How (not) to go on sabbatical


This is my plan for the week“, I would confidently declare to my husband. The warmth and comfort of the plan enveloped me like a protective bubble. And then it would burst. Because you cannot write an entire PhD chapter in a week, no matter how much you tell yourself that is what you are going to do.

The end is nigh. Feels odd to say at the start of a new year, but it’s true. Today is the last day of my sabbatical. Soon I’ll return to crowded Metros, packed lunches, meetings (so many meetings), and actually answering my emails instead of sneaking a peak and quickly pressing close. I will be “back”.

I was over the moon when my sabbatical application was successful. A blank slate. A place to get things done. I would do so much. Not just professionally, but personally too. I could finally get around to changing my surname on my bank account. I could go to a retreat (I spent way too much time looking at retreats online). I would get fit. And write at least 3 articles on top of completing my PhD. Naturally, I was simultaneously terrified I would bury myself deep into a duvet and do absolutely nothing.

What a weird three months. I’ve spent most of today driving from one place to another. Getting my nails done. Picking up a toilet seat. Popping to my mate’s house ludicrously early so we can run off the Christmas drinks. I do most of my thinking in the car by myself. I can gallop through entire scenarios over and over again (and later come to the horrific realisation I have navigated entirely on autopilot for miles). The out of date parking tickets discarded carelessly on the floor, the empty wrappers stuffed into corners so I can pretend *that* sweetie didn’t count, and the makeup stained steering wheel. A perfect environment for a good think. And today, I have thought about being on sabbatical.

I had a plan, you see. I had a foolproof plan. I set it all out in a brand new notebook. I built an online diary full of colour-coded tasks and deadlines. But at the end of week 2, something was wrong. I went off plan. Most days I got up early and wrote. 500 words by 9am. 1300 words by 11.30am. Lunch, then try to get back at it. And then I got tired and I wanted to stop. And much of the time I did. I stopped. And didn’t write. I went to yoga. Or I watched some telly. Or I thought about writing and tried not to feel guilty.

And it carried on. “This is my plan for the week“, I would confidently declare to my husband. The warmth and comfort of the plan enveloped me like a protective bubble. And then it would burst. Because you cannot write an entire PhD chapter in a week, no matter how much you tell yourself that is what you are going to do. Something gives. Or threatens to give. And you end up feeling sad and a little lost.

There’s the big wins. Sending your supervisors the first draft of a new chapter by the time you said you would. The excitement when you get to 40,000 words. Getting lots of neighbour-cred for taking in all the Amazon deliveries for your end of the street. I hit my overarching deadlines. I wrote my PhD. But it was dis-ordered, fearful, messy, and complicated. And in all of my many imaginings, in all of my re-written weekly plans, that’s what I couldn’t see. The chaos. The inability to impose structure. The days I would write from 6am to 6pm without moving from my desk. The days I walked around the house and achieved nothing but an empty washing pile and sparkling bathroom.

I still haven’t changed the name on my bank account. I haven’t stepped foot in a retreat. I put a stone on in weight, despite doing really sweaty exercise three, sometimes four, times a week. I got the job done, and that’s important (and I’m not downplaying it). But perhaps we need to dispel the idea that time away from the office is a panacea for all our academic woes. A set period to do anything you want sounds grand. And it is. And I was very fortunate. But it’s also hard. Instead of fixing issues, it can, sometimes, cause a flare up. Instead of freedom, it can, sometimes, feel like a cage.

I’d like to end this post with a poem written by one of my favourite people and inspirational mentor, Professor Elaine Hall. Professor Hall (@respartnersedu) wrote this poem when she was on sabbatical earlier this year. It is a beautifully evocative representation of everything I want to say about the sabbatical process. I share it here with her permission.

How’s your sabbatical going?”

Conscious of time passing of opportunities lost of no second chances

Should be enjoying this, should be grateful

Shamed, inviting greater disaster, flirting with destruction

Only weapons are thinking, battlefield is feelings, no blows are decisive, all wounds are permanent

The false flares from email, push notifications, laundry, spoons

Anything but the silent, unimpressed judgement of the flickering cursor

Words written briefly soothe, then become another task – revise, refine

The longing to play, instead feeling like I am packing the toys away for a disingenuous display

“uhhhmmm … Bit early to say”

One thought

  1. Good post. I can relate. I’m in the middle of my sabbatical and thus far, my PhD thesis is messy and unorganized and further, on some days I get nothing done!

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