Category Archives: Advice

A guide to short-term leaves (in U.S. Universities)

One of the many things we don’t talk about much in academia is the variety of short-term leaves available, when to use them, and how to navigate them. Short-term leaves serve a variety of purposes and yet many of us know little about them or feel as though some of them are more prestigious, and therefore more valuable or acceptable, than others. This is especially problematic because most require some degree of negotiation to set up, and the specific experience may be heavily influenced by who runs your unit. In reality, they are all important and valuable for different reasons, and you have a right to make use of them. To help, I want to share the types of leaves I’ve had and what value they’ve added for me.

A few notes: All of my experiences are in the U.S. context only.There are some variations across institutions (and states within the U.S.) that I will not get into; also I have not tried every leave there is (although I have tried many). However, although the specific unit in charge of approving a leave may vary, as may the paperwork, all leaves share a need to talk things over with a variety of stakeholders, and to control service commitments.

Personal Leaves | Parental Leaves | Sabbatical | Industry

Personal Leaves: FMLA / Disability

The first type of leave is a personal leave, typically for medical reasons. These can be useful if you have a serious health condition, or in the case of FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) if a family member has a serious health condition, to bond with a new child, and in a few other situations. Figuring out which to use is a bit confusing, but one way to think about it is that FMLA protects your job (you can take up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave in any 12-month period) but may not include pay, depending on your university. Short term disability pays a fraction of your salary and lasts 3-6 months. The U.S. Chamber of commerce has a web page that compares them.

I used short term disability leave during the most difficult period of my time with Lyme Disease . This may only kick in after your FMLA is used up, and can also be half time. Note that long-term disability leave is a very different beast — unlike any of the other leaves mentioned here, once you start long-term disability leave, you cannot return to work without approval. To avoid this, I took a 50% short term disability leave and my department covered the other 50% of my salary.

I have struggled to use FMLA (outside of childbirth) and in fact failed to invoke it at least twice when (in retrospect) I should have. I have used it once. In order to use it, I had to get a doctor’s note (about my child’s situation) and talk with my department chair about what percentage leave I would take and what releases I would get. It was very important to talk this over with my department chair, in addition to formal channels (HR), especially since HR still hasn’t properly processed my leave. I was approved to stop almost all service and to receive a teaching leave during the term I took FMLA, and scheduled myself for (approximately) 50% work time that term. My department covered the other 50% of my salary as they would have if I were teaching.

One of the things I immediately noticed about personal leaves was that being on this type of leave required constant self-advocacy and decision making about what, and how much and to whom, to disclose. I often had the sense, because I was working part time, that people assumed it was fine to continue expecting me to be fully present. In fact, most people I encountered, both internal to my institution and external, had no idea I was on leave until I told them. Vacation messages only helped a little since they don’t repeat that often. It felt a little like managing an invisible chronic illness (which I do every day) because I had to choose how many details to disclose about my family situation.

Taking FMLA also very clearly highlighted how releasing myself from work often required me to personally ask others to take that work on. Whenever you take a leave, it is likely that some of your teaching and committee work will simply be canceled. However, in other cases, colleagues will need to pick up that work, often colleagues in your area of expertise, which may be a very small group of people. Although your department should try to protect you from this, you may be asked to negotiate some of that work with these individuals yourself, possibly spending social capital in the process. The social pressure can be very high when others make you feel you are burdening them, making it harder to stand your ground. This is especially true when you are still working part time, making your responsibilities more ambiguous. Despite that, taking FMLA was absolutely worth it — no one takes FMLA without a good reason, given the internal and social barriers to taking it. The time I regained to use for care and rehabilitation of my family member was precious.

