Female biologist or researcher in action of under explorer the rainforest.

Taking time out from academic responsibilities to try new experiences can boost creativity.Credit: Getty

In 2009, Brenda Wingfield completed the sequence of the pathogen Fusarium circinatum — the first fungal genome to be fully sequenced on the African continent — which causes local pine trees to wilt and ooze resin. But the fungal geneticist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa had a problem: she didn’t know how to annotate and analyse a whole genome.

Wingfield found her solution half a world away in the United States, where F. circinatum is also a problem. She trained in these genomics techniques during a sabbatical at the Genome Center of the University of California, Davis.

“That was mind-blowing, learning genomics that I’d never done before,” she recalls. Wingfield brought her new-found expertise back home to Pretoria, where she hosted a week-long “genome annotation jamboree”.

The practice of academic sabbaticals began in 1880 at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and these professional breaks have become a perk of professorships around the world. Sabbaticals of up to one year are typically available to tenured faculty members every seven years, although policies vary by institution and nation. Some companies also offer sabbaticals or similar kinds of leave. Data on sabbatical rates are scarce, and not everyone is able to take advantage. Academics in some low- or middle-income nations, for instance, might face extra struggles with obtaining visas, crossing borders or the cost of living in nations with stronger currencies.

COVID-19 lockdowns stopped most international travel, and some scientists opted for at-home ‘staybaticals’, enjoying the rejuvenation and creativity of time away from teaching and administrative duties without the stress of travel. Now that borders are opening up again, conventional sabbaticals are once more an option.

“My sense is that we are almost back to ‘normal’ with regards to academic travel again,” says Wingfield. “I am aware of a number of people who are now on sabbatical or planning a sabbatical for 2023.”

Scientists use this time away from teaching and administrative responsibilities in various ways: to learn new skills or experimental systems; to write papers or books; to develop relationships and collaborations; or to take a career in a new direction. But those benefits come at some effort and cost — a successful sabbatical requires months or even years of planning to arrange a host, travel funds or a replacement salary, and to organize the logistics of uprooting a personal and professional life. Scientists might struggle to keep research going at their home institutions or to find the right schools for their children, for instance.

It can also be difficult for some faculty members to arrange a full year away. Rachel Spronken-Smith, a geographer at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, notes that sabbaticals are encouraged at her institution, but researchers tend to take shorter trips. She is currently on an eight-month staybatical, in part because pandemic pressures at work left her too exhausted to plan a trip and too worried about getting ill while overseas. “Being on a staybatical has allowed me to refresh in every sense,” she says. She has moved her research forwards and updated her courses. She has also taken short holidays to New Zealand destinations. Others might take a mini sabbatical lasting days or weeks (see ‘Mini sabbaticals’). These options allow scientists to minimize financial, travel and logistical hurdles.

Mini sabbaticals

Even a short break yields rewards.

Not everyone has time to go away for six months or more. A mini sabbatical, lasting days or weeks, can give busy faculty members the chance to learn something new or extend their professional network. It can also be the right choice for junior researchers who haven’t yet earned the right to a full sabbatical.

“One can come back from a week, two weeks or three weeks, perhaps with new skills, new ideas or new connections,” says Michael Pillinger, a rheumatologist at New York University School of Medicine, who analysed mini sabbaticals offered by clinical institutions in a 2019 study.

Some scientists design their own trips. Others turn to official sabbatical programmes, such as that offered by the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering in Evanston, Illinois. The programme allows faculty members at Northwestern University to spend at least three days a week at Argonne National Laboratory in nearby Lemont during one academic quarter.

Andreas Wächter, an industrial engineer at Northwestern University, took advantage of the programme in 2018. “You have the luxury of a huge chunk of time to concentrate on research,” says Wächter. “You can really concentrate on establishing new relationships.”

His new-found network included researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where Wächter went for a year-long sabbatical in 2019–20.

