The Value of Taking a Sabbatical as a Higher Ed Administrator

Why taking a career break is self-care

Plastic red chair sitting empty on glass with brick wall backdrop
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

In the world of higher education, a sabbatical is typically associated with faculty members. Tenured faculty take their sabbatical for up to a year; it is typically to conduct research, be a visiting professor at another school, or pursue something of interest within the academic career.

Sabbaticals are not often given or associated with university administrators, even at the senior level of administration. Not only are they not often associated, but administrators do not often take them in the field. Typically, only a handful of senior administrators, usually at the vice president level and above, negotiate or have sabbaticals as part of their employment agreement. In many cases, it is a way for them to contribute to academia or the body of knowledge. After all, they want to do specific research in their area because they are unable to do it while being a full-time administrator. However, in my career, I have chosen to take a sabbatical. As someone who has worked in student affairs for roughly 20 years, 10 of those being abroad, and have progressively climbed the senior administration trajectory, I have had three career sabbaticals, one unplanned and two planned.

My unplanned sabbatical was in 2010, after I returned from my first expert position in the UAE to the US at the height of the recession. For roughly 20 months, I was unable to find employment in my higher Ed field, and during this time, I found ways to keep myself engaged in the field and pursue areas of interest that came my way. During this time, I explored the concept of becoming a consultant for schools internationally and trying my hand at creative writing. During my first sabbatical, I also focused on my physical well-being and created a routine of healthy cooking, eating, and exercise. These things helped me rejuvenate and manage the stress and pressure of unemployment during a specifically challenging employment market in the United States.

I took my second sabbatical in 2019, which was loosely planned. Upon leaving Singapore, I took a career sabbatical that was intently focused on becoming an entrepreneur and building a small business using the skills, talents, and expertise I’ve lived in and been. I spent countless hours working on Roseapple Global, developing its content character, personal brand, services, and much more. I also conducted a job search during this time and returned to higher education in a south Asian country. However, I found my sabbatical to be a breath of fresh air. It was what I needed; it was a time to express my creative outlet that I didn’t know I had inside.

During these nine months, I learned how to build a website and explored creative writing by writing blogs/articles about my experiences and journeys as an expat. I also served clients who were higher education professionals also seeking to move, live and work abroad. It was time away from academia and the pressures of administration that allowed me to be refreshed and renewed and eventually return to the profession that I enjoyed.

I am now on my third career sabbatical. This one is not as planned and intentioned, unlike the one I started when I left Singapore. However, I was intentional about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to embark upon during this next phase of taking a break from my career. I will continue strategically directing Roseapple Global, pursuing a job search, and exploring other things that may interest me regarding my career in Higher Ed, and outside of higher education.

Frank Leuderalber/Unsplash

Now, I want to turn from me to you because you are my focus; you are the person that I want to reassure that you have the capability to plan and execute a career sabbatical for yourself. It may mean leaving your job totally or negotiating some well-needed time off beyond the 2 to 3-week vacation that’s on the books. In any case, taking a career sabbatical could be just the thing you need to re-spark your interest in your career or to make a pivot. Do something else that you are passionate about, be it in education or otherwise.

However, you don’t have to take a sabbatical to work for a company or start one; you can simply take a sabbatical to do more enjoyable or practical things, such as travel or personal development/research. So take a sabbatical from work and your career to finish your dissertation, or research a topic you have long put on the shelf, but it’s a passionate interest of yours. These are two examples for administrators and reasons to take a sabbatical, thereby allowing your brain to think outside of the daily routine of serving students and empowering staff.

Have you wanted to live and work abroad in higher education? Then taking a career sabbatical for one semester or a full year to become an international higher education administrator could be the answer. You have various options, such as joining semester or year-long study abroad programs, like Semester at Sea, or taking a short-term contract of one-to-three months in a position/role at an institution abroad. Working abroad can provide you with new skills, increase intercultural competencies, and challenge you to think differently about your expertise. It can also be rewarding to contribute to another country’s educational system while learning new perspectives to bring back to your country.

The other end of the sabbatical spectrum could be something for just pure rejuvenation. Literally, you could take a radical approach, such as doing some cultural exploration through travel and volunteering abroad. Another concept is contributing to the local community by developing and implementing a service project that is not within the sphere of higher education.

Other reasons for taking a sabbatical could be that you want to develop a non-profit project or specialized training program for others, using your expertise. Such endeavors require and demand extensive time and attention that you often don’t have when you’re a full-time administrator, running day-to-day operations plus strategic planning. Taking a sabbatical allows you flexibility and freedom to think creatively or create a pathway for the program you’d like to develop and implement. In either case, you are still giving back to the body of knowledge, as well as demonstrating your expertise to help others by taking on such endeavors.

One last reason for taking a sabbatical is to pursue something entirely outside the academic role. For example, you are an athlete, and you’ve always wanted to train and run for a marathon. Taking time off, whether it be three months, six months, or a year, to devote to intense training in the development of your body for a marathon is something that is worthy of a sabbatical. So, this is more in the realm of personal well-being, personal development, and thus it’s also a valid reason to take a sabbatical. No, training for a marathon is not the only example. Many others exist, like joining a certification program, volunteering for a global mission experience, going on language immersion, going on a global trek, training for the Olympics, or the Paralympics. Yes, I’m using lots of sports analogies because that’s what I can think of at the moment.

Gerson Repreza/Unsplash

Now, the one thing to think about as you decide to take this career sabbatical is how you will provide an explanation for the gap in your career when seeking new opportunities, returning to your current position, or moving on to future positions in the years to come. So, take the time now to think about the reason, rationale, purpose, and passion behind taking the sabbatical, and be able to explain that in your next job interview in a cover letter or on your résumé. It never hurts to think and plan ahead for the impact of taking a break in your career, and how it may be perceived in the employment world.

No matter your career trajectory, taking a sabbatical should be part of your career path and plan. Lastly, sabbaticals are an excellent way to manage self-care, focus on mental and emotional well-being, and give your body a physical break from the day-to-day grind. It is a gratifying way to give yourself a break and return to your profession with a new zeal and perspective.

If you are interested in learning more about my career sabbatical experience, continue by reading — Lessons from Being a Black, Female Expat and Entrepreneur in SE Asia

If you want to learn more about how you can start planning your career sabbatical by taking your higher education career abroad, connect with me or visit Roseapple Global. I would be happy to get you started with your journey

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Karla Fraser

Karla Fraser

Current Expat | Global Educator | Int’l Higher Education Consultant | Expat Career Strategist | Higher Education Professional | Founder of Roseapple Global LLC