Reflections on Prof. Kapil Chalil Madathil’s sabbatical experience and advice on designing your next sabbatical

Overview: Prof. Chalil Madathil’s recently took a 6-month sabbatical from his appointment at Clemson. At Clemson, faculty can apply for sabbatical leave every seven years and have the choice between a one semester (fully funded) or two semester fall/spring (partially funded) sabbatical. The sabbatical application can be found here and this page includes the deadlines for the application submission. The application is submitted to a department chair and then approved by their respective Dean and the university Provost. This break from teaching and service obligations is meant to allow the faculty member to learn new techniques, expand a research program, or finish a book manuscript or set of articles they’ve been too busy to complete. Faculty can find a list of upcoming and recent Clemson sabbaticals here. Kapil submitted his sabbatical application in Spring 2022 and then took sabbatical in Spring 2023.


How did you know it was time to apply for a sabbatical? What prompted you?

My research applies the knowledge base of human factors engineering to the design and operation of human-machine systems in healthcare and collaborative work, focusing on the complex interactions among geographically distributed people and technology. We use research methods originally developed in the field psychology, computing and also methods pioneered in industrial engineering. I have been unable to find a book that really summarized the key experimental methodologies needed by researchers in my field. The thought kept entering my head and I finally decided to plan a sabbatical and produce a book proposal.

How did you determine your priorities or goals for your sabbatical?

I reached out to collaborators and colleagues to ask about their experiences and asked for their suggestions on how to make the experience meaningful. Some colleagues suggested taking a sabbatical with an industrial partner while others suggested using the time to work with peer academic institutions on basic research. I opted to spend my time collaborating with colleagues at Amrita University to expand my research skills.

The goals that I set were to:

  • Strengthen partnerships with collaborators in India.
  • Develop a new framework for the undergraduate level sustainable system design course that I teach. I wanted to identify a way for both undergraduate and graduate students to spend time abroad at one of the remote research sites facilitated by Amrita
  • Write a book on human factors research methods used to design, develop, implement, and evaluate technology in healthcare systems.

In my discussions with colleagues, several noted that the benefit to working with an industrial partner is that you can get paid for the entire year since the industrial partner can cover part of your salary and perhaps even provide accommodations. However, I really needed time to focus on basic research rather than industrial collaboration.

What were your responsibilities when you were on sabbatical?

Each faculty can write their own sabbatical plan. I proposed that I would still be focused on research, but remove teaching to work with my collaborators. 

How early did you need to apply? What was your application process like?

It takes about a year for the paperwork to make its way through the approval process. The application was short and straight forward. I just needed to submit a one-page form, accompanied by a summary of sabbatical goals and my CV, and then attach letters of support from the institutions that I was planning on visiting. Once I submitted the application to my department chair, I did not see it ripple through the approval and just received an email from the provost with my final approval.

Sabbatical leave can range between 6 months to a year. Which one did you select and why?

I chose to take a 6-month sabbatical because I did not want to be away from my family for too long. My spouse is a dentist and was unable to relocate with me. I spent the first month at Amrita University (Cochin, India) and then returned to the main campus to work.

So how was your sabbatical? Did you meet the goals you set for it?

While I did not accomplish all my goals, I did make significant progress on all of them.

Any advice on the home front (getting a temporary apartment, finances, etc.)?

I am married to a dentist, and we have a daughter at home. It was not an option for them to travel with me for sabbatical (her patients needed her in Anderson), so we planned for additional support at home to help my spouse. I am really thankful for her support as well as my mother-in-law.

My host institution had accommodations for visiting researchers. When I reached out, they made accommodations at their partner hotels for my stay. I would suggest that other faculty considering a sabbatical ask their potential host institutions about that option!

Were you able to keep your research group at Clemson “moving” while you were on sabbatical? Any suggestions for others?

I was open with my students while developing my sabbatical application and clearly laid out how we would be pivoting as a group. During the first part of my sabbatical when I was in India, we had the opportunity to practice communicating across time zones (a common reality in our global research community). Instead of being able to meet with my students once a week in person, during sabbaticals our meetings were limited to every other week over Zoom. All my students concentrated on sharing their progress through weekly memos, which were helpful.

A challenge that I had not fully anticipated was the impact of being geographically distant from the research labs. When I was out of the country, I could not see what was going on. For the computational studies, this was not an issue. However, for projects involving human subjects, it was quite cumbersome.

What advice would you like to pass onto another Clemson faculty considering a sabbatical?

I have two pieces of advice.

The first is that I found it hard to make substantial progress on my goals while still physically on the Clemson campus and driving forward a currently funded program. I had initially divided my sabbatical between visiting a partner institution in India and then returning to Clemson for writing. If I had it to do again, I would absolutely try to spend the entire sabbatical outside of the U.S, separating myself from the urgent by a few time zones. It was too easy for me to be pulled in by the urgent tasks of my director responsibilities when in Clemson, knowing that I would need to secure funding for employees on soft funds in the center. The good news is that of the five proposals that I wrote during my sabbatical, two were funded, one declined, and two are still pending.

 The Clemson Elevate strategic plan includes three pillars, one of which is to ‘Deliver the No. 1 student experience in the nation’. As you plan your sabbatical, ask yourself how it might open new learning opportunities for students in your program. You might be able to identify a new partner institution that your undergraduate and graduate students could visit to learn new skills or collaborate with on initiatives.

About Prof. Kapil Chalil Madathil: Kapil Chalil Madathil holds the Wilfred P. Tiencken Professorship at Clemson University. His area of expertise is in applying the knowledge base of human factors to the design and operation of human-machine systems that involve rich interactions among people and technology. He draws on qualitative and quantitative methodologies including ethnography, contextual inquiry and controlled behavioral experiments to understand how humans perceive, make sense of, and interact with human-machine systems. His research work is funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Labor, and several other industry and state agencies. He teaches courses on human factors and ergonomics and graduate courses on accident analysis, human-centered system design and human-machine interaction. He is the Director of the Center for Workforce Development and serves as the Associate Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. He is also the Associate Editor for journals Ergonomics in Design and Human Factors in Healthcare, Program Chair for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s Computer Systems Technical Group, Editorial Board Member for Applied Ergonomics journal, and a technical reviewer for 30 different journals.