Even a short trip can provide benefits. Research shows that diverse experiences boost creativity — particularly when they involve other cultures1,2. And studies of sabbaticals find that researchers return home with greater vitality, reduced stress levels and more career resources, especially if they travel abroad35.

Home or away

Landing in a new place is part of the experience, says Wingfield. “You are removing yourself from your regular social circle,” she says. “That allows you to open yourself up to new ideas and to do things a bit differently.”

Wingfield credits her own career advancement and some of her most-cited papers to her five sabbaticals, taken between 1994 and 2017. Her work on F. circinatum and other fungal genomes6, which was a complete change from her previous research, helped her to gain a research chair in fungal genomics.

For some scientists, sabbaticals are a matter of survival. Developmental biologist Yolanda Cruz retired in 2021 from Oberlin College in Ohio. Teaching there is a full-time activity, but faculty members are also expected to maintain a research programme. She had trained in mouse development, but felt she couldn’t compete with laboratories that had full-time research staff.

Cruz decided to focus on the less-crowded field of marsupial development. For her first sabbatical year, in 1992, she spent several months in Australia, learning about marsupial biology. She used the remainder in Oberlin, setting up her lab to study opossums. “That’s probably the best thing I ever did, career-wise,” says Cruz, because it opened up a new field of study in which she could be competitive.

Cruz arranged for a colleague at Oberlin to rent her house and car while she was gone. But the trip didn’t go perfectly. Cruz had bought an ancient Mitsubishi car for her six months in Australia, on the understanding that the dealer would buy it back when she left. But the dealer didn’t honour the arrangement. Cruz then had to drive around until she found a new buyer, who paid much less than she’d asked for.

Yet the experience didn’t turn her off sabbaticals. She spent further stints in Australia and Europe, where she split her time between the labs of a former student and a past postdoctoral adviser, learning the latest molecular-biology techniques.

Going on sabbaticals has also been a crucial career move for Spronken-Smith. Because New Zealand is geographically isolated, she says, the university encourages faculty members to maintain overseas ties and collaborations. In a survey she published with her colleagues in 2015, she found that academic researchers in New Zealand considered sabbatical leave to be an important factor in career progression and promotions, second only to garnering grants7.

Spronken-Smith has spent sabbaticals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, but it hasn’t always been possible to travel. Her children were young in 2000, when she was working at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. The family had secured a coveted spot at the university’s day-care centre that they didn’t want to lose. So Spronken-Smith took a short trip to Europe for a conference and spent the rest of her sabbatical year at home.

To create some distance from her work in the geography department, she obtained space in the physics department. “The purpose was to find an office where nobody could find me,” she says. She enjoyed still having coffee with colleagues, while skipping departmental meetings.

The staybatical had a big influence on her career. As part of it, she earned a postgraduate diploma in university teaching. “That set me on a different career path” researching higher education, she says.

Break free

Heran Darwin, a microbiologist at New York University School of Medicine, needed a rejuvenating break when she took a sabbatical in 2015. Her lab building had been flooded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and she’d had to move her tuberculosis research lab four times before settling in a permanent space in 2018. It was stressful and disruptive.

She headed for the US West Coast, signing on as a visiting scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, where she learnt immunology and taught her hosts how to work with tuberculosis.

Person takes photo of arctic icebergs in Iceland.

Many researchers report improved well-being and enhanced career focus after a sabbatical.Credit: Getty

Heading home, she felt a twinge of sadness, but was happy to return to her trainees and research with a new-found fluency in immunology along with new collaborators and projects. “I came back refreshed and motivated about science,” says Darwin.

Other researchers find that sabbaticals offer the perfect route to rev up their research after working in an administrative position. In 2012, materials scientist Gan Moog Chow stepped down from his last position in a nine-year stretch of administrative roles, ending his term as department head. “I felt I needed to take a sabbatical to renew and retool myself in research,” says Chow, who retired from the National University of Singapore at the end of 2022.

Chow had been working on chemical syntheses of magnetic thin films for data storage and nanoparticles for sensors. But he was ready for a change, and wanted to tackle the structures of complex oxides, metal-containing compounds used for energy-efficient information storage.

