How, and why, to take a grad student sabbatical (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, whom you may recall from her previous guest post talking about citizen science in ecology. We’re hoping that this will be the first in a series of several guest posts from Margaret over the next few months.


My husband finished his PhD at the end of my third year of mine. He had started three years ahead of me, but we had never really planned what would happen when he finished. At this point, we had a seven-month-old infant, and so we rejected the idea of living apart. When an ideal postdoc position came up for him across the country, he accepted (after talking it over with me, of course).

But I was torn. I really wanted to support his career, but moving from a place where we had established friends and a social network to one where we knew no one – and being away from my grad program – was not something I was looking forward to. A conversation with my advisor made me realize, though, that I wouldn’t have to work at home in isolation. Within six months, I was jokingly referring to my “grad student sabbatical.”

I’ve since found that such two-body problems are quite common at the graduate student level, though it’s not something that’s much talked about. Many grad students (and post-docs) I know quietly live apart from their partners for long stretches of time. Several people have asked me what I did when I moved away and finished my dissertation remotely, so I thought I’d share some things that I learned in the process.

There are many reasons you might need to relocate: moving to be with a partner is one such reason. But you may also need to move to be closer to an ailing relative or else to be close to a facility that can best treat your own illness. There are also cases where there’s a strong case to take a sabbatical of a year or longer for professional reasons: perhaps your advisor takes a new job, or dies, or is fired (it does happen!), and the best person to advise you is at another institution. But you’ve already done several years at your home institution and want to graduate from it, so transferring doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you’ve established – or want to establish – a collaboration with a professor elsewhere; in this case it might be profitable to take a shorter sabbatical of a month to a semester to work on the collaboration.

Whether you pursue a sabbatical for personal or professional reasons, the experience can be very rewarding. Here are some tips for navigating the process:

1. Choose when to go. If you must move for personal reasons, this may not be something you get to consider. But if you have some flexibility or want to do a sabbatical for professional reasons, you’ll want to think about timing. Generally speaking, you’ll want to be done with your classes, unless the visit is a semester or shorter. And you’ll probably get more out of the sabbatical if you’re done with preliminary exams, too. I think going in your fourth year is ideal; you’ve got mainly your dissertation to think about, and could most benefit from some new perspectives and feedback, with enough time left to incorporate it. I recommend against being on sabbatical when you’re “finishing up,” as regular in-person contact with your advisor and committee is very valuable at this stage. Also, if you’re going for professional reasons, avoid the summer; departments empty out as people do field work, travel, and even (gasp) go on vacation. There typically are no departmental seminars, and many lab groups suspend weekly meetings in the summer.

2. Secure funding. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to doing a sabbatical. Generally speaking, it’s not possible to be a teaching assistant at another institution. A fellowship is ideal, but make sure to check its stipulations to make sure you’re not required to be in residence at your home institution. If you must move for personal reasons, you may have to rely on personal finances. I should mention that there exist formal competitive programs that provide fellowships to grad students on sabbatical in specific places (though they don’t use the term ‘sabbatical’) – for example, the Smithsonian Institution provides fellowships for students to do research at one of their facilities and Fulbright grants allow students to do research at universities in foreign countries. When considering finances, also look into funding for travel expenses to and from the sabbatical; you may be able to find travel grants for professional development to provide full or partial assistance. And don’t forget to consider health insurance.

3. Get a sponsor. This sponsor should be faculty at the institution you’re visiting. If you’re pursuing a sabbatical for professional reasons, you probably already have someone in mind. If you’re moving for personal reasons, browsing a department’s faculty web page will generally give you an idea of who would be the best match – or ask your advisor or others in the department for suggestions. You may want to select a few different faculty to approach, in case one or two can’t or won’t sponsor you.

