Fund your own sabbatical

By Philip Brewer on 10 September 2008 (Updated 11 February 2011) 10 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

I never got a sabbatical.  My dad was a college professor, so I knew from a young age what a sabbatical was.  I always paid attention whenever one corporation or another would be in the news for establishing (or, more often, eliminating) a sabbatical program.  Eventually, I gave up on ever working for a company that understood the benefits of a sabbatical program—and put some effort into trying to create my own sabbatical.  As I say, I never got one, but maybe it's not too late.

What you need to construct your own sabbatical is pretty straightforward:  you need time, money, and a project.  I'm going to talk about those in reverse order, because the project is really the heart of a sabbatical.

Project

A sabbatical is not a long vacation.  Long vacations are all well and good—I recommend them highly—but they're not what I'm talking about here.

A sabbatical is an extended period of leave from your regular occupation in order to devote the time to some project.  Some people use the time to write a book.  Some people do research.  Some people design or build or test something.  If you're not a teacher in your regular job, spending some time teaching can be an excellent project for a sabbatical.  Travel is often involved, not because it's fundamental to a sabbatical, but simply because a person with a regular job can't usually go someplace else for a significant length of time, except on a sabbatical.

Places that offer formal sabbaticals almost always have an application process, which entails producing a plan for your project.  Even if you don't have to write an application, you should definitely write a plan.  It should include all the ordinary stuff such a plan would have:

  • Goal -- a short statement of what you're trying to do
  • Actions -- a description of what you plan to do to achieve your goal
  • Deliverables -- a description of what you're going to have to show for your work
  • Schedule -- milestones along the way, so that you can track your progress
  • Budget -- not only the special project expenses, but also your ordinary living expenses

The classic sabbatical was a year long.  Universities used to offer 9-month sabbaticals (one school year, on the theory that you already got the summer off).  Last I heard, lots of universities were trying to get away with offering one-semester sabbaticals (and it's probably gotten worse since then).

The thing to remember, though, is that your sabbatical should be sized in proportion to your project.  If you've got a short project, a short sabbatical is appropriate.  And, if you're only going to be able to take a short sabbatical, then maybe you should put off any huge project you might have in mind until next time.

This is why a schedule is part of your plan:  To match the size of your project to the length of your sabbatical, and vice versa.

Money

Despite the title of this post, I'm actually going to say the least about the money, because raising the money is straightforward (which is not to say easy).  You raise the money for a sabbatical the same way you raise money for anything else—you spend less than you earn.

Saving for a sabbatical isn't much different than saving for a new TV—you need more money, but you don't need huge outsized amounts of money. 

In that way it is different from saving for retirement.  To retire you need so much money that most people (even most frugal people) will need to save for their whole careers to put enough aside.  Saving for a sabbatical is not nearly on that scale.  It is a commitment, though.

Let's suppose that you'd like to take a sabbatical in seven years.  (Every seven years is traditional.)  That gives you 84 months to save up the money.  Since you came up with a budget as part of your plan, you know how much money you need.  Divide it by 84 and see how much money you need to set aside each month.

If the result is too daunting, I suggest a two-step process.  First, economize in your plan.  (Since just being on sabbatical is a serious boost to your standard of living, surely it's worth making a few small sacrifices that will reduce the cash demands of supporting your household.)  Cutting your sabbatical budget will reduce the total you need to save.  Second, apply those same sacrifices to your regular budget.  (Just the prospect of a sabbatical is a boost to your standard of living, etc.)  That will free up the cash you need.

Unless you live alone, your family will no doubt have something to say about these economizations.  Happily, if you don't live alone, there's always the option of putting other members of the household to work earning some of the money needed to support you during your sabbatical.  That can reduce the amount that needs to be saved considerably.

If you own a house and plan to travel on your sabbatical, it may well be possible to rent your house out for the period of your sabbatical and bring in some money that way.  (College professors do this routinely, usually to other college professors on sabbatical.  You can do the same.  College professors are usually not too bad as tenants.)

If you work at a university or a non-profit, it might be possible to get grants to support your sabbatical—but if you do, you probably know more about it than I do.

Time

Here, I think, is the crux of the problem for most people.  Coming up with the money may be hard, but at least the process is clear.  There is no such clarity in the process for coming up with the time—this part is different for everyone.

More employers than you might suspect have some sort of program for sabbaticals (although often unpaid).  The ones that don't, except for the very smallest, at least have some sort of program for a leave of absence.  The rules—about such things as whether you can keep your benefits and whether you can count on getting your job back—vary from employer to employer.  The first step is to find out what those rules are.

