Research leave can be a blessing, but like other aspects of academic life, needs to be managed carefully in order to get the most out of it. Here are a few tips on how to make the best use of your time if you’re fortunate enough to be awarded leave to pursue research.
Not all leaves are equal
It is a truism, of course, but it bears repeating that what research leave means will vary considerably from institution to institution. In the first place, not all universities offer research leave: some rely solely on awards from research councils, others offer leave on a rotating basis (after a set number of semesters, for instance), and others still may offer internal leave on a competitive basis. Leave may be conditional on matched funding from elsewhere, and may also be heavily performance managed. Some leave may not be full leave but will come in the form of a teaching buy-out, relieving the award-holder from certain duties but not from others. The first step to take is to establish, therefore, what sort of leave might be on offer from your institution, or from grant-awarding bodies, before you take steps to apply.
Plan in advance
In connection with the above, plan your leave period carefully. Make sure you plan your leave at least a year in advance. Discuss your plans with your line managers for both research and teaching, in order to ensure that they are able to make contingency arrangements to support your leave in the event of a successful application. In addition, discuss your needs with your administrative managers – they may well be able to advise you on how best to apply for any financial requirements, including equipment procurement, travel, administrative support, and incidental costs.
As well as undertaking strategic and logistical planning in this way, make sure you do due diligence when it comes to research preparation. Use your time to ensure you are best placed to undertake the research you propose when the time comes. Compile a realistic plan of work for yourself, with intermediate deadlines, making sure you anticipate any scheduled calls on your time or possible bottlenecks with commitments (this can be particularly pressing when you have a teaching buy-out rather than full leave). Set up an informal peer network, and agree on a set of dates for you to submit work to them. Contact all stakeholders (archives, libraries, collaborators, etc) to make sure that you will have immediate access to the materials you need at the right time. Write to potential contacts; set up lecture tours, conference presentations, or research visits.
On a more practical note, if you propose to travel abroad to undertake your research, familiarise yourself with any visa requirements well in advance, submit your application in good time, and make sure that you are up to date with all medical requirements (inoculations, institutional statements of support, ID, etc.).
Limit your availability
The key to a successful research leave is to be disciplined with your time. This applies not only to the actual research, but to your colleagues and students. Limit your availability, both in person and by email. If it is a requirement of your leave that you have some sort of responsibility for contact with colleagues or students, make sure that boundaries of contact are very clearly defined. Establish set days and/or times when you are available, and defend this time fiercely. Be proactive: if you need to be present in your workplace, put up a sign clearly stating your availability (or even better, a ‘do not disturb’ sign). Better still, limit your physical presence as much as possible – that way you won’t be caught up in the inevitable corridor conversations about internal politics.
Do what you wouldn’t do otherwise
Above all, use your research time to go somewhere and undertake research that you would not otherwise do. In other words, don’t sit at home doing the sort of research that you might do anyway in between teaching and admin. Rather, use the opportunity to innovate and take a risk with your research. Travel to a place you might not otherwise go to, and try approaching your research from a fresh perspective by making new contacts and building new networks.
Plan again, and again
Throughout your leave keep a close eye on your pre-arranged schedule of work. Make adjustments as you go, but keep your overall aims/outputs in mind. At the end of your leave, look again at your planning and consider whether your research has changed your direction of travel. The end of the research period can be a great time not just for taking stock and considering all you have achieved, but also for establishing fresh priorities.