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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).

Reviews Considered Harmful?

… my position just is that such discussions [meaning models of disability] are intellectually intriguing but seem to be of limited value for solving front-line real-world practical problems

Anonymous Reviewer

Somehow, over the past few years, I seem to have grown a thinner skin around reviews. Or perhaps I am just doing work that evokes more problematic responses. Or maybe I am learning to recognize harms that previously passed me by. In any case, I think it is time for us as a community to start a conversation about the darker side of reviewing.

What do I mean by this? Of course it is difficult to get reviews that critique ones work, sometimes legitimately and sometimes because they miss something in a paper, or are written on a bad day. Even so, peer reviews, in general, are valuable and important, and authors know that. I’ve always told myself (and my students) to think of a paper as a user interface — if the user misunderstands things, the question is not “why did the user make so many mistakes” it is “why did my interface not guide the user properly toward the right approach and away from the wrong one”. Analogously, a review is an (imperfect) reflection of the flaws in either one’s research or writing — a perfect project, and a perfect writeup, together should presumably result in perfect reviews. This of course is very idealistic, but at least close to the general goal that I think we all share.

Being a reviewer has always been a space in which we must take care to exercise power compassionately, helping the writer (often a new researcher, often a student) to learn and grow from a process that with a fair amount of randomness decides “what counts” and sets careers in motion (or slows them down). However, I’ve recently observed that the power of reviewers goes beyond mentorship and gatekeeping. Ideology, bias, and politics have become visible to me. Here are some examples of truly harmful errors which have the potential to compound other barriers to participation in our community.

Increased scrutiny for certain types of work. Papers that raise questions about the academic process (and its biases) seem to face a degree of scrutiny and nitpicking that makes it much harder to publish them. I’ve spoken with multiple others who have found this same phenomenon when doing this sort of work. This matters because these forms of inquiry are already de-valued in comparison to other forms of research, and the additional difficulties in publishing them only make this worse. It should come as no surprise that the researchers who take the time to do this sort of work are also often members of groups that are under represented in the academy.

Critique because of a political difference of opinion. I have always been taught never to escalate a disagreement with reviewing outside of the rebuttal process, and throughout almost my entire career I have adhered to that. However, a reviewer objected to the term “marginalized”, and accused us of engaging in grievance studies, stating

One nonsensical concept the authors introduced was the use of ‘higher marginalized status’ (whatever that may mean - one presumes the authors subscribe to the strange psuedolegal theory debunked e.g. by Douglas Murray in the ‘Madness of Crowds’)

I found myself requesting help with receiving a fair review from the program chairs of the conference I had submitted to. Similarly, a reviewer of a grant proposal that included improved tools for Blind and Low Vision programmers stated:

I agree we need to include vision impaired population in the design loop, but it is not necessary for them to do the programming to implement their ideas.... It is not really necessary for those vision impaired to perform programming.

I accepted the rejection of my proposal, but contacted the relevant program officer to alert them to my concerns with this reviewer’s beliefs about who can program.

Accusations of conflict of interest as a result of deep community engagement. I used deep, community engaged work as one of several data collection strategies in a paper (other communities were also providing data). In addition to volunteering in the community, I ultimately invited a leader in the community to co-author the submitted paper. All of this was disclosed, but a reviewer felt that as a result the contribution of the paper was limited because of

...prior relationship with [the community] compromises the interview data drawn from participants in [the community].

Sometimes the harm is not having a reviewer at all. Further compounding all of this is the difficulties that editors have in finding reviewers. The last time I was an associate chair at a conference, which was prior to the upheaval COVID-19 has caused in all of our lives, as a senior member of our community with a large network to draw upon, I had to ask six people to review a paper for every one who said yes. More recently, I submitted a journal paper only to discover months later that it still was not even in review because the editor had asked over 20 people and only had one person agree.

How can we do better? I don’t claim to have the answers here, but I think it is time to start experimenting, or at least talking more about what to do. Here are some ideas I’ve been thinking about. Please comment on this post and add your own!

Process Improvements: I think we have multiple problems that require process improvements. One is reviewer training. Also, a known process for redressing (or addressing) problematic reviews could be of value.

Open Reviewing: One way to improve review quality is oversight. However this takes even more time. Open reviewing might be another way to impact what people say without as much extra work. In addition, it could reduce the burden on authors faced with problematic reviews by allowing others to call them out and respond to them.

Limited Submission: Volume of submissions compounds all the others issues — because we have more papers to review than reviewer capacity, we draw reviewers from further afield, or earlier in their careers, than ever before. One way to address this limit the number of papers reviewed by a single author, or require some reviewing service in return. This may be hard to enforce in papers with many authors, some of whom may not even be from the same field.

Fewer Peer Review Opportunities, more Other Opportunities: I’m sure this won’t be popular, but it is possible we could also reduce volume by increasing the number of papers allowed at conferences somehow. Could we make conference participation entirely poster based, for example? This would work best if we remove peer reviewed papers entirely from conferences, so that there is no competition for those slots.

Traveling Reviewers: Lastly, we could encourage authors to only resubmit a paper with substantial revision and change tracking, by having reviewers “travel” with papers, at least within the same tier/group of conferences (maybe: UIST, DIS, CSCW, CHI, TOCHI, ASSETS, and other peer conferences). This should help to reduce paper volume and increase review consistency. It would require a process for addressing the sorts of harmful statements I mentioned above. However, that represents an improvement over the current situation where there is no process. For example, perhaps authors could request replacing specific reviewers.

Please comment! I’d love to hear more ideas for what we can do to improve things!