You're done. You've jumped through all the hoops: you have a PhD, a great postdoc, and an academic position where you (finally) got tenure. It's Easy Street Time, and you even have a sabbatical coming up. Sounds good, right?
Not so fast. While a sabbatical may sound like a year of freedom, it could probably be better spent advancing your career. A sabbatical can be a time to bone up on something that you don't know much about. The University of Oklahoma's Bruce Roe headed to Fred Sanger's lab in Cambridge for his 1978 to 1979 sabbatical and came away with a new career-shaping focus on sequencing. "The thing is for young people, it's really to make the best of it as far as getting the best experience, gain the most knowledge, do the most forefront research because it will make or break your career," Roe says. "The more you can do to really stay in the mainstream of doing research and working on top-notch work in the field, is to just to do the best sabbatical you can possibly take."
The University of California, Santa Cruz's David Haussler says that a sabbatical can help "launch your research in a new area." A molecular biologist by training could, for example, learn computational biology approaches.
Choosing which area will be best to tackle requires reading some tea leaves. Should you learn more about small RNAs, focus on single-cells, or look for biomarkers? Don't focus on a subject area, Roe advises, but rather on a technique. "[My major professor] advised me, if you were the person that could isolate a pure [compound] in a tube then you were the person who could study it," Roe says. "I've emphasized to my students that [if] you are the person who can master this technique, then people will beat a path to your door."
Getting a good sabbatical in the first place depends on your professional connections. For Roe, it was a beer that helped him get the sabbatical he wanted. Roe ran into a colleague at a conference and while they were sitting and talking his friend asked him where he wanted to go for his upcoming sabbatical. Roe recalls saying, "I'd really love to go to Sanger's lab in Cambridge in England." Coincidentally, that friend was to spend his sabbatical year in the same building as Sanger, and he put in a good work for Roe. "When I sent my letter asking for a sabbatical, Fred Sanger knew who I was," Roe says.
"It's a matter of professional colleagues, interactions with professional colleagues, making sure there is mutual interest," Haussler adds. People who have visited his lab during a sabbatical have been people he's known well professionally. "You have collegial relationships with people and you make sure there is a mutual interest in having you there for a sabbatical," he says.
Indeed, determine what it is that you bring to the lab where you want to spend your time and make sure it's something the PI needs. "If you can show that you can contribute to their lab, then they'll be, 'Oh, I need this person to come work with me because they are an expert in this field, and my research is going in that direction,'" Roe says. His own knowledge of transfer RNAs helped him get into Sanger's lab.
There are, of course, other types of sabbaticals. Haussler spent part of his sabbatical time at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, also in Cambridge, as part of a special program in his field for which researchers from all over the world descended on the institute to work on a specialized topic. "If you can find one of those in your area and combine your sabbatical with that, you'll have an extraordinary experience," Haussler says.