To do one year before

About a year before the starting date of the sabbatical, there are a number of things that one can start doing in preparation for the sabbatical. Our one year-before to-do list includes the following items:

  1. Prepare the wish list with all the things that we ideally like to do during the sabbatical
  2. Brainstorm with partner about the wish list
  3. Talk to other ‘sabbaticals’ (people who go on sabbatical) about their experience and ask for tips about how to best plan the sabbatical
  4. Look for websites that offer volunteering opportunities
  5. Begin studying foreign language (Frank)
  6. Begin to build a plan to transition work while away
  7. Communicate at work that we are leaving
  8. Prepare a budget with different scenarios
  9. Start to look for websites where to rent out our home while we are away
  10. Contact the Costa Rica embassy for information about VISA requirements and the necessary paperwork to travel with the pets back and forth
  11. Prepare a short bio/CV for volunteer jobs
  12. Prepare a motivation letter for volunteer jobs

Let me describe briefly each of them

1. The wish list

According to the Reboot your life book by Allen et al, the wish list should include an exaustive and creative list of everything that we dream to do during the sabbatical. Our own wish list was quite large (mine at least) and very diverse, but it significantly helped in deciding where to go for the sabbatical.

2. Brainstorming

We spent some time discussing our own expectations about the sabbatical as well as which type of sabbatical we wanted to take. This helped uncover hidden assumptions about how we were going to spend our time and led to (lengthy) discussions about the extent to which we would be keeping in touch with work during our time in Costa Rica or the length of the stay.

3. Talk to other sabbaticals

Fortunately for us, we have some friends that have taken a sabbatical before, so we got in contact with them to ask them about their experience. While talking with them,  we learned a very important lesson: the type of sabbatical matters a lot with respect to how much one can learn from other people’s experience with the sabbatical. Our friends had taken an academic sabbatical, which essentially meant that they were spending a year in another academic institution but still doing research and writing articles, checking and responding emails and overall, keeping contact with work at home. In comparison, our volunteer sabbatical is a different animal – not only because we will be volunteering in a field in which we do not normally work – but also because we are taking a leave without pay from work. In simple terms: no salary = no obligations.

4. Look for websites that offer volunteer opportunities

After deciding where to go, it is much easier to look for volunteer opportunities in the area and start constructing a list of potential organizations. Our initial list has been growing over time, as we get new hints from friends and colleagues. The most updated one can be found in the resources tab.

5. Begin studying foreign language (Frank)

Frank’s domain of Spanish could be counted with my hand fingers: hola, gracias, adios, por favor, cerveza, playa and buenos dias. Until now, we had considered this a blessing as it allowed Frank to completely disconnect his brain during my family gatherings (which are as loud and lively as a flock of parrots). But it will not work for a lengthy stay in Costa Rica. So, he decided to start learning Spanish already one year before leaving. More about his reasons and methods in his blog post.

6. Begin to build a plan to transition work while away

As suggested in the Reboot your life book, an important ingredient for the acceptance of the leave without pay at work is to provide the boss with a credible transition plan. This was definitively key for us. The transition plan includes 1) a list of all the activities in which we are involved at work,  2) a proposal of who will be taking care of our tasks and responsibilities while we are gone and 3) how are we planning to gradually transfer those tasks to those that will be taking care of them.

7. Communicate at work that we are leaving

With the transitioning plan in hand and butterflies in the stomach, we went to talk to our respective bosses. We were expecting to have to negotiate hard for our leave. We had played in our heads different scenarios and how we would react to them: from a requirement to continue working online to putting limits to the length in which we could be away.  Instead, we were surprised by the positive response. The key: the detailed transition plan that came together with the demand for a leave which convinced our respective bosses that everything would be well taken care of in our absence.

8. Prepare a budget with different scenarios

This is a very important item that requires a blog post on its own (which will come soon). How much is the sabbatical going to cost, depends  on different scenarios regarding expenses at home and in Costa Rica as well as possibilities for income, for both of us. Some variables will be unknown a year in advance, but it is possible to have at least a notion of the best and worst case scenario in terms of budget to see if we can afford it. The worst scenario for us is one in which we cannot rent our home in Sweden (no income to cover the unavoidable expenses at home) and neither of us has any income. The best is one in which we rent the house for an amount that covers the running expenses and the home loan and we have some minimum income. In between, there is a wide range of possibilities, including playing with the length of the sabbatical. But if we can afford the worst case scenario – then we can go ahead with the sabbatical.

9. Websites to rent out our house while we are away

Lund, where we currently live, is a university town. This means a high mobility rate for students and researchers. Our ideal scenario is that we can find another family who is coming to Lund for a year on sabbatical. Moving to another country with the family for a year is usually not something that people leave for the very last minute, particularly if the family has children in school age. So we reason that the sooner that we announce our  house in rental websites (such as airbnb and the like), the higher the possibilities of finding a suitable tenant. Therefore, we decided to put this item in the to do list of a year prior to the departure. The sooner we know if the house is rented, the better.

10. Visa & pet entry requirements

Costa Rica has a special visa category for students, researchers and volunteers. The (lengthy) list of documentation to include for the visa application can be found here (in Spanish). In practice, most of the people that we have spoken to have decided to take a 3 month tourist visa and leave the country every three months (for example to Panama).

Since we are traveling with our pets, we want to know well in advance what the requirements to enter the pets to Costa Rica are and what will be necessary to return with them to Europe after the sabbatical. This is mainly because some vaccinations and and analysis might take time and need to be done well in advance. For entering Costa Rica, pets need a blood analysis that shows that they have no rabies plus a certificate that needs to be issued by the national vet authority (whatever different websites say, the  passport is NOT enough and neither is a certificate issued by a vet). The official information about the pet entry requirements can be found here (in Spanish followed by the English translation). The relevant information is in paragraph 3.3. about pets travelling with their owners (independently of whether they travel in the passenger cabin or in cargo but in the same flight as the owners).

11 and 12. The volunteer CV and motivation letter

As we want to work as volunteers, we need to have a short bio to send with the volunteer application. Easier said than done. Our conventional academic CV with the list of publications and projects seemed rather useless to apply for a volunteer job in conservation. Rather than showing what we had done (academically speaking) it is a matter of showing what skills do we have which can be applied to very different job occupations. Finding those “transferable skills” has been an interesting exercise. My first reaction was to think that there was NOTHING that we were doing as academics that had any use in real life…but after some thinking we realized that we do have skills which are very useful in different domains of life: we know how to communicate complex messages to a variety of audiences, we know how to raise funding, how to organize projects and teams of people, how to work under pressure, how to process large amounts of information, how to gather data through qualitative means, how to do quantitative analysis … the list is large. So, good news, we are not that useless after all ;-). The next challenge is to try to condense that information in one page…rather than the 25 pages of CV which is customary in academia. That took a while but at the end we managed!

Since the motivation letter needs to be customized to each organization, the preparation included some bullet points about what should the letter contain – why we were interested in the conservation, why the organization was interesting for us and how we saw that we could contribute to their vision. Now, we were ready to start contacting organizations!!.


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