Sabatico Gigante: Texas-sized mathematics

This past year I have been on pre-tenure leave. As you may have seen in previous posts, I have been traveling quite a bit (likeĀ here, here, and here). Even though early on I knew I would be traveling a lot, I still needed a “home base”, a place to go back to after traveling. I could have easily stayed in Maine as some of my colleagues do on their sabbaticals. But I decided to go to Austin, Texas instead for the bulk of the year. In this post, I will explain a bit how I came to that decision and my experiences visiting the University of Texas at Austin‘s math department.

The main thing I was concerned with this year was focusing more on my research. It has been slightly difficult to find new research problems after starting at Bates, with a relatively high teaching load (compared to a postdoc or research institution), a relatively high research expectation (compared to other small liberal arts schools) and fresh out of graduate school (that is, having only really worked on one research problem in my life!). So when trying to think of a place to go to for my sabbatical year, it was clear to me that I would benefit most from being at a research institution. I would have people to talk to about research and seminars to attend. And so I picked the University of Texas at Austin.

There were a couple of reasons I decided to go to UT Austin for the year. First of all, since UT was my Ph.D. institution, I was comfortable and familiar with the mathematics department and the city. It would be easy to adjust to the new setting since it wasn’t very new at all. I knew the professors in the department and the Number Theory group. The second, not professionally motivated reason, was that my younger sister is a graduate student there (in the evolutionary biology program), and I could share an apartment with her, which was both fun and affordable.

As I suspected, going to Texas turned out to be a great idea. All my email and computer access accounts were still the same, so nothing needed to be set up. They were able to give me some office space, which was small but perfect (how much room does a mathematician need, anyway, as long as there’s a desk and a blackboard?). I was sharing an office with a number theory postdoc, a conference friend of mine in fact, so we had lots of great conversations about research and got along wonderfully, too. I attended many seminars and post-seminar dinners and was able to catch up with the people in the department and also meet some new people. I had access to the library and the gym. I gave talks at the undergraduate math club (video can be found here), the graduate number theory seminar, and the “grown-up” number theory seminar. I was even able to ask people for advice on some paper corrections. It was exactly the right place to regroup after conferences, to practice talks before other conferences, and to just sit down and work knowing that there are people around to speak with about my research and that a huge math library was just a few floors down. And on top of all that, I got to live with my little sister for the first time in ten years (we get along really well, so this was a good thing).

One thing I did not have at Austin was an actual collaborator, which some of you may think was not such a great idea. I did have three collaboration projects, so one possibility was to go to one of their institutions instead. In a lot of ways, maybe that would have made sense. If I only had one project to work on this year, that is probably what I would have done. But the people I’ve been working with this year were too far away from each other and in places too expensive for me to afford for the whole year (I am on half salary), or in small places like mine. In the end, this “neutral” ground made it easier for me to focus on whatever I needed to focus on at the time, travel to see each of my collaborators, and still be in an active research place afterwards.

I know some people may approach their sabbaticals differently, but this worked out well for me. I have mentioned before that I like doing too many things, and this year seems to be no exception. The sabbatical is technically still going, but my official visit to Texas is at an end. I will be traveling some more throughout the summer, and then I return to Bates this Fall. It is hard to quantify how successful you have been at your research until you have something published, and that takes some time (and luck!). But let’s say that I have been successful at working on my research. Even if nothing gets finished before I begin teaching again, many things have certainly begun.

So, dear readers, any sabbatical stories you’d like to share? How did you decide where to go and how long to stay? Did you travel a lot or stay put? Would you change anything? Please share your experiences and advice in the comments below.


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5 Responses to Sabatico Gigante: Texas-sized mathematics

  1. Michelle says:

    So I have another question: How do arrange where to go after you’ve decided? Presumably you need some sort of invitation. Di you work with your advisor to make arrangements on the UT end? And how far in advance does that need to happen?

    In theory, I’ll be going on sabbatical just over a year from now… I don’t know how it all works! How do I get someone to invite me? Do I solicit such invitations or… ??

    I’m also curious how faculty whose partners have “real jobs” from which it’s impossible to take off for 4 months (or a full year) think about sabbaticals… Wonder if any of your readers have comments on that?

    • Adriana Salerno says:

      Good question! I guess it all comes down to knowing the people in the department. I asked a few of the professors that I’m still in touch with how feasible it would be to visit for an extended period of time. Even though I was never officially invited, every time I asked (notice I didn’t exactly invite myself either) they said it was fine. And then I went there and it was, in fact, fine. I’m not sure how to go about it in other situations, although some of the commenters give very good advice about applying to math institutes like IAS.

  2. Mason Porter says:

    I have had two sabbaticals of one term each (which, given our short terms and long breaks between them, extended to 4 months in practice). In the first one, I bounced back and forth between my home institution and SAMSI as my home base. I was heavily involved in that year’s program at SAMSI, which is why I used that as a home base for those times. But I couldn’t handle living in SAMSI for more than 3 weeks at a time, so I chose to bounce. In the second one, I escaped my home institution — except for one week in the middle to help set up a new postdoc and take care of a few other things — and sequestered myself at Stanford for my home base (though I did travel a lot more than I would have without a sabbatical). I chose the place because most of my best friends live nearby, and it is not so difficult to run my research group overseas.

    The thing with staying home during sabbaticals is that one still can get sucked into things (how much depends on the institution) and a change of scenery is healthy in general, so all else equal I suggest finding a different institution as a temporary home base.

    I am happy to provide more details (contact me directly, as I am setting this to not send me updates on this post). I figured I would comment because I have tried both of these ‘methods’ recently.

  3. Tara says:

    I have my first sabbatical coming up next year (at 11.5 years post-PhD … definitely ready!!). We are planning to take an entire year. It did get delayed by a semester when I got pregnant. Luckily, all the things we had in the works were adjustable.

    We want to spend one semester in the UK, as my husband’s family is there. We decided on Oxford, where we both have contacts. At the Mathematics Institute, it was easy to arrange a stay of less than 6 months (knowing a single person to sponsor me; longer would require a department vote). We will have offices, etc, and access to great mathematics! They requested that we pay “bench fees” for the privilege (amounting to $800 or so), but they may well have waived them if we didn’t have funding that would cover them. Arranging housing is more tricky, though we lucked out there. Childcare is the hardest part, we’re still working on that.

    For the second semester, we applied for memberships at the Institute for Advanced Study, which happily accepted us (no salary, but offices and great mathematics!). We are not in the targeted area, and I don’t know how many members there are. They very kindly agreed to let us postpone our memberships from this Fall 2013 to Fall 2014 because of my pregnancy. Housing is easy there (they have apartments on site), and childcare will either be easy or tricky, it’s too early to tell (as one-semester visitors, we are lower priority for the on-campus childcare center, so it will depend on how many other young kids are coming for 2014-15).

    We have not yet sorted out renting out our home, but are hoping to use (also a place to find a semester-long rental) to find visiting academics to rent it.

    It is probably not reasonable to expect to come out financially ahead after your sabbatical. We will certainly spend more money on childcare than at home, and at least some money on housing (that may be offset a bit, but not entirely, by what we can collect for rent on our home). But I hope that the boost-to-research-program will more than make up for that. In my case particularly, with a new baby, this should allow me to keep research going and broadening.

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