Retrospective, Part II

Here’s the second part of my retrospective look at my sabbatical year. The first part focused on more higher level issues, but this one is more about practical stuff for those planning or thinking about a sabbatical themselves. It’s not really a HOWTO, but more just a collection of observations which hopefully will be useful to someone.

There are a lot of intertwined issues around a sabbatical, so it’s hard to start unraveling the story from any coherent point of view or order. Money is of course one main issue, but I’ll start with others first to lay the proper groundwork for the “money discussion”.

First, where should you go? Go somewhere “easy”, where easy includes aspects like “an easy place/country to live in”, “easy to arrange the sabbatical”, “place with people you know from other contexts (e.g., conferences)”, or “easy to arrange funding”. That obviously doesn’t really narrow things down in any meaningful way. I’d say, start with the “easy to arrange the sabbatical”, which in many cases may reduce to “pick a place with which your university has an exchange contract with”. It doesn’t have to be that way, but having some kind of a bureaucratical support on both sides can help and make you eligible for a better level of support from the receiving university. I can’t complain about the support I received, although I do have to admit that for the stay in Korea, I’m not quite sure if the exchange contract had anything to do with it or if it was just the local professor who organized everything.

The “easy place to live in” isn’t really a criteria that I feel strongly about; in fact, something more challenging might be more interesting for personal reasons (but more challenging to work reasons…). If you have family, especially children, their schooling is definitely an issue to think about. If the kids speak the local language or are young enough that learning the language from scratch is not an issue, then the choice is free. Otherwise, you might be limited by the kids’ ability to manage in school, such as only being able to go to an English-speaking country. Sure, every country has international schools, but for example in Korea, the tuition fees are on the order of 1000 EUR per month, making this a non-starter as a proposition.

Picking a place where you know people is sort of a no-brainer for me. In order to get anything useful done with the locals, you need to make sure they are roughly on the same page topic-wise. One issue which I did not expect was how much time I would still spend around my duties in Finland. Sure, I wasn’t teaching, but it wouldn’t be correct to leave my group back in Helsinki without support or supervision. Yes, we got lots of papers published (more than my usual “hit rate” at this level of venues :-)) so this was definitely beneficial also for my students in Helsinki. Next time around, I would definitely look for possibilities for bringing some of them over for some period of time.

Finally, money, which divides itself into two sub-questions. Who pays your salary? Who pays for the (housing) expenses during the sabbatical? The salary question comes back to the exchange programs. If you’re officially accepted in a university-administered exchange program, you have a strong case for expecting the university to continue to pay your salary. In my understanding, this was the case for our university and this has now become official department policy. (It may have been department policy earlier, but since nobody was really aware of it, I do suspect on the “official” bit somewhat… but everything was in order for me, so common sense triumphed in this case; not that I ever truly suspected otherwise.) If you’re on some kind of an exchange project, like my stay in California, then you’re probably covered as well.

The additional housing expenses, mainly rent and utilities, are another interesting piece of the puzzle. Lucky for me, I had project overheads and additional exchange funding which I was able to use to cover them. We kept our house in Finland and didn’t rent it out, so this would have meant double living expenses. If you don’t keep a house back home, then you’d only have one set of living expenses, as usual, so this could be a feasible combination. Although abandoning your home seems to only work if you’re renting and going away for a longer period of time.

Yes, there are other sources of funding for exchanges so it’s just a matter of you getting active and figuring them out. The housing expenses are easy to cover from such sources, but the salary might be trickier.

Bottom line, in my ever-so-humble opinion, is thus that the financial matters are mostly just a question of organizing them. Timing may be an issue so you should prepare for a 1-2 year planning phase for getting the funding together. In my case, the planning was only about 8 months, but that was because I had my salary covered and had a source for housing expenses.

Another practical piece of advice concerning the “where to go” would be to think seriously if it’s a good idea to go to two places during one sabbatical. It’s good to meet more people, but there is the additional hassle of having to move from one foreign country to another, which does represent some additional bureaucracy. Settling in to a country and the moving hassle at the end take maybe about 1 month of useful time, so with two countries, you get that twice. Of course there’s the visa hassles of the second country, but since I’ve had many US visas in the past, I was only mildly concerned about that (and even that turned out to be unwarranted).

One decision I made was not to work on evenings or weekends. To a normal person this might sound funny, but for many professors working evenings and weekends is par for the course. I made a few exceptions on some deadlines that just were too important to be missed, but in general, I held myself to that. I even tried to restrain myself from checking email on my phone, but it’s a bit tricky to ignore the red counter going up and not be stressed about it. A better mail client would definitely help, but alas they don’t exist. There is an iPhone app called Mailbox which seems to handle “mobile mail” exactly the way it should be done. In other words, it has easy options for getting a mail out of your sight, but making sure it comes back up when you get to the office. The only problem is that it only supports GMail and doesn’t have any support on the desktop. Maybe one day… Yes, I would be ready to pay a fair sum of money (on the order of 50 EUR) for a mail client that handled mail well both on mobile and desktop.

Obviously, working less means I get less done. Then again, since I’m not teaching, I have less stuff to do. In the end, this sort of balanced itself out. Unfortunately, this meant that of all the things I had planned on getting done, I only got a part done. Then again, there were a bunch of things that I did not expect, which were then nice, positive surprises. In the end, I’m happy. 🙂

One nice thing I observed was that I seemed to get less email during the sabbatical. By “less email”, I mean the virtual absence of the “random, departmental ad hoc mails”, where someone needs a member for a committee, or something similar. Apparently, the word about my absence had gotten around and even though I’ve now been back one month, this luckily hasn’t picked up yet; well, not too much, I already have a couple of such thingies lines up… But it was nice while it lasted. Maybe I should have heeded the advice of a senior professor in our department when he saw me in the coffee room. He said: “Why are you here to show everyone you’re back? Why aren’t you hiding somewhere?”. There is wisdom in those words…


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