Friday, July 19, 2013

Guest post from Joshua Weitz: Talking about the PI Sabbatical Beforehand: A Brief Guide for Faculty, Postdocs, and PhD Students in the Sciences

Guest Post by Joshua Weitz, Associate Professor, School of Biology and School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology

I direct a theoretical ecology and quantitative biology group based in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech.  I am going on a 9 month “leave” (Georgia Tech does not call them sabbaticals) to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the U of Arizona in Tucson, AZ from August 2013-May 2014 where I will be based in Matthew Sullivan’s Tucson Marine Phage Laboratory.  In preparation for this leave, our group held an interactive discussion on challenges and opportunities arising from the PI sabbatical for faculty, postdocs and PhD students in the sciences.  The discussion took place in four parts in a one-hour period.  Below I describe the setup of the discussion followed by specific recommendations for faculty, postdocs and PhD students prior to the PI sabbatical. 

How to Talk about the PI Sabbatical
Part 1 – the setup: I asked for a show of hands of group members who had thought about how my sabbatical would change the group and its dynamics?  Nearly all members raised their hands.  When asked, the group members also noted that they were most concerned about how the sabbatical would affect them.  Hence, in an effort to try and understand the effect of the sabbatical on all members, we split into three small discussion groups which were asked to identify challenges and opportunities for (i) the PI; (ii) postdocs; (iii) PhD students. 

Part 2 – small group discussion: The individual groups talked about how the sabbatical would affect different group members.  There are currently 9 members in the group (not including the PI), so we divided into three groups of three (I did not actively participate in the small group discussions, but did check in on all three groups).  The PI group was comprised of one postdoc, 1 graduate and 1 undergraduate.  The postdoc group had 1 postdoc and 2 graduate students.  The grad student group had 3 graduate students.  Hence, the first item of discussion was an effort to identify issues at stake at each career stage.  Then, the groups began to discuss how the sabbatical might change business as usual.  The groups spoke for ~15 minutes.

Part 3 - reporting: Challenges and opportunities were identified for each of the three categories.  A number of salient themes emerged that serve as general recommendations.   The consensus was that a number of common themes would emerge prior to a sabbatical although each science research group may differ in its own interactions.  Our presumption is that the PI was going alone and this shaped the nature of our recommendations.  First, as suggested by one of the students, there was a sense that the PI sabbatical would lead the students into a “Spiderman situation” in the sense that “with great power comes great responsibility”.  The PI sabbatical would lead to greater independence for group members and that this independence involves greater need for self-motivation, taking a holistic (long-term) view of one’s research, and increased pre-planning given the changes to the PI’s availability.  Second, clear communication is essential. For example, if a PI plans to be incommunicado for long stretches of time, this may be manageable (even if non-ideal from a student perspective), so long as provisions have been made to handle both the administrative and research duties that the PI normally would handle.  As a rule of thumb, the greater the change in PI availability, the greater the need for pre-planning to ensure that students and postdocs remain on track for research, career and personal development goals.

Part 4 – the view of the PI:  I provided additional feedback, tailored to the group and specifically addressed an issue that could create the most anxiety: my availability for one-on-one interactions.  I also distributed an initial recommendation list, modified here in light of group discussion. 

Five Specific pre-Sabbatical Recommendations for Faculty, Postdocs and PhD Students

1.     Develop a plan for your year ahead: what are the key goals for the sabbatical?
2.     Identify what is going to be different and what is going to remain the same: e.g., a new project(s), less/no teaching; less/no administrative duties, a new interaction schedule with the group, etc.
3.     Communicate your plans for the sabbatical and your expectations of group members to the group (ideally, after a group discussion of the kind outlined here).
4.     Talk to your Chair about expectations for your year and new expectations (if any) upon your return (and talk to your departmental admin team to make sure they are aware of your plans).
5.     Establish new interactions with your local host and host community.

1.     Establish a regular schedule of interactions with your adviser.
2.     Keep focused on your research & career goals (i.e., do not become a proxy adviser in the absence of the PI, i.e., see 3 & 4 below)
3.     Determine your supervisory responsibilities – what is your (limited) role to advise the students, technicians in the group?
4.     Determine your lab management responsibilities – what is your (limited) role in ordering and other admin duties?
5.     Travel to collaborators and mentors – do not just stay put while your adviser is away.

PhD students
1.     Identify the major research and career development expectations during your adviser’s time away – how will the adviser’s absence affect your thesis (if at all)?
2.     Establish a regular schedule of interactions with your adviser and senior members of the group.
3.     Contact your adviser, even off-schedule if you really need advice.
4.     Remember: your PI’s sabbatical is an opportunity for independence, increased self-motivated work and development as a scholar, not a “holiday”.
5.     Identify a local faculty member who can serve as an occasional resource to provide input and thoughts on your thesis work (this should be coordinated in advance, with your PI).

Final thoughts:
A PI sabbatical can be a very positive opportunity for all group members to become more independent, to set off on new directions, and to bring greater creativity and productivity to a group.  However, two notes of caution.  First, if you are not yet in a group, think carefully before joining with an absent PI, as the initial period in a group (regardless of your status) often sets the frame for the long-term interaction.  Second, the PI remains the PI, so be wary of a sabbatical plan that involves anyone other than the PI becoming the acting group leader.   Although certain senior members may take over duties, the sabbatical plan should (ideally) involve availability of the PI to make key decisions critical to the group, including thesis advancement, hiring/firing and mediation of major conflicts.

And, I suppose I'll have to revisit this guide next year to report back on what worked and what we should have thought of in advance!

  •  Dr. Joshua Weitz
  •  Dr. Alexander Bucksch
  •  Dr. Michael Cortez
  •  Abhiram Das, PhD candidate
  •  Cesar Flores, PhD candidate
  •  Luis Jover, PhD candidate
  •  Gabriel Mitchell, PhD candidate
  •  Bradford Taylor, PhD candidate
  •  Charles Wigington, PhD candidate
  •  Victoria Chou, NSF REU student
Further reading
Many blogs are available detailing sabbatical “adventures” and “diaries”.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post Joshua. Your group is quite lucky that you took the time to do this, as are the rest of us!

    I experienced this from the phd student perspective (though most in our group have multiple supervisors), and you are right, it is certainly both a good and bad thing.

    Have fun on sabbatical!