Frankly, though, the rules scarcely matter.  The real problem is dealing with your boss (and his or her boss) and your coworkers.  Just raising the topic may be a problem—wanting to take a sabbatical is going to be viewed by some people as showing a lack of commitment or a lack of loyalty.

Worse, even a company that claims to support the idea of a sabbatical (or other leave for personal growth) can't be trusted.  If business conditions call for a layoff, you can be sure that anyone on leave will be the first to be let go, because that's the person they already know they can do without.

Still, the key to both the issue of getting permission to take a sabbatical and getting your regular job back afterwards is in the project.  (Which is why it's in first place in this list.)

If your project is worthy—if it's both worth doing for its own sake, and if doing it will improve your skills and abilities—then you've got a reasonable shot at making your case to those bosses who don't dismiss the idea out of hand.

Likewise, if you do produce something of value, and you do improve your skills and abilities, then you come back from your sabbatical more employable, not less.  Even an employer who has gotten along okay without you will be pleased to have you back.  And, if your previous employer can't find a place for you, then you're in a better position than you might suppose to find a new job—you have a much better, much more interesting story to tell of how you left your previous job then the other applicants, because you have your project to point to.

Two Suggestions

Document your sabbatical

In the old days you might have kept a journal or maybe written a series of letters to your colleagues.  Nowadays, a website and a blog seem like no-brainers.  Begin by posting your plan documents (perhaps edited to remove personal information).  Then post daily (or almost daily) a brief note on that day's work.  This will do two things.  First, it will help you get the most from your project--reflecting on each day is a powerful tool.  Second, that documentation will be one of the things you can show people when they ask you things like "Why did you leave your previous employer?" or "Why do you want to work here?"

Integrate other people into your work

Few people go on sabbatical with enough money to hire assistants or even interns.  However, a sabbatical is a great opportunity to invigorate your network.  Reach out to the people you know who might take an interest in your work or career and ask them to participate in small ways.  Tell them about your project and ask if they know of work that overlaps with what you're doing.  Ask if they're aware of something closely related that ought to be in your plan.  Ask if they know of tools you could use or books you should read.

Obviously, the requests need to be scaled as appropriate.  Don't ask everyone in your network to review your plan and send comments.  But it might well be worth directing one fairly specific question to each person in your network.  (If you've literally got nothing to ask them, maybe they don't really belong in your network, at least with regard to that project.)  Then, make sure they get an occasional update on your progress.

Also, don't hesitate to use the opportunity to expand your network.  If there are people out there who might be excited by your project, don't hesitate to let them know about it.  Ideally, get a mutual connection to forward a note about your project.  But, if you don't have a mutual connection, it's not going to do any harm to write a short piece of email that says, "I'm working on this cool project and thought you might be interested."  At the same time, ask for permission to follow-up with a question or two in their area of expertise, once you reach that point in your work.

Of course, be sure to include your colleagues and your boss in this process.  The more they see you working hard and accomplishing things, the easier it will be for you to reintegrate when you return.

Your main goal here is to share what you're learning and what you're making.  If you can also share some of the joy of spending a solid block of time focusing on a worthy project, that's a bonus.  One side-effect will be that, if reentry to the job market doesn't go smoothly, your network will already be up-to-speed on what you've been doing.

Benefits for Everyone

If your employer will fund your sabbatical, I think you both benefit: 

  • You get both the support and some amount of guidance in planning your project.  Having a formal application process forces you to do the planning that you ought to do.
  • Your employer gets a certain amount of input into your choice of project, increasing the chance that what you produce (and, more important, what you learn while producing it) will be applicable to your future work for them.

Both of those benefits, though, are small.  You're perfectly capable of planning your project without anyone making you.  Creating a project that you care deeply about and seeing it through will have huge payoffs in terms of your future work, entirely without regard to whether there's any overlap between those tasks and the tasks you do in your everyday job.

Funding your own sabbatical puts you firmly in control, and that's a serious benefit right there.  If your employer will fund a sabbatical, that's great.  If not, that just might be even better.

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Guest's picture

I would like to take a permanent sabbatical from my job. From any job period. So I am working hard and taking risks in order to accomplish that goal of living the life I truly want. One where I am in control of when I work, how I work, and what I work on. Something I am passionate about. My own Boss. Yes I need a sabbatical.

-doozieUp
http://doozieUp.com

Philip Brewer's picture

A permanent sabbatical--early retirement, semi-retirement, whatever you want to call it--is great.  But it's hard.  It's even harder than regular retirement.

It is, roughly speaking, 20 to 25 times harder than funding a 1-year sabbatical.

