How I plan to use my research leave

After a really busy semester of teaching, this semester I have (almost) no teaching or service responsibilities. A whole semester to focus on research! I am excited about this, but also feel a lot of pressure to use the time well. Add to that that I lost most research momentum when teaching took over my life, and that last semester left me feeling a bit burnt out, and I’ve been feeling a little at a loss about how to plan for this semester.

I realized that I haven’t read very much about sabbaticals*, nor have I received much direct advice. I asked on twitter, and was pointed to this post, which is great (ht: @luehea). Much of it resonates with me – I am going into this leave with high expectations of myself (are they unreasonably high? I’m not sure), a feeling of needing to go-go-go based on having gone all out last semester, and a realization that I need to temper expectations a bit and spend more time trying to “be quiet”.

The only specific advice I’ve been given is to say “no” to all service and teaching-related tasks (I haven’t quite done that, but have come pretty close) and to work from home as much as possible. I will be staying in Ann Arbor during my leave (in part because my husband is not on leave this semester), and I’ve been told that the more I’m on campus, the more I’ll end up doing service or other tasks that I should be avoiding during this leave. But I still want to meet with my lab group regularly, and we have a faculty search going on and want to be involved in that to some extent. So, for now, my plan is to go to my regular office two days a week. On those days, I will meet with lab folks, have lab meeting, meet with other departmental colleagues, and probably do some work in the lab.

What are my other plans for the semester?

1. Make more connections with the med school. I think EEB types have a lot to contribute to work on the human microbiome and the evolution of antibiotic resistance, and I’m really interested in both of those topics. Luckily for me, there are some great people over at the UMich med school working on those topics. But, even though the med school is an easy walk from my office, it’s far enough that I almost never make it over there. And it’s hard to prioritize a totally new research area that may or may not work out when there are so many other things to work on. But this seems like exactly the sort of thing I should devote time to during a research leave. So, this semester, I’m hoping to make it over to the med school regularly – starting with a meeting with a colleague this week that I’m really excited about. I don’t know what to expect from this part of my plans for the semester – ideally, I’ll finish the semester with some solid momentum on some projects with med school colleagues.

2. Read a paper a (work?) day: after seeing a tweet from Jacquelyn Gill saying that one of her goals for 2015 was to read a paper a day, she and I decided to start a hashtag related to that. There are actually a few hashtags floating around for it, including #365papers and #260papers (the latter being the approximate number of work days in the year). I don’t think I’ll actually read a paper every single day, but I hope to read more than one paper some days. Initially, I thought I’d aim for 365, but now I think 260 might be a more reasonable goal, given travel, weekends, illnesses, etc. I plan on counting book chapters, manuscripts I’m reviewing, and teaching-related papers in my count.

3. Carry out some manuscript and data necromancy: I have some projects that have languished because of a lack of time to finish them up and get them out the door. I hope to get at least two of these resurrected this semester. I also hope to make substantial progress on a couple of manuscripts that I want to write on new data. Hopefully reading a paper a day will help with the writing tasks, as suggested by this tweet (which seemed very well timed, as we’d just created #365papers):

4. Have a quick turnaround time on manuscript drafts from lab folks. We have some exciting data to write up, and I’m glad that I won’t be the rate-limiting step on getting them submitted!

5. Spend some time working in the lab, especially on some new projects we’re just starting.

6. Update my teaching materials for Intro Bio. While this might sound like a crazy thing to do while on research leave, I think it will be much more efficient to go through and make one round of edits on the pre-readings I wrote and lecture slides now, while everything is fresh. I will need to do another round of edits over the summer (to add in examples that I just found and to update based on ideas I get from my colleague who is teaching the class this semester), but I think this will be the most efficient way to tackle updating the material. This is the sort of thing that I get obsessive about, though, and I want to make sure I don’t spend a ton of time on this. So, I’m telling myself that I can work on one lecture per day, three days per week.

7. Read Make It Stick. This was recommended by Robin Wright when she visited Michigan this past fall, and I think it will be really interesting. But, again, I want to not devote too much time to teaching while I’m on research leave. So, I think I will say I can read one chapter a day, three days a week for this, too.

8. Be more mindful about when I check my email. I find that I check it reflexively and want to stop doing that. I haven’t decided how I will go about this, though. (Suggestions welcome!) And, really, I’d like to be more mindful about everything I do.

9. Write (at least) one blog post a week. This is the third one I’m writing in the past week, so I’m off to a good start on this goal!

10. Run mid-day. My favorite time of day to run is late morning. I like to do work for a bit, then run as a late morning break. When I do this, I often solve research-related problems (e.g., figure out a way to design an experiment, think of a new way to do an analysis). The problem with doing this on days when I’m in my office is that I don’t have a way to shower afterwards. So, usually I run at 6AM. But, this semester I should be able to run late morning on the days when I work from home. I’m looking forward to this! I sometimes think that if I just spent the day repeating work-run-shower, I’d be much more creative and productive. An added bonus is that a late morning it should make running warmer and safer in the Ann Arbor winter than a 6AM run!