Once you have selected a potential sponsor, get in touch. It may be most comfortable to find someone who can introduce you, and hopefully your advisor or a committee member (or other mentor) can help arrange such an introduction. The earlier the better. You’ll want to actually talk to your potential sponsor before showing up, if possible. Skype or Google Hangouts makes it easier than ever to do so, but you can always just use the phone.

Explain your situation. If you are moving for personal reasons, you don’t need to go into detail. A simple, “I will be moving to your city, where my partner is starting a postdoc” or even just “for family reasons” is sufficient. If your sabbatical is purely optional, then say why you’d like to come.

Make it clear what you want, but don’t ask for more than you need. Desk space may be the hardest thing to provide, and you may need to be flexible with space use. If you need lab access, ask, but remember that any chemicals or supplies you might use cost your sponsor money. Access to lab meetings and department seminars is usually one of the easiest things to ask for.

In addition to asking for things, try to convey what you might offer: a fresh perspective for lab discussions, expertise in particular protocols, modeling skills, an idea for a possible collaboration. As a grad student, your most valuable asset may be your time. Offer to help with lab management or field work. Maybe there are undergrads in the lab who could benefit from additional mentoring. Try to offer your time in a way that is constructive to you as well; helping with field work could lead to learning new methods or meeting potential collaborators, for example, whereas organizing the holiday party probably won’t further your career as much.

4. Formalize your affiliation. Institutions classify affiliates by category – for example: faculty, staff, fellow, graduate student, etc. Most universities (and other institutions) have a category called “visiting scholar” or something equivalent. Typically, you’ll need a sponsor for this classification, and the sponsor will be officially responsible for you. Having an official affiliation with the institution you’re visiting will allow you various accesses, though they vary from place to place. They might include: ID card, keys/keycard access to building and labs, library access, access to gyms and other recreational facilities, and access to local transit and parking. Ask your sponsor about what paperwork needs to be done to get you an official affiliation.

5. Get on department e-mail lists. Email the relevant administrator to get on seminar lists, grad student lists, and any others that will help you feel part of the department.

6. Offer to give a talk. One of the best ways to introduce yourself quickly to others in your visiting department is to give a talk. It’s best if it’s to more than just your new lab, but it doesn’t need to be to the entire department. Some places have multi-lab meetings or seminars; others have an informal seminar series for grad students to present. The goal is to meet faculty, post-docs, and other grad students who have similar research interests as soon as possible. Especially if you’re doing a short sabbatical, meeting relevant people quickly will help you get the most out of your visit.

7. Stay in touch with your advisor, committee members, and collaborators at your home institution. Academics are always busy and it’s easy for them to forget about students they don’t see. Schedule regular meetings (by Skype or Google Hangouts) with people important to your dissertation research. I was able to participate in my weekly home lab group meetings by asking a labmate to Skype me in, and also “attended” interesting talks in my home department the same way. Making sure that people saw me – even if it was just on a screen – helped remind people that I was still around and doing research. (Although nothing beats in-person contact; if you’re going to be gone for a long time and you can afford it, travel back to your home institution regularly.)

Setting up a grad student sabbatical has numerous benefits. If you’re moving for personal reasons, it provides an intellectual “home” where you can continue mature in your field as well as providing a social outlet that you wouldn’t otherwise get working from home. And whether for personal or professional reasons, a successful sabbatical introduces you to new people, new ideas, and the culture of another institution.


5 thoughts on “How, and why, to take a grad student sabbatical (guest post)

  1. I agree — nice post. Here’s one additional reason to take a grad student sabbatical…. Several years into my PhD, my adviser and I were finding it less somewhat pleasant to work together; there were lots of polite but frustrating disagreements. After I took a summer off, I came back refreshed, ready to resume work, and with some new ideas about how to communicate more effectively with my adviser. I think he also benefited from having some time away from me, as I was a relatively “high-maintenance” grad student.

  2. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 04/04/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  3. Pingback: ScienceSeeker Editors’ Selections: April 6 – 12, 2014 | ScienceSeeker Blog

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