January 28, 2020, by lzzeb

Research leave or garden leave?

A blog by George Swann

“Is that another name for garden leave?” “So, are you on holiday for the next few months?” Just some of the comments I received from friends when I mentioned that I would be on “Research leave” from October 2019 to January 2020. This partly reflects the perception that many people have about university life – that we only “teach/lecture” and so, in effect, only work for half the year when undergraduates happen to be on campus. In fact, its alarming how often people are surprised that a core part of my job is to carry out “research”. Every year when undergraduate go home for their summer holidays I’m constantly asked “what its like have a three-month holiday” until the students return in autumn. Ultimately the above reflects the need for universities to better promote what academic staff do when they’re not teaching. Yes “teaching” is a crucial and exciting aspect of our work, but so is the research that we aspire to do. Indeed, our teaching and research is often more closely aligned than people think, with the discoveries that we and our colleagues make often directing the teaching that we then deliver through lectures, seminars, field trips etc.

So, what have I been up to since October when my research leave began? A large part of my time has been spend finishing various projects (some of which were long overdue) and writing up the results for publication. For me, this was perhaps the most important goal I had for my research leave. I’d become embarrassed by the backlog of unpublished data and indeed having the time to focus on interpreting the data and writing papers has allowed me to detect some intriguing findings that may well lead to future projects.

Participants of the 2019 Frontiers in Science meeting.

The second part of my research leave has involved not only presenting my results at conferences, but also using the opportunity to catch up with existing/new research collaborators and planning our work for the years ahead. Perhaps the highlight was when an unexpected invitation arrived from the Royal Society to attend a “Frontiers of Science” symposium in Tokyo with the “Japan Society for the Promotion of Science”. This placed me in a huge dilemma – I’d heard that similar events in the past had been fantastic in generating new (and exciting) avenues of research, but I’d been actively avoiding flying in recent years to reduce my carbon footprint. Ultimately, I decided to attend and whilst I will continue to have a guilty conscience about the carbon emissions associated with me flying to Japan – the meeting proved to be everything I thought it would be. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was having the meeting in a hotel next to Tokyo Disneyland. Spending breakfast each morning next to overexcited children looking forward to their visit to Mickey Mouse and friends was a different way to start scientific discussions – as was their laughter at my attempt to use chopsticks!

Exploring Tokyo by night.

Alongside submitting a couple of grant applications to hopefully fund some future research projects, my research leave has been everything I hoped it would be. Whilst I may not have been putting my feet up (as many friends still seem to think I have been), the time away from teaching has allowed me to put my research in order and left me looking forward to getting back to teaching once the new semester begins…. provided I can work out how the new lecture recording system works!

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