Category Archives: Leaves

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).

Things we wish we’d know when planning a trip to Zürich

Welcome to Zürich ☺. If you are moving here there are a few things you might want to know, in no particular order :). This is especially geared towards folks living in ETH university housing.


(most of these things take around 30 mins – 60 mins once you find the right place)

  • To register, you will need to go to Kreisburo 6 first, then Berninerplatz (a stop on the 10 tram, the Kreisburo will give you an appointment there)
  • To leave, you will need to go to the migrationsamt (in the city hall, next to the fraumünster church) and register to leave
  • To get a half-pass (half off all tram and train travel) you can go to Bellevue (on the 9) and go into the office in the building that’s right at the center of the stop OR go to the main train station and go into the “travel agency” (take a ticket and be prepared to wait a bit
  • To get a monthly pass (free travel all month long) with your half pass you can go to the train station or use any of the newer (“fancy”) electronic machines (like the one at the Winkleriedstr. Tram stop). The “fancy” machines have an English button. There is no “fancy” machine at the airport, so don’t expect to renew your monthly pass at the end of a trip back and forth to Zürich

Money & Phones

  • I would get a Bank account at the post finance (in the post office, if you walk from Winkleried str Tram stop to Rigiblick Tram stop, you’ll see it on the left).
  • When you get bills, you typically get a “pink slip” – bring it with some cash to the post office, and you can pay it there.
  • The post office is closed over lunch
  • ETH pay can be picked up between 11 and 2 in the back right corner of the 2nd floor (I think) of the main ETH building
  • Sunrise pre-pay is the simplest mobile phone plan. You can “top it up” at any Co-op grocery store (just ask for, say “50 CHF on my sunrise)
  • Sunrise pre-pay charges you 1 CHF on each day that you make a call, text or use internet (up to 3 CHF per day total). You can get an add-on plan for unlimited internet if you use it a lot, for about 10 CHF a month.


We’re not big shoppers, so this is just the basics.

  • H&M has reasonable clothing. The big Co-op and Migro stores have inexpensive clothing options too. There are also lots of sales in the “mall” under the main train station
  • There are a number of farmer’s markets worth checking out.

Things to check out that you might otherwise miss

  • Feminist Zürich: The labrynth and Feminist Tours of Zürich
  • The rooftop swimming pool & spa (“Thermalbad Zürich”)
  • Dolder ice rink 
  • Swimming in the clear cool clean lake of Zürich (‘nough said)
  • Tour the archeological ruins of Zürich (register at City Hall to get a “key to the city” and a map). Takes time to get the key, so this is really only for folks living here.
  • Lots of wonderful places to walk in the Züriberg (Look for the life-sized elephant fountain in the woods) and the Jütliberg. Enjoy them.
  • There’s lots of festivals in Zürich and Switzerland worth checking out. Basel Fasnacht in the spring, independence day parade in mid August, etc. etc. Google to find them. Don’t necessarily confine yourself to Switzerland – for example Austria has numerous “balls” in dance season (winter).

English speakers

  • The expat forums are a great place to find advice about all sorts of stuff
  • There’s some great meetup groups for childless expats – they do all sorts of sporty stuff in the mountains, if you’re into that. They tend to hold separate from the swiss
  • If you prefer to mix with the locals, try a yoga class, join an orchestra, etc. Downside is you have to speak some german and it helps if you’re working on understanding swiss german.
  • The ETH has a tandem-partner program. You can sign up to practice german and offer to help someone with English. We had great experiences with it. They also offer German classes (1x week)
  • If you have kids, the public school has an amazing program for helping them to learn german before shifting them to “regular” school. The teachers are wonderful and for my kids at least, the class worked wonders. Just register with the school system.
  • Be prepared for younger (even 1-3 grade) kids being done with school at noon two days a week or more, and having no school from 12-2. Don’t worry though, Hort will feed them a warm meal and let them play/do crafts during lunch, and as late as you need on weekdays.


There’s an English speaking doctor’s office that has long hours at the main train station. There’s also a 24 hour pharmacy there. You should receive accident insurance through ETH, and you know better than I where you get your health insurance.


  •  For ETH folks, you just buy regular garbage bags. For everyone else, there’s special taxed bags
  • Recycling: plastic goes inside the co-op in their wall collection unit. Metal and glass you can find bins for around the city 2-4 times a year (unsure how often) you will find a garbage bag in your mailbox for clothing and shoes. Anything else of quality, if you put it outside, someone is likely to take it.


  • The climate makes gardening easy. The abundance of green space also makes foxes quite common. As a result, you can’t eat greens raw: they can leave a parasite on plants that is deadly in the rare case you catch it.
  • There is a community farm that you can help out at near the botanical gardens, if you want more than that. I’m sure there’s other options if you want an actual garden bed, but a year is short.
  • We were able to get permission to garden in the non-grassy areas of our yard.
  • We went to a Tot Shabbat service at a local liberal temple, the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde. It’s a bit out of the way in what looks like an apartment building, but the people we met were wonderful and very welcoming. Be prepared for swiss german though :).

Have fun!

Public school in Switzerland

During our time in Switzerland, the children attended public school. An important goal for us was that they would learn the language, and the public school system supported this. The school the children were assigned to was 1.5 km from our home, and we generally walked or took the bus (sometimes the children went the whole way on their own toward the end).