Part of my point in this piece is to urge people not to dismiss the idea of a sabbatical simply because it isn't permanent.  There's a lot of value in taking a year (or even six months or three months) off to do a single project that's worth doing.

David DeFranza's picture

As another son of a professor, I also grew up witnessing how amazing, and how much hard work, the sabbatical can be. At my father's university, they offer the option of taking one semester of leave with full pay or a full year with half pay, something that anyone planning a personally funded sabbatical might want to consider.I think that the proposition of a sabbatical, the expression of a desire to work intensely on a personal project of value and merit, instantly shows that you are a valuable employee. It demonstrates you have interests that extend beyond your 9 to 5 day and the passion to pursue them. If they tie into your day job, all the better. Unfortunately, I don't think many managers see it this way. I guess the challenge is to convince them.

One more thing: I could't agree more that the intention of a sabbatical should not be to take a long vacation. I am a huge proponent of, as an example, extending transition periods between jobs in order to spend several months traveling, but this is different than a sabbatical.

Thanks for this great post Philip.

Jason White's picture

I wish more companies offered sabbaticals, because I think they are great for reducing burnout, and inspiring more creativity and productivity in a workforce.  You are correct; convincing the boss may be the most difficult part of the process.

I just finished up an excellent book (AWOL on the Appalachain Trail) by a guy who had to quit his job to walk the trail because his employer would not allow him the time off.  It was a great read by an obviously dedicated, intelligent individual, so it seems the employer lost a good one.

Carrie Kirby's picture

When I started working at The San Francisco Chronicle, they offered a 6-month unpaid sabbatical after 5 years employment. I thought it was awesome. It certainly made sense for writers and seemed like it would pay of for the paper too, since if their reporters publish books it would give the paper more credibility.

 Actually, come to think of it, I don't remember any of my fellow reporters who actually wrote books on sabbatical. Most of them didn't take advantage of the program, probably for financial reasons.

I had planned to take advantage of it, but then right around the five-year mark, I took a sabbatical of a different kind: a six-month maternity leave.

 I blog at www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

Guest's picture

The college I teach at has a good sabbatical program. You can either take one semester off after 3 years, or a full year off after 7 years. Because one semester runs into the summer, it ends up being 8 months. You are paid 80% during that time.

The hardest thing for me has been determining what goal I want to achieve during that time. I'm considering applying for a sabbatical for next year, as I have some goals worth pursuing.

Thanks for the post.

Guest's picture

As a full-time storyteller, I'm in the process of designing my own sabbatical, trying to figure out how to fund a trip to do research in folklore archives of another country (I've got an official invitation, having asked for it). Finding grants has been tricky--my goals don't seem to fit into those of funding agencies. I've begun saving so I can fund the trip on my own. I have to save enough to pay my bills at home while I'm gone as well as the expenses on the actual research trip. I began with the modest goal of three months, but even that has shrunk down to one month. I'll fight hard for that much.

One idea that I keep coming back to with this sabbatical is that a change is as good as a rest.

Anybody have ideas on saving/funding beyond what's in the excellent blog post?

Guest's picture
Beatriz

This post reminded me of a great book I read when I first started reading personal finance books: The Millionaire in You by Michael Leboeuf. He was a professor and applied for a sabbatical but his idea was rejected by the university.

Miffed at their refusal, he decided to fund his own time off, hiw own "endowed chair," so to speak. He started writing the book he had planned to write anyway and started lecturing in his free time and eventually became a best-selling author and left the university a millionaire!

I always liked that story because he turned defeat into success by being stubborn and persistent. (And because my husband is a college professor so I know whereof he speaks!)

His book still stands in my mind as one of the best I've read on the subject of personal finance, and believe, me I've read a lot as personal finance book reviewer!

Book Buzz via The Dollar Stretcher

Mindful Money in Miami

Guest's picture
Suz

I took two months off at the end of last year from my daily job in Chicago to come to California and be with my aging grandmother. Because I had nothing saved up but I needed to do it imediately, I found jobs I could do while I was away. Turned into a full-time job when we moved back permenantly to CA.

Sabadicals can frequently open your eyes to new possibilities for your career.

-Suz

Guest's picture
Lyi

I like the idea of sabbatical although it seems nonexistence at my place. If I want to, I would be quitting the job as taking long leaves will give the impression of lack of seriousness/commitment to the work.I will work for at least a year or 2 to save enough to fund myself on a DIY sabbatical.At the moment,I just take off-days so to recuperate and have some 'me' time doing things I like (ie:hobbies).