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In Academia, a sabbatical means a leave to do only research, as opposed to an unpaid leave to do anything you want.

A recent question over on The Workplace SE raises the situation where someone has too much money and just want to have more time. — like working for 6-9 months per year, which would earn one enough to spend the rest of the time travelling. Regardless of the relatively low pay in parts of Academia, the same situation may apply, in particular to DINKs.

The answers mostly boil down to: be a consultant or freelancer.. That may work in the software industry or other private sectors, but it doesn't translate very well to academia.

Is a career which includes one or more extended unpaid leaves, such as sabbaticals in the classic meaning of the word, or unpaid leaves in the order of 3 months or more in a row, compatible with working in academia at all? If yes, how?

Clarification: I am interested in answers considering either a career that contains specific gaps (such as a year to see the world, either between jobs, or interrupting a job), or a fixed job that contains less than 12 months per year (minus holidays) of work.

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Depends on the type of prof you are, but it could be possible. May-August are often academic holes where nothing is happening. Some people could shut down during that time. –  Behacad Jun 10 at 20:20
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In Sweden, new parents are entitled to 18 months of leave. Generally, that is 12 months for the mother and 6 months for the father. Academics have children and do take this kind of time of, and come back to work. And, they do it multiple times. Also, if you don't have grant money in the US, you don't get paid for the summer. So why work? –  Dave Clarke Jun 10 at 21:44
    
@DaveClarke I've mostly seen Swedish academics take those parental leaves in smaller chunks, in particular attaching to the summer so that the parents have as much time off as the children (10 weeks per summer). But is it good for their career? Or does it hurt? –  gerrit Jun 10 at 21:52
    
In Sweden, it is actively encouraged to take time off with your kids. That said, my plan is to make sure my 6 months off includes the summer months (assuming there will be another one). Does it hurt? In the long run, probably not so much. –  Dave Clarke Jun 11 at 5:52

2 Answers 2

Frequent, extended periods of unpaid leave are easily compatible with certain types of academic careers, such as teaching as an adjunct on a course-by-course basis. However, this involves low pay and no prestige or job security, so it's far from an ideal solution.

There will be a lot of obstacles to doing this with a tenure-track job. Your collaborators will be unhappy when you put the collaboration on hold to go do something else. You colleagues will be unhappy when you aren't available to teach courses or supervise students (thereby making the department work around what they consider to be your eccentricities). Wanting to take substantial amounts of time off will be considered a bad sign, and everyone will worry about what you might do once you have tenure. Your chances of getting tenure will go down.

Taking time off can also make you a less productive researcher, even normalized by the amount of time you spend on research. The problem is that keeping up with the field takes a certain amount of time and effort. If you work on research for only six months per year, you still need to keep up with twelve months of progress by others, so it's as if the rest of the world were moving twice as fast.

It's not impossible that you could find a flexible academic job. You might end up with a specially negotiated soft-money position (funded by grants under whatever terms the funding agency will agree to), you might take a job at a less prestigious university than you could have (who are so eager to hire you that they are willing to make a deal), or you might happen to find an unusually accommodating department. Unfortunately, this isn't something most people can reasonably expect to work out. I don't know what the chances are, but I expect they are pretty low on average. The academic job market is tough, and adding non-standard constraints makes it even tougher. If you can't be happy without frequent, extended leaves, and you have good non-academic employment options that fit your needs, then that might be the way to go.

Another theoretical option is to take advantage of tenure: work hard, don't tell anyone your plans, and then quit doing any academic work over the summer once you get tenure. You shouldn't do this. Your colleagues will feel resentful, the administration will be upset, and you'll be manipulating the system in a way tenure is not intended to support (and thus weakening the case for having tenure at all). If you're too extreme, you could run into trouble with a post-tenure review, depending on your university's policies.

[I'm assuming you intend to use the leaves for something entirely unrelated to your academic career. If it's more closely related, such as applying your scholarly expertise to government service, then you may have better luck. However, it doesn't sound like that's what you're talking about.]

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Makes sense. One comment Taking time off can also make you a less productive researcher, even normalized by the amount of time you spend on research. — I'm not sure this is true when normalised. One question: how about taking 6 months off between jobs; between PhD and post-doc, between post-docs, etc.? –  gerrit Jun 10 at 20:20
    
I just mean that if you spend half as much time doing research, then either you end up spending less time learning what other people are doing (hurting your breadth and perspective or ability to find connections), or you have to devote twice as high as percentage of your time to that (leaving less time for your own work). But how well this works out is a personal matter. For example, if time off leaves you feeling rejuvenated, then it might help you do better work. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jun 10 at 20:27
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Time off might not be fully black and white either. Someone going on a 10,000 km cycling trip could still download some papers to his e-reader now and then. But that it sets one back compared to people working conventionally, that is clear. –  gerrit Jun 10 at 20:31

One case when this does happen in an academic setting is when faculty get on a glide path to retirement. In such cases, it's possible to negotiate a reduced workload (and pay). The incentive here is that the department can sometimes use this (along with other funds) to support hiring a new faculty member: since faculty slots are expensive commodities, such an arrangement works for everyone.

Your question doesn't indicate the level of the person who might want to do part-time academic work. I think it goes without saying that doing this before tenure is a BAD IDEA for reasons already outlined above. But if someone is tenured but far from retirement, it might be possible to pull off such an arrangement if the department sees an opportunity to cash in on it via new hiring.

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Suppose that someone has a one-year gap between the end of the PhD and the first post-doc, or between two post-docs. Is that really such a bad idea? If you would review such a person for a tenure-track position, ask about the gap, and the person would declare, “I was hiking to Mongolia”. Would that be so bad? –  gerrit Jun 10 at 21:38
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No, certainly not. But a 1-year gap is not the same as a continued period of downtime for a number of years, which is what I thought the question was about. –  Suresh Jun 10 at 21:46
    
It's about both (sabbaticals in the classic meaning of the word, or unpaid leaves in the order of 3 months or more in a row,); I'd classify a one-year gap as a sabbaticals in the classic meaning of the word. –  gerrit Jun 10 at 21:49
    
ah. but then it's not at all uncommon to go on leave for a year. Usually you're going on leave to go somewhere else, so the person doing this would need some skilled negotiation to finagle a leave that isn't "going somewhere else" –  Suresh Jun 10 at 21:53

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