One final note: I’ve been told to take a leave, when I did not need or want it, on multiple occasions due to my disability. Although both people who told me this were well meaning, their words were extremely harmful. In the first case, the person talking to me strongly implied that I would not get tenure if I did not go on leave. I reacted by asking my department to put me up for tenure a year early, and highlighting my disability identity (and implied rights) in conversations relating to my tenure case. In the second case, I was already a full professor and was able to simply insist on my right to an interpreter (what I had asked for in the first place). In both cases, these comments were ableist, institutional pressure for disabled people to go away rather costing the institution time and money.

Parental Leaves: Arrival of a new child

My husband and I have twice taken child-related leaves. In both cases when we added a new child to our family, we both took leaves. One of these leaves was unpaid (my husband did not qualify for one in his first job, but took a leave when we switched universities around the time our youngest turned 8 months old) but the others were all through progressive policies at two different universities that promised both parents a leave for an entire academic term. This is still not a given at all universities today, but it was very important for both of us and our commitment to faculty life to get it. In universities where it is not officially supported, there may be informal ways to get this, which may not be well publicized, so ask someone who recently had a baby, or a mentor, for help.

Although it should seem as though a sanctioned university policy that is frequently used by parents would be fairly straightforward, even this leave required navigating complexities. First, different department chairs treated it very differently, with one begrudgingly asking how my teaching would be covered if I left and another generously inquiring about my pregnancy and waving off teaching as an issue the department would figure out. Next, with these leaves comes the question of stopping one’s tenure clock. I did, and I would recommend others do as well, I don’t think anyone is hurt by it and making it commonplace removes pressure. That said, it is worth talking over with a mentor, and when I stopped my clock a second time for my second child + a move across the country only to end up at a place with an extended tenure clock, I ended up undoing that choice later. Finally, while it is important to treat all parents equitably in this leave process, it is also important to understand that these leaves are not the same for all people. For example, a parent who is nursing 8 hours a day may have a very different productivity level while on leave than a parent who has a partner or other support at home full time, helping with the new child, during their leave.

That said, the social capital costs of this leave are probably lowest of any I’ve taken. I’ve been lucky to be generally surrounded by folks who exuded happiness to help and joy for my coming new addition. I wish all leaves were approached with the same generosity.


In contrast to FMLA, sabbatical is a type of leave that is far more familiar to most academics. I’ve taken two since I started faculty work, a “travel-battical” involving world travel with a five and seven year old and the other a “stay-battical”. I’ve already written extensively about my travel-battical, and wrote very little about my stay-battical. What I haven’t written about, however, is how sabbaticals come about.

I can speak most directly to the university experience. It is fairly common to allow for one approximately every 7 years. However, this is not guaranteed to happen — typically you need to apply, sometimes it is “only when negotiated” and if you don’t pay attention, you can easily end up pushing it off because of a move to a new university, administrative duties, or lack of time to prepare a good case. In addition, lots of faculty want to take them, so there is a sort of turn taking that happens within departments/areas. I’ve also found that both required a lot of negotiation to achieve my goals — in one case, I had to navigate significant university politics, in the other I discovered important rules too late. More specifically, most universities do not pay your full salary during sabbatical, so some faculty work at a different institution, or apply for a Fulbright or other grant, during their sabbatical. I found out that one such opportunity fell through after I had filled out university paperwork that affected my ability to flexibly respond to the missed opportunity.

That said, once you are approved for a sabbatical, most people respect it with a similar generosity of spirit to parental leaves. You still have to protect your boundaries — I strongly recommend saying no to all or most service during sabbatical, or if you must take something on, make it something unusual that you can only do because of the sabbatical.


Industry leaves are different from both sabbaticals and personal leaves. The rules around them vary more from university to university than any other leave I’ve made use of. In addition, even within a university, industry leaves can look very different. For example, different universities may limit the percentage leave you can take, or the number of terms you can be on leave. Most also allow you to work overtime for industry (“consult” one day a week). My only experience with an industry leave was a 50/50 split.

