How does one run a lab while on sabbatical?

Mar 06 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Based on the feedback I have gotten at all levels short of the university, things look good on the tenure front. Should that be officially bestowed, I'll be spending part of next year on sabbatical sleeping planning further world domination. Whereas I had to submit an application for sabbatical that included A Plan, the reality is that I have no sweet clue what I'm going to do yet.

But one aspect that concerns me a little is making sure that my students get the support they need while I am on sabbatical. I think I'll be taking more of the "staycation" approach, but I don't plan to be in my office in the same way that I normally am. I've seen several approaches to absentee lab running and it appears difficult to balance the mentoring with also getting some time away.

So, I'm curious today if people have found methods that are particularly effective, from the PI or trainee side, at meeting the lab needs while on sabbatical without feeling like the PI never left. As it currently stands, I won't still have a technician in the lab at that time to place "in charge".

22 responses so far

  • Stelios says:

    My Ph.D advisor went to Australia for a year while on sabbatical. But he was replying almost immediately to email questions and had assigned another faculty as a person to sign forms, letters etc.

  • I've not yet been lucky enough to face this problem but I have heard again and again to be weary of staying put for your sabbatical. This is your chance to escape committee meetings and admin in search of academic gold. If everyone knows you are nearby, it will be very hard to say no... And I think you should say no a lot!
    In terms of running a lab, there's always Skype. And my experience as a phd student when my advisor was away - we all thought "when the cat's away..." But instead found ourselves working about four times harder than usual. No idea why it happened, except that we felt a level of responsibility to be super productive in his absence.
    Anyhow, that's my two cents for what they're worth. Have fun and good luck!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Given family constraints, I'm not in a position to leave for an extended period of time. That doesn't mean I'll be in the office daily, but I can't just up and leave.

  • Jmcin9 says:

    As a GS my PI went on sabbaticals, right after I joined the lab. It basacially came down to long phone calls, every other week. not a great situation, but I was also still figuring out what I wanted to do, so it didn't hold me back to much. We had PDs and a Research faculty member in the lab.

    Currently, the lab I'm in, just moved cross country, with 2 GS staying behind. They are however still working on projects with us, and technically still students of my PI. Somewhat similar to a sabbatical situation. What seems to be working, is that we have a digital lab notebook. PI is able to log into the students notebook, and see what they are doing. They can use it to share data, present images and leave notes for how things are going. They are then skyline weekly-ish to let him know what they have done, how it went and what they are doing next. It also helps that they are working in the lab of one of their committee members, who provides on sight guidance.

  • Joshua says:

    My advisor went on sabbatical my 5th year of my Ph.D. We did not plan ahead well as I ended up having to FedEx the signature sheet for my dissertation to Jakarta for him to sign, and then have him FedEx it back to me in order to graduate. The carbon footprint of that piece of paper must have been astounding.

    More generally I think it's important to have a talk with each student and mark out big dates and requirements well ahead of time so that you don't get caught flat footed like we did. Regular Skype lab meetings could work well too depending on the time zone differences. Honestly our lab was fine because we had a kick ass tech and most of us were in our 3-5th years, so the day to day operations were good. I do worry about 1st and 2nd year students who probably need a little more guidance. Perhaps having a co-advisor could mitigate some of the problems.

    That being said, if you come back, energized, with new connections and opportunities for your students the net benefit is probably quite positive.

  • As far as grant stuff - So, I did a huge proposal push pre-sabbatical, which paid off (giving me a sabbatical break from grant writing). Not sure that's a strategy I would advise banking on. If it hadn't paid off, I would have been turning those around as opposed to generating de novo.

    Students/Lab: When not on sabbatical, we do weekly meetings with all our students. On sabbatical, we do ad hoc meetings via Skype as things come up. I meet regularly with the student in charge of data collection at my field site to keep up on what's going on down there and help troubleshoot stuff. Most of our students have their teeth into projects and we felt a little independence might be good for them. The newest student is taking a lot of classes and Ethan meets weekly with her via skype. Ethan has a postdoc who has been a huge asset in helping the students while we're less immediately available. My advisor also had postdocs help keep an eye on the students while he was away. Projects are moving along and our students seem to be doing well, so from a distance at least this seems to be working ok.

    Management: sadly, email is pervasive. Something needs authorization? It'll get scanned and sent to you. Makes me understand why my advisor spent one sabbatical in the Outback.

  • TheLabPrincess says:

    My PI is currently on sabbatical in another country and the biggest problem I have run into is that we don't have someone centrally in charge as you elude to with having no tech. From my experience, I would suggest looking at the personalities and current involvement/stress load/time of your students/postdocs and assigning them things to be in charge of that you might normally do around lab and finding someone who you can depend on to take care of all the random things that might come up day-to-day. My PI started along this path but never made it explicitly (or even somewhat) clear to our tech or senior grad student what he expected of them so we have just been eeking along. Which is working but is likely contributing to more stress on the three more organized people in the lab.

    For meetings/mentoring/general communication we have all felt that Skype meetings with our PI have been helpful and adequate. We have learned that a lot of tone is lost through email. Email is great for sending data but when it comes to data analysis, making future plans for the project, etc a Skype meeting is almost essential. We don't have regularly scheduled meetings (but we didn't when my PI was here either) and that seems to be working fine because my PI's schedule is so much easier to work around while he's on sabbatical and not doing all the departmental service. My PI also Skypes into group meetings so he gets a general sense of the group dynamic and any day-to-day problems as we usually do a "lab business" portion.

    But above all, I would say enjoy this time! Even as a graduate student I have seen my PI be able to dive into the literature and really be able to explore his scientific interests during this time. His excitement, new outlook on our projects, and new lab philosophies are keeping me engaged in my work.