11. Hire a postdoc.

If anyone has tips on how to have a productive research leave – or links to blog posts or other resources – please let me know in the comments!

*Officially, my research leave is not a sabbatical, but a “nurturance leave”. This is normally taken by faculty in my college while they are pre-tenure, but, since I came up for tenure after only being here a year, mine is coming post-tenure. I am treating it like a one-semester sabbatical.

33 thoughts on “How I plan to use my research leave

  1. When I get distracted by emails throughout the day I close it and only check 1) first thing I’m the AM, 2) right after lunch, and 3) at the end of the day. Nothing so dire that it needs to be looked at immediately comes in an email.

    • Part of my problem is that I check email without even realizing I’m checking it — that’s why I feel like it’s a mindfulness problem. Though, this afternoon, it’s a problem of trying to clear out my inbox after spending 2.5 days in workshops or other meetings, while everyone else was apparently replying to all the emails that came during winter break!

      • If you have a notification symbol/tone on your smart phone, turn it off. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been distracted trying to do one thing by the little “mail” symbol at the top of my “smart”phone screen. Somewhere in settings, you can do that. Also when you are done with your morning email check, quit the program, assuming you use outlook or similar, or only check email in one browser and not another. Two-step verification/sign in is a security measure, but I also find that if I have to dig out my phone, even from my pocket, to sign in to email at my desk, I’m less likely to do it.

        Look, Meg, comments two days in a row!

      • For a while, I took my work email off my phone, so that I wouldn’t accidentally check it, say, on the weekend when I was trying to look up the address for a birthday party. I’ve put it back on this semester, since there’s so much less work email coming in, now that I’m not teaching.

        Setting it up to always require two-step authentication, then logging out regularly, is a great idea.

        Keep commenting!

    • Very interesting! I’ve actually been really wanting to get back into crafting more. I am very tempted to try to make a Daphnia doll, but haven’t broken out my sewing machine in years!

  2. This is wonderful, Meg…I especially endorse the midday running!! Make It Stick is great…and let me know if you want to get involved with the REBUILD Book Club. We’re reading Mindset by Carol Dweck this month, but Make It Stick was one that we chose for a previous group. Best of luck this semester!

    • Thanks! I think it’s going to take me a while to get through Make It Stick, just based on the amount of time I devote to reading. I’m really glad to hear you like it!

  3. This post is inspiring, even for people like me not on research leave. I seldom make specific goals for a semester, and this post has me thinking that I would be more productive and feel more accomplished if I set out specific things I want to accomplish.

    • I’ve been thinking of writing a post on semester goals more generally. It’s something my PhD co-advisor, Jeff Conner, recommended, and I think it’s a helpful strategy. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Your comment about not having read much sabbatical advice resonates with me. There’s not a lot of advice on the internet for mid-career scientists, except on a couple of specific topics like grant writing. Besides sabbatical advice, I wish there was more advice out there on stuff like writing a book, job changing (as opposed to job hunting), etc. It’s helpful to have advice on anything you’ve never done before.

    • Yep. I suppose some of this might be because more senior academics are less likely to blog than more junior ones. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate statement, but I guess I don’t know of data supporting that.

      • Hmm, good question. That science blogging survey from a while back should be able to put numbers on the seniority of science bloggers.

        Within ecology, I’m not sure there are enough ecologist bloggers to really address this question. But FWIW, off the top of my head:

        senior ecologist bloggers: Charley Krebs, Stephen Heard (just started), Simon Leather, Hope Jahren, Joan Strassmann, Jeff Ollerton

        mid-career ecologist bloggers: you, me, Brian, Terry McGlynn, Morgan Ernest and Ethan White (although they haven’t posted in months), Mark Cadotte (although he posts very little anymore), Steve Vamosi (though he’s just starting)

        recent PhD ecologist bloggers: Amy Parachnowitsch, Caroline Tucker, Alex Bond, at least a couple of folks at Tenure, She Wrote, Jarrett Byrnes (though he posts rarely these days), Jacquelyn Gill, Shane Hanlon, Jeremy Yoder, Tim Poisot, Florian Hartig (posts rarely)

        grad student ecologist bloggers: The BioDiverse Perspectives folks, Lynsey McInnes and Will Pearse at PEGE Journal Club.

        Just eyeballing that list, looks to me like grad students are underrepresented relative to their abundance. Senior people might be a bit underrepresented too (?)

  5. Hooray for setting concrete goals! Best of luck with everything, and I hope that you are able to settle back into a more balanced routine after your busy semester last fall.

    • There are two! #365papers and #260papers. I think some people are aiming for one a week and using #52papers. I am already behind on my paper reading and need to get caught up!

  6. When I start checking email too reflexively, I use inbox pause (a Chrome extension). It means there’s no email waiting for me until the appointed times. It helps to sloooowly ease the conditioning.