At my university at the time, an industry leave of 50% or more resulted in a teaching leave that term, which would otherwise have cost me 75% of my salary for the same term (paid from grant/gift money). Instead, my department covered 50% of my salary that term, and the company I was working for paid 50%. That said, it was not any easier than teaching — if anything harder, since I had not been an hourly employee reporting each hour worked in a long time. However, overall, my industry leave was, like my sabbaticals, easily understood by anyone I mentioned it to. I did not feel like I need to disclose anything to ask for release or time away to do what I needed to do.

In conclusion, I hope that you consider taking leaves when you need them (but not when you are pressured into them). Wherever you are, it is probably a good idea to ask mentors about the type of leave that you taking, as there will likely be institutional rules and personalities you should be aware of. Finally, disclosure about leaves may be very personal, and you shouldn’t have to explain yourself (but may at times feel pressure to).

Writing Advice

As I’m ramping up for the CHI deadline once again, I find myself not only writing, but teaching about writing. I was lucky enough to learn writing from some experts during graduate school, and have had a lot of practice since. This year, in response partly to a request from my students, I’m trying to put excerpts that feel like nuggets I’ve repeated many times all in one place. So here are some common writing issues that I’m commenting on in CHI papers this year (in no particular order):

Introduction: What is the main promise, obstacle, and solution of the paper, at the level that you address it? I.e. don’t tell me that cats would be better off if their owners could only be more subservient (promise), cat owners don’t know what their cats want from them (obstacle) and we contribute a tool that helps cats and cat owners communicate (solution). In addition to being too high level, the promise and the obstacle don’t even entirely match up. Instead, tell me the specific communication problem you are probably working on (such as cats needing their litter box cleaned right away being fastidious), the specific obstacle (owners tend to place it where they can’t smell it)  and the specific solution (a litter box smell sensor smart phone app?). Then generalize (this is an instance of better cat/owner communication etc etc). I’ve only been a cat owner for less than a year, so those of you who know cats better can probably think of a better example :).

Section structure: Every section needs some sort of story, which you should lay out in an overview paragraph (if you feel your text is redundant, fix that later, first get the goals down in overview form). Then there’s the section meat, and hopefully something at the end about what we learned. Not all that dissimilar from the whole paper. Every paragraph needs the same thing. Something along the lines of why the paragraph exists (i.e. a topic sentence that ties to the rest of the section in some way), the meat, and then an ending (what we learned). Again, redundancy is better at first and then you can streamline.

Related work: Each related work paragraph should start with a topic statement explaining what it is about (presumably with respect to those topics since you have established them as important). If there are other things you cover in related work, explain what they are and why you cover them in the paragraph where you touch on them. You might also try to end each related work paragraph with a summary sentence that restates the major benefit and open questions left by the work you just described. This should not be about your research, just about the gaps that are present.

Vocabulary: Papers often have jargon in them. For those of you who have a tendency to use too much jargon, pick a small number of new terms you will use, introduce them, and then use them consistently. For those of you who have a tendency to use too little jargon (i.e., if you find yourself saying ‘our model’ even when there are three different ones in your paper), follow the same advice :).

Keep a list of your writing quirks, whatever they are, as your editors uncover them for you. Inconsistent use of -? Lack of italics on latin? Forget to check that your reference program didn’t introduce errors? Excess word phrases such as ‘in order to’? When you get comments about wording, spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, and formatting add them to a hit list of things you spend 10 minutes checking before you send out each draft (and especially before you submit!). This will make life much easier for your reviewers.

Cutting … that should probably be a whole separate post. Just remember that more concise writing is usually better writing, so you almost always should cut words before content.

Niggles: I always assume that if I have a niggle, so will my reviewers (kind of how if one student asks something in class, probably others have the same question). So if you have a niggle of a doubt about anything, add a comment to your paper, or try to address it, or talk it over with someone.

I’m sure I will have more, but this is a start (and feel free to add your own ideas in the comments).

(Photo credit threecheersformcr_xo@Flickr)