Several professors asked me for sabbatical planning advice and how to get started. I’m not sure what the best way to plan for a sabbatical is, but I am more than happy to share my experience along with lessons learned from my sabbatical at RWTH Aachen in Germany. Your mileage may vary.
Two years ahead of time, I started thinking about where I wanted to go. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to have an extended stay in Germany. I speak German and even earned a minor in German in college, when I studied abroad in Darmstadt, Germany for a summer. Additionally, my children could take German as a foreign language in school before and after the trip, and that was the deciding factor. I also considered the Netherlands after giving a couple of talks there and meeting many excellent faculty members at Dutch universities. Germany borders the Netherlands, so collaborations across the border would be doable.
My colleague Jim Luedtke was the source of inspiration. He took an academic year sabbatical to Chile with his partner and three children, two of whom attended Chilean schools. He was positive and adventurous, and he gave me the confidence to take my family with me on a sabbatical. Others I talked to were overwhelmingly positive about their experiences overseas with a family.
I looked into applying for a Fulbright scholar award early on. The application requirements are country specific. I used that the Fulbright guidelines as a template for overall sabbatical planning. Jim Luedtke lent me his sabbatical application for Chile, which was helpful in understanding what to include and what level to write about my proposed Fulbright project. Fulbright scholar awards in general have a maximum length of four months, which could be wrapped into a longer stay overseas. This would allow me to do a semester long or academic year sabbatical.
Fulbright applications are due in August a year before the trip starts. The spring before the Fulbright was due, I contacted Marco Luebbecke at RWTH Aachen about the possibility of a sabbatical. He said yes and asked me if I would be willing to teach a course in the summer semester (April – July). At this point, it became clear that an academic year sabbatical would be too long, because I would stay for the academic year and summer. This helped me narrow my scope for the sabbatical timeline, and I committed to a Spring semester sabbatical.
The Fulbright application was due in August 2018, and my university sabbatical application for the 2019-20 academic year was due a month later in September 2018. I could work on both applications at once. I proposed a sabbatical to start in January 2020, almost a year and a half before leaving for Germany. A few months later after I submitted my Fulbright application, I was delighted to learn that I was selected for a Fulbright award and that my university sabbatical was approved.
Living in Germany for more than three months requires becoming a resident and embracing German bureaucracy. U.S. citizens who visit Germany can stay on a tourist visa for 90 days. A longer stay requires applying for a residence permit, registering with immigration, and other requirements. This meant that I had to have a lease (not have an extended stay with Air BnB), arrange for health insurance that is required by law, open a bank, and have all sorts of documents for my children.
The Department of State and the Fulbright Commission were fantastic. The Fulbright Commission helped me with health insurance and gave me checklists and verification letters for all the requirements. I cannot say enough about the support I was given. They helped me acquire necessary international health insurance (required for residence in Germany) and helped me understand the residency requirements in Germany. They also provided a letter that I needed to register as a resident, register with immigration, and open a bank account. And importantly, they were extremely helpful during my sudden return to the United States in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read more blog posts about my 2020 sabbatical here and see my tweets using the “PunkRockORinGermany” hashtag on twitter. I have posts about my sabbatical plan and how I prepared for a semester overseas. I had to end my trip to Germany early due to the COVID-19 outbreak.