    I’ve been struggling with reasonable expectations for reading papers. I always feel woefully behind, but it’s especially acute when transitioning to new subfields. Would love some data-driven recommendations… or even anecdotes!… about the best rate to read and how to prioritize. It’s of course complicated by the fact that there are so many degrees of “reading” a paper.

    • I will need to look into Pause, because that sounds like it would be good for me.

      Data-driven recommendations on paper-reading goals would be fantastic. I don’t know of any, but hope someone will chime in!

    • Some email clients will allow you to download mail at specified intervals, e.g., Mac Mail, Mozilla Thunderbird. I’d completely forgotten about this (my mail pushes messages automatically) until seeing SC’s comment, but will set it up to check hourly (or longer intervals) when I get into work tomorrow!

      Many years ago, while working in Finland, I discovered the joys of mid-day, mid-winter running. There were beautiful routes along and around frozen rivers and bays near the out-of-city Helsinki Uni ‘Viikki’ campus. I guess the Ann Arbor climate may be quite similar right now. I hope it brings as much peace and clarity as it brought me! (In fact – a quick mental calculation reveals it was exactly 10 years ago. That brings a little less peace…)

      • Yes, the winter runs can be beautiful! Yesterday it was sunny and the trees were covered with a beautiful frost. It was really nice.

  7. Wow Meg, I second Jeremy. When I read your list, I thought, ‘dear lord, that’s ambitious.’ I recommend doing this: 1. Estimate how much time you think each thing on your list is going to take over the course of the semester. 2. Then calculate *realistically* how much time you think you’ll actually have to work on these things *without driving yourself crazy*. (I’m pretty sure #1 > #2.) Next, ruthlessly cut out things from your list. Ask yourself: “at the end of my semester sabbatical, which things am I going to be most upset about if I don’t do?” Cut them. The idea here is to have a *reasonable* to do list. If you end up with extra time, great, do some of the things that got cut. But I think you’ll find doing a great job with half your list will be much more satisfying than doing a mediocre job with the whole list.

    Next, email: it takes some practice, but here’s one way to do it (and a way that I am trying to regularly practice — it’s working great for productivity):
    1. Do not ever check your email before noon. I know, sounds hard, but it’s not really. If you are on sabbatical (or are a postdoc!), pretty much no one ever needs an immediate response from you by email. If there’s an emergency of some sort, someone will call you. This frees up 3+ hours (depending on when you start work) to do other things on your list. You will be super productive during the morning.
    2. Spend no more than one hour on email over lunch or after lunch or whenever feels best for you. If there’s an email that needs a lengthy response, make a note of it and put it on your to-do list for the next day. You’ll have a chance to mull it over and the end result will be faster to write than if you try to hash out your thoughts immediately after getting the email. Instead, spend this hour doing the fast-culling — all those emails you can zip off quickly.
    3. For the afternoon, keep whatever notifies you of new email *off*. Close your email program. Delete the shortcut to your email program, so you actively have to go find it to start it up. Close your email tabs if you use webmail. (Keeping your browser off if you don’t need it to do your work is another protip.) Make sure your cell-device cannot alert you to new email.
    4. Once you have finished all your to-do items for the day (and you should only be giving yourself 2-3 and making big progress on them), then you can check the remaining email and cull what’s necessary.
    5. The next day, before you check email, one thing you may have scheduled yourself is to write long email replies. This is fine. Do so in a word processor and not in your email program, and simply cut and paste at noon when you open up the email program.
    6. In order to get the above to work well, set up filters in your email account so that all the stuff that you never actually read (newsgroups, ads from companies, etc.) gets automatically filtered *out* of your inbox and into some sort of purgatory box. You don’t want to see these emails at all. Moving unread email from folder to folder (or even ‘archiving’ it) is a waste of your time and abilities.

    Hmmmm… maybe I need to write a blog post about this.

    • In terms of having more on the to do list than can actually be done: that may well be true, but they don’t all have equal weight in my mind. Like, I haven’t opened Make It Stick yet, but I’ve made good progress on data analysis. I still plan on reading Make It Stick, but if that doesn’t happen until summer, that’s fine.

      Your comment came through when my inbox was a complete disaster after spending two days in a Software Carpentry workshop — and those two days were the first two back in the office for many people, so there were tons of email replies coming in. So, last Wednesday, I felt like there was no way I could make email work with the system you have. But, this week, it’s back to feeling more under control, and it might work.

      I also need a system for replying to comments in a more timely manner. 😉

  8. This post was perfect! I too have a whole semester in front of me with no teaching responsibilities and I’m feeling the pressure to catch up with the research. I have a lot of the same goals as you and I look forward to reading more about how it is going for you this term! Thanks!

    • I’ve considered this! But, for this semester, my plan to work from home several mornings a week and to run there seems more appealing.

  9. Pingback: Summer Plans | Tenure, She Wrote

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