Can a sabbatical cure work misery?
April 13, 2015 2:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm a newly-tenured faculty member in a very toxic department in a US university. I'm pretty miserable at my workplace, but it's difficult to find a job in my field. I am also interested in taking a sabbatical for the 2016-2017 academic year, or perhaps later, but that would commit me to staying at my university for another year past that. Is it possible a sabbatical would make things much better for me at work? Or should I go ahead and focus on finding a new job?

My department is pretty toxic (as agreed upon by just about everyone who works there, and those lucky few who have fled to new jobs). I've dealt with some bullying and other interpersonal conflicts and I've experienced some pretty significant depression (I'm seeing a therapist, who's been helpful and who also agrees my department is awful). Because of a strong portfolio, I managed to get tenure despite a rough process that demonstrated quite clearly (in writing!) how much some of my colleagues dislike me. Before this job, I worked in similar departments at other universities, so I know this place is especially bad.

I've applied for a few other positions, including a bit beyond my home department but still mostly in higher ed, but it's a rough job market for academics. I did get one interview but not an offer. I'm a pretty good employee, though, the longer I stay at my current job, the worse I feel about myself. (I also understand that having a job with tenure makes me pretty lucky overall.)

If I can't find a new job, a sabbatical seems like a good option. I've got some research projects I can pursue.

However, taking a sabbatical means I'd be committing to staying at my institution for another year after that (they're quite rigid about this). My kids are in middle school now. If I'm going to move them, it'd be better to do it sooner. If I take the sabbatical and stay at my university, my kids will start high school in our town. I'd rather not disrupt them after that, which means that taking a sabbatical will likely have me at my current job for many more years. At this point, I can't conceive of managing that emotionally.

Can a sabbatical make a big difference in my long-term happiness at my job? Will the break help me stay a few more years? I would be disappointed to give up a semi-paid sabbatical, but getting away from my horrible workplace might be worth it.

I'd welcome insight from folks who have taken sabbaticals, and I'd also welcome advice on how to go about making a decision.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone I know who was miserable in an academic job has found sabbaticals make things worse. While you are away, you realise how unhappy you really were, and when you come back, everything you'd got used to putting up with just seems so much more awful.

I think you should try and get a new job instead.
posted by lollusc at 2:23 AM on April 13, 2015 [11 favorites]

A sabbatical will not cure your toxic workplace. It'll get you away from it for a while, but when you return to it, you'll be back in the same toxic workplace. Only this time, you'll be knowingly putting yourself back into a bad situation, for a much longer period than it seems you really want to. Do you really want to do that to yourself?

Life is too short to make yourself miserable. Use the chance you have now to find yourself a new job. You'll thank yourself for years later.
posted by Solomon at 2:49 AM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

A sabbatical is a great way to take time to do your thing and return renewed and refreshed, but it seems like you know you'll be returning to a toxic work environment. It would be one thing if the department was changing and things would be different upon your return, but that's not the case.

Don't take a sabbatical knowing you have to go back to the suckhole that drained the life from you. Keep looking for another position.
posted by kinetic at 3:24 AM on April 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Both. Start networking for a new job now. Use the sabbatical to pump out articles or finish a book and network like crazy.

No, a sabbatical will not solve your problem unless key assholes leave while you're gone. Are the worst people close to retirement or considering leaving? In some ways there is nothing WORSE than coming back after a sabbatical refreshed and full of ideas and energy only to find yourself back in hell. The same toxic swamp.

Toxic (as opposed to just mediocre) departments suck the life out of decent people. Get out while you can.

Apply for jobs during the year back that you owe them.

PS: 20 years of faculty experience here.
posted by spitbull at 4:09 AM on April 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

No sabbatical for me yet, but based upon what I've heard from others and seen in my neck of the woods, any break away from a toxic department (sabbatical or parental leave) will come with some "punishment" upon return. Extra committee crap or more bullying. OTOH, on reading, how much worse can it be?

I think spitbull has it exactly right. Take the sabbatical and use that time to job hunt like crazy. That might also go better if it is coming during the time you are spending on research or projects that fire you up outside the toxostew. You may present your better self while you are away, rather than while fighting the good fight/putting up with your current situation.

Good luck!
posted by Gotanda at 4:35 AM on April 13, 2015

What is the penalty for leaving less than a year after returning from sabbatical? Or for just not returning at all if you find a better job? They can't literally force you to work for them for a year. So find out what the penalty is, and decide whether you're willing to pay it. (Maybe even consult an employment attorney to find out if the penalty is enforceable.) Then, if you can, take your sabbatical and use it to look for new jobs.
posted by decathecting at 5:39 AM on April 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I know a faculty member who had a similar deal and then got a new job anyway the year after her sabbatical. She said her previous department never forgive her, but there are more important things in life.

