialize with others, and generally enjoy yourself.
I managed to squeeze in quite a bit of extra stuff in addition to my enjoyable sabbatical tasks. My fun activities during the free time of my sabbatical included sightseeing, sampling the cuisine of local restaurants, leisure reading (and participating in book discussion groups), attending meetups and social activities of a local newcomers group, watching television, and writing a blog.  The blog is a combination of personal and professional posts. Of scholarly interest are eight pieces on Hispanic/Latino culture (written in English) and nine journal entries for class (written in Spanish). Take a look and gather ideas and inspiration.
Over all, I’ve had a great first sabbatical experience and was very successful in achieving my goals. My sabbatical took me to a new locale with culture, charm, delicious food, mostly decent weather, and some really wonderful people. I may just have discovered my future retirement setting. I love San Antonio! So there you have it. The secrets to my successful sabbatical. I hope these tips work for you as well as they did for me. ¡Buena suerte!
Sybil L. Holloway is a psychological counselor/assistant professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and a freelance writer.