The athletic area and my son's school building
The athletic area and my son’s school building

My son was placed in a class for second language speakers. His class had an ever-changing group of about eight children, and two main teachers. The class curriculum was ungraded and tailored to the children, who were moved into mainstream classes as they learned german (if they were staying in Switzerland longer-term). These were all grade-school children, so in addition to main lesson, they had handwork, music, and swimming classes with other teachers, along with special times for gym, art, language and mathematics.

My daughter was placed into a Kindergarten class where a mixture of swiss german and german was spoken. Her main teacher, who had taught at a Steiner school for 22 years before switching to a public Kindergarten, was a warm hearted and loving woman who connected well with my daughter and supported her love of creative play as well as craft work.  One day a week was spent in the woods (the entire morning) playing and cooking over a campfire. Other days were spent in the classroom and back yard. One afternoon a week, my daughter had German class along with other older students who were new to German.

School included a 1.5 hour lunch break, and ended at noon two days a week for my son. My daughter was done at noon three days a week and had the same lunch break. If parents worked during those hours, children could attend “Hort” — a sort of daycare with a kitchen (hot food is an expected part of a healthy lunch). We were skeptical about Hort at first, but my son in particular grew to love the free play and delicious food it provided, and both children often came home with crafts or stories from Hort.

Some things that stood out about the childrens’ experience in school, besides the overall quality of the education, were:

  • Dedicated teachers who educated in a way we loved (the principal, one of my son’s teachers, and my daughter’s teacher all had experience with Steiner education for example, one of my son’s teachers was also trained in art therapy)
  • Very high quality facilities (the school had its own swimming pool, for example, with a moveable floor!)
  • Recorder Concert
    The Block-Flöte player at the concert

    Quality was important throughout. At the end of year picnic, there was a small concert. The school had arranged for a world-class Block-Flöte player to perform in a fairy tale retelling. The music was incredible, and the children ate up every note (and every word).

  • School in switzerland is clearly organized on the principal that education isn’t just about getting as much information into children as possible as quickly as possible. There seemed to be 1-2 short weeks (or whole weeks) free of school every month we were there. Overall, the Swiss do not seem to worry about the children spending hours learning each day. Between half days (every week) and frequent vacations, it is also set up for families with a parent who works part time or not at all.
  • The children learned German incredibly fast (I was reading and retelling portions of Harry Potter to my son all in german within six weeks).

Upshot? I can highly recommend public school as an option for visiting families in Switzerland.

Learning languages

I’ve mentioned before that one of my sabbatical goals was to learn a new language (Hindi). I am not fluent, but I think I came a fair way with it, and I want to comment on the role of different technologies and approaches in our successes (and failures) as a family to learn the three languages that we tackled on this trip.

One of the most useful technologies we employed was the Rosetta Stone software. The kids loved Rosetta Stone, which we started using almost as soon as the sabbatical was approved to get them familiar with Hindi. They spent about 30 minutes at a time on it at the beginning. At our peak, this happened almost daily (after we left Pittsburgh but before we were settled in India. Eventually we hired a tutor (a wonderful friend now) to come for about an hour most days instead. The kids were far more resistant to being tutored than they were to using the software, but I feel we covered much more ground in those hours. We made up all sorts of games, retold fairy tales, played shop, and generally did our best to make it child friendly.

Hindi was a relatively hard language to learn (new alphabet, different sentence structures, and so on). Once we got past the vocabulary phase,  progress was slowish. Still, by the end of the fall we could have whole conversations in Hindi as a family. The kids were not alone in learning the language: Anind and I were trying very hard to learn it as well and we tried to speak it at meals, with our Indian driver, and so on. So between the tutoring and the daily practice opportunities, they used Rosetta Stone less and less.

The Rosetta Stone was not a pure success. It required the right context to be used — enough motivation, and not too much other support. We almost never used the German Rosetta Stone I bought, and of course the kids are far more fluent (they are immersed, unlike with Hindi, and it is a much easier language for them to learn). Use of Rosetta Stone is rare at this point, and mostly me.

You get free tutoring through the online package with Rosetta Stone, along with access to online games. The games are a fun way to practice but slow. When possible, I sign up and have a session with an online tutor. It is based on the material I’m currently covering in the software. However, they only let the kids do it when there’s no other remote participants, which is sometimes hard to find at popular times in the early stages of learning a language.

As a computer scientist, I cannot help but be impressed by the software. It is dedicated to learning language through immersion, and the authors have done an excellent job of maintaining that throughout the software and the tutoring sessions. It uses speech recognition to check pronunciation, and provides multi-media support for learning. And it works, if you put the time in with it, you learn. To my mind, it’s a success as an educational tool and an interactive tool. It supposedly has a social side as well, though as a Hindi learner I was one of few and could not take advantage of it. I’d be curious to see what it’s like.

It has always seemed such a shame to me, that learning multiple languages is not a norm in the United States. During our travels we met 10 year olds who spoke 5 or 6 languages, all with fluent ease. They never needed to touch a piece of software or a tutor. The world has become so small, yet so many of us in the United States fail to give our children the gift of understanding and the mastery of complexity that comes with learning multiple languages. Most of my swiss cousins have raised children who are bi- or tri- lingual, and without the errors that plague even my immersed children.  There is no substitute for that level of early exposure.