You should take the sabbatical and use it to do things that will make it easier for you to find another job (such as increasing your research output).
posted by grouse at 5:50 AM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

It used to be that such clauses in employment contracts for academics were very rarely enforced. Institutions agreed (and still do at a peer level) to let it go in exchange for reciprocity in future faculty shifts. But in recent years, growing inequality between richer and poorer institutions (sound familiar?) seems to have driven the latter (and especially state institutions, which are increasingly run by bureaucrats from the business world who have no loyalty to academic culture) to greater vindictiveness and toward viewing faculty labor as not particularly conditioned by individual or workgroup morale. Bodies in front of paying students, yo? Untenured bodies if possible. Part-timers even better because cheaper. But tenure does not mean you aren't subject to their labor market logics. Or their catering to local resentments as richer private universities poach the best people from weakening public universities (something provosts and deans don't necessarily mind if they are shutting down humanities or social science programs -- attrition, bad morale, overwork, and declining reputation etc. all work in their favor in such cases). A few years ago, I had to deal (as temporary management, i.e., department chair) with a hire where a modest public university was trying to keep a star faculty member my elite private university was trying to hire away from them, and the dean there did exactly this -- insisted on a post-tenure-leave year of owed service before letting said faculty member leave for greener pastures.

Most likely this was meant to be a demoralizing message to other faculty members who weren't leaving, as well as recovery of what was perceived as an investment in this person's development. And probably it was unenforceable even with litigation. But you try to convince your provost to participate knowingly in the violation of a formal contract with unlimited potential liability or the risk of complications in future dealings not only with this particular institution (the one insisting on an additional year of service) but her/his entire large state university system, whose rules we would be violating. Not gonna happen. Provosts and deans are by nature risk averse people. And few junior faculty members are equipped to litigate such a situation if it comes to that without major support from their (new) institution.

Part of it is just orneriness (at the deans and provosts of declining public institutions, or weakening private ones too) at having your best faculty routinely poached, an emotion I can understand even if the problem is structural and insoluble from within any institutional setting as such. I've been on all sides of such poachings and attempted poachings, and it's always messy business unless the institutions involved are both near the top of the heap, in which case it's more like friendly competition and a chance to burn some of this year's endowment income because Fuck Harvard.

Wait a year is always the stance under such circumstances. A year can be fudged in many ways in terms of tenure clocks and counting work done under one or the other employer toward tenure, etc. And a year spent where you know you are leaving soon and have no interest in contributing further can be used very productively, since it's far harder to enforce an academic's service work ethic than her/his employment contract dates and terms.

If you see what I am saying. You could be looking at two years of not busting your ass to impress a place you're leaving if you managed to get a job offer during your sabbatical year and agreed to the year delay with the hiring institution (something deans are always glad to oblige, or at least in most cases, since it saves them a year of salary on budget).
posted by spitbull at 6:45 AM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

If the job market is tight in Academia, and you manage to get a job offer while you're on sabbatical or in the year following, it means that the institution offering you the job really wants you. Seriously, no one is hiring warm bodies anymore. They want the best of the best, and if that's you, you're in a position to request that they remunerate your current institution for the privilege of poaching you, so as not to burn bridges. If you'd face a financial penalty for moving on without putting in your one year post-Sabbatical, it's not unheard of to have the new school pay out the old one.
posted by juniperesque at 7:51 AM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

So, what's the downside of going on sabbatical? You can job hunt, you don't have to deal with your colleagues... And suppose you get a job that wants you to start right after your sabbatical is done.

(1) you can be upfront with the new job, and see if they'll delay a year, during which time all you have to do is teach your classes. So that extra year, no worries. 'cause you'll be done with there.

(2) if they don't and you leave anyway, what happens? You have to repay your salary from the sabbatical? That would suck. Maybe the new place could help?

(3) so maybe, the idea should be to go on sabbatical, with the idea that the year back, you're really on the market.

Your kids can adapt---they'll be happier if you're not a huge ball of cranky all the time, even if it means changing schools in high school.

(Is there a second parent for the kids in the picture? If so, what does that person say?)

You're really, really clear you've checked out of this job. So, go search!

(I changed jobs after getting tenure. My new job is better (although my old job was not toxic like you're describing.))
posted by leahwrenn at 9:13 AM on April 13, 2015

Consider laying this question out for your kids and ask for their input. My mom did this when my parents were thinking of moving when I was in high school. In retrospect she was probably unhappy living in Salt Lake City, but she framed it as "get residency for you in a state with lots of good colleges and move to live near family" rather than make it about her unhappiness. The move was hard for me, but I felt that I had participated in the decision, and that helped.

In my opinion, moving is hard, but it's harder to live with an unhappy parent. If you need to move your children during early high school, they will be okay.
posted by aniola at 9:50 AM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hiring institution will sometimes buy out a contract year, true. But it's pretty rare in the humanities.
posted by spitbull at 10:26 AM on April 13, 2015

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