  • Liz says:

    If you haven't already, making your day-to-day lab as self sufficient as possible before you start sabbatical is key - so that things like order/receiving, equipment repair biosafety certificates, can all happen smoothly in your absence. In my PhD lab, it was the fact that when the PI was on sabbatical not much really changed, but when the lab manager was away things went to hell. Given that you don't have a tech "in-charge", maybe assigning a specific lab member to each of these sorts of tasks that you might normally be involved in would be a good idea.

    Setting up a regular (maybe monthly) reporting system with your trainees so there is some structure there has worked well in my experience. I never really found my mentorship from my advisor suffered while he was away as long as he was email responsive, but he was pretty hands-off to begin with.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    I have heard from my peers that their PIs either made a trip to the lab once a month to stay active in the science going on or assigned a senior person (scientist, research prof) to guide the juniors while the PI arranged video chats once in a while.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Get one. Seriously, I don't see how this works without a TurboTech in place.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My tech money, unfortunately, turns over at the end of this summer. Barring additional federal investment in our pursuits, I would have to cut a year off my postdoc money to pay a tech for a year instead. And the tech would be new because my current one is moving on to something different. So, the options aren't great, but that could change as NSF mulls proposals.

  • zb says:

    I agree with the comment above about a lab manager/tech -- that what goes first in a lab is the organization. I have seen labs turn into disaster areas when their PIs are away (from little things like nobody washing their lunch dishes to serious stuff like people dropping the ball on animal care). My guess is that if you are not going to be in your lab regularly (and, with a "stay-sabbatical", maybe that would be the best bet, to plan a weekly 1/2 day when you will be in the lab), you need to establish clear responsibilities with clear hierarchies.

    Now, part YMMV depending on what your lab actually does. My guess is that a computational lab, where the only real resource is computers and software can probably manage the techless supervision better (though someone still has to be in charge of keeping the software/servers/etc. up and running, potentially this is centrally managed). My experiences is with labs that are heavy in mess, animal care, equipment, and, especially supplies and labs that are run highly independently with little centralized service.

  • Busy says:

    The carbon footprint of that piece of paper must have been astounding.

    If it makes you feel any better, it's less than a dollar in carbon offsets. Air travel is very efficient fuel wise, but the distances involved are enormous.

  • Busy says:

    Given family constraints, I'm not in a position to leave for an extended period of time.

    I don't know your specific family situation, but I do know that many of my colleagues overestimate the hassles involved. I have done three one-month stays and two three-month stays in my sabbaticals all with children and working spouse involved.

    The key is to travel to a place with decent public schools. They are required by law to take any residents. The kids attend school for a month, make new friends, and just about the time they are missing home is time to go back. They consider them almost like holidays and are always looking forward my next stay.

    The gaps in between are staycation, but since I'm away for extended periods of time the number of requests for work go down. This also means one has to find a colleague in which a one month or three month stay is enough to do substantial work together. Usually we start collaborating before the stay so when I get there everything is ready to go.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I've done both leave and stay sabbaticals. I think one should leave if at all possible. I've never run a big grant supported lab, so I've not had your situation. When I spent seven months in Venezuela, my two ex students and major collaborators were also in Venezuela.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Whereas I appreciate the "You should really get out of town" sentiment, it's just not an option for me this time around. I'm not overestimating the hassle, it's just not a possibility. I will travel, but not for long periods of time.

  • anon says:

    Since you need to stay for most of your sabbatical, the following approach might be useful to consider: I remember seeing a banner placed across the portal of a professor's office that hung down slightly (although not so much that a tall person' head would hit it) that said "Consider crossing this threshold as being equivalent to traveling to India." It made people think twice before entering his office.

  • YES says:

    Here's one of the problems with staying home during a sabbatical - everyone just expects that you can still come in and do things. I realize you can't leave and I totally understand that. Just be prepared and say NO. a lot. Students and others will just assume, well if you are here, why can't you come in and work? why can't you come take care of this, and this and by the way, since you are here, how about do this too? pretty soon you've ruined your sabbatical. You might consider lying and saying you are out of town and just handle things with phone/email.

    I was able to do 2 sabbaticals because I had a lab manager and people who I could assign specific tasks, answer questions QUICKLY via email or phone, and everyone's productivity increased. But you don't have the lab manager, so you'll have to make others carry specific responsibilities. I suggest planning it out very carefully - what needs to be done, and who is responsible for taking care of each thing.

    otherwise - ENJOY!!!!

  • Alex says:

    Is there another institution in driving distance where you could get yourself some sort of unpaid visiting appointment? Even if you only go there 1-2 days per week and do what you would have done from home, doing it in a different setting, with different people, a different set of seminars to attend and conversations to have, etc., can be nice.

    Plus, when people say "Well, you're around, so even though you're on sabbatical, maybe you could just do this one thing for me..." you can say "Sorry, got something going on at [host institution] that day."

    The scaled-down version of this is that I've known of a few people who were on giant campuses, or urban campuses spread throughout downtown, and did their sabbatical in a building more than a mile away. Far enough away that nobody could pop their head in the office door and say "Hey, could you do this one thing for me...?"

  • namnezia says:

    Skype and email. It's not that difficult and folks become more independent when you're not there to answer their every whim.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    I have a position where I do a lot of tele-commuting, skyping, etc. and it's really not that hard to stay on top of things for short duration. After that, you really need to drop by for the big-time chats on science, etc. It's easy to have the 1-3 slide presentations and edit papers, etc. The 'finishing' part. It's getting students and projects started that's harder without real sit-down-and-talk time.

    I'd say for me 'short' is a week or two. After that things can get a bit haywire. Of course, this has been my situation since day 1 so I've groomed my lab to be fairly independent and 'team-oriented'. I know some more micro-oriented managers that must have a hard time getting a cup of coffee...

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