To get up to speed, Chow spent five months in 2013 as a visiting scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, and another five in 2014 at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. He learnt about synchrotron X-ray techniques and scanning transmission electron microscopy, skills that he needed to delve into the oxide world. “Without the sabbatical, it would have been much harder for me to enter this highly competitive research field,” says Chow.

Hans Clevers also used a sabbatical year in 2015–16 to readjust to research after an administrative job. He’d just finished three years as president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, advising the government, talking to reporters and travelling. But he was returning to his stem-cell research at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Clevers designed a schedule of six consecutive sabbatical trips, spending six to eight weeks in each place. He visited Australia, Israel, New York, California, France and Hong Kong to give talks, speak to scientists and spread the word about the organoid technology developed in his lab. (Clevers is now head of pharmaceutical research and early development at the multinational drug firm Roche in Basel, Switzerland, which also grants sabbaticals to its employees.)

A couple of months was the perfect amount of time to get to know people and a place, Clevers says: “You don’t need a year.”

Plan ahead

Clevers estimates that he started planning his sabbatical about nine months in advance. Travelling professors usually have to apply for the leave well before they plan to depart, and many institutions require accomplishment reports to be submitted on return.

Most trips will require a host: a scientist in the new location who arranges for office or lab space and Internet and library access for the visiting researcher. It isn’t hard to find one if researchers plumb their professional networks, says Cruz.

Researchers must also find ways to finance their trip. Not all institutions cover salary for a full year. Wingfield uses grants to supplement funding for her sabbaticals, and notes that it can take two to three years to arrange the money (see ‘Sabbatical funders’). Travellers might also have to pay for airfares and housing in a distant location while maintaining living quarters at home. Services such as SabbaticalHomes.com can help academics to find, rent or swap homes.

Sabbatical funders

Several organizations offer financial help for those seeking to visit other countries.

Scientists can cobble together funds for sabbaticals from a variety of sources, including monies that might be available at their home or host institutions. Be sure to ask around, and consider government and foundation grants, too. Some potential sources of money include:

• The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust funds sabbatical projects for academics at South African institutions.

• For non-Japanese researchers working in Japan, fellowships are available from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Invitational Fellowships for Research in Japan) and the Matsumae International Foundation.

• The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awards fellowships to citizens and permanent residents of the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

• The US Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program supports non-US scholars to conduct research at US institutions, and the Fulbright Scholar Program funds US academics to do research abroad.

• The Australian Academy of Science awards Selby Fellowships to visiting scientists for a public lecture tour.

With inflation currently high in many countries, exchange rates might also be a factor. Going to a nation that has a higher-value currency than at home can compound the financial challenge. While Wingfield was on her first sabbatical in the United States in 1994, the value of the South African rand dropped. She was travelling with her children, who wondered why she suddenly became more price-conscious when grocery shopping.

But Wingfield took the hit to her wallet in her stride. “It was good for my middle-class children to understand that they couldn’t always have those wonderful, coloured cereals,” she says.

For researchers with children, travelling abroad can also mean trying to sync school schedules in different countries. Wingfield’s son had to repeat a school year when he returned home after one sabbatical. But neither Wingfield nor her son felt that it was a great loss. He once told his mother with pride, “I’ve been to school on three continents.”

Scientists must also consider the students and postdocs in the labs at their home institutions. Many keep in contact through video calls. Wingfield often selects a senior graduate student or postdoc to keep an eye on the group. It also helps if students have more than one adviser to rely on.

Clevers checked in with his group in Utrecht between each of his mini sabbaticals, and says the team got on well without him, publishing several high-quality papers. “It was a bit of an eye-opener that I don’t need to be on top of everything,” he says.

Ultimately, a sabbatical can be whatever a researcher needs it to be. Cruz’s advice is to look at the breadth of possibilities that qualify as sabbatical projects, then ask, “What is the most amazing thing you can do?”