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2019 March 17

Sabbaticals until retirement revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:58
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In Sabbaticals until retirement, three years ago, I outlined a sabbatical plan for using up my sabbatical credits slowly:

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2015–16 +1 +1 +1 20
2016–17 –6 +1 +1 16
2017–18 –6 +1 +1 12
2018–19 –6 +1 +1 8
2019–20 –6 +1 +1 4
2020–21 +1 –5 +1 1

I followed that plan through this year, but I won’t be able to continue with it, due to a misunderstanding on my part of the rules for sabbatical leave.  I can turn in n credits for n/9 salary, but only for n≥6, so the n=5 plan for 2020–21 cannot be made to work.  I found this out when I tried this year to modify the plan to

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2019–20 –5 +1 +1 5
2020–21 –5 +1 +1 2

Because I can’t take 5/9 salary, I am going to switch to taking a leave without pay this fall, and then full-salary sabbatical in 2020:

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2019–20 -0 +1 +1 10
2020–21 –9 +1 +1 3

I’ve decided that I need the break from grading more than I need the money—if I taught all three quarters next year with the number of hours per week I’ve been putting in this year, I’d burn out and retire a year earlier, which would cost me more.

The new plan will cost me about $5000 in extra insurance premiums (the University pays a share for medical, dental, and vision care insurance for sabbatical leave, but not leave without pay) in addition to losing a sabbatical-leave credit (worth about $5000 before taxes, or $3500 after taxes). Doing the leave without pay this fall allows me to take full salary for Fall 2020 sabbatical, using one more sabbatical-leave credit than if I took 8/9 pay this Fall.  If I had known about the 6/9 minimum earlier, I would have revised the plan for Fall 2018 to take 7/9 pay, rather than 6/9.

I can’t contribute to my HSA (Health Savings Account) while on leave without pay, so I need to change my contributions for the months that I will not be on leave.  The insurance premiums for the health care do count as allowable expenses for the HSA.

The Sabbaticals until retirement post also discussed the possibility of doing a “service buy-back” to buy service credit on my retirement for the foregone salary.  At the time it looked like a good investment, but the paperwork involved was daunting (I thought I had done it all and sent it in, but all that triggered was them sending me the paperwork to do all over again).  I’ll have to decide again on the service buyback this spring or early summer, since there is a 3-year limit on doing the buyback at a reasonable rate—after that they charge so much that it is clearly not a good investment.   The buyback I could do this year would get me 1/3 year extra service credit, which would increase my retirement salary by 0.83% of my HAPC (highest average plan compensation—essentially my annual salary at full time). I can use annuity calculators to figure out about how much that is worth and compare it to what the University would charge me.

2016 May 2

Sabbaticals until retirement

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:28
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I plan to take sabbaticals every year until I retire. Here’s how that works: for each quarter I work I get one “sabbatical leave credit”.  With the permission of my department chair (as part of the Curriculum Leave Plan each year), I can cash in the credits for sabbatical leave.  What is unusual about the UC system is that I can cash in the the credits for partial pay—9 credits gets me a quarter of sabbatical leave at full pay, 6 credits a quarter at 2/3 pay, and for n≤9, n credits a quarter at n/9ths pay.  The portion of my salary not paid to me is returned to the department, who can add it to their TAS (Temporary Academic Staffing) budget, or add it to their reserves, in the unlikely event that they have enough funding to cover all the lecturers for the year.  Taking partial-pay sabbaticals is easier for the department to cope with than taking full-pay ones, as there is no extra money for hiring replacement lecturers during full-pay sabbaticals.

As of the end of this quarter, I will have 20 sabbatical leave credits, so I could take 2 quarters off at full pay, but that’s not what I plan.  Instead I plan the following strategy, taking single-quarter, partial-pay sabbaticals every year for the next 5 years, then retiring (+1 means I’m teaching, a negative number indicates a sabbatical and how many leave credits I’ll use up):

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2015–16 +1 +1 +1 20
2016–17 –6 +1 +1 16
2017–18 –6 +1 +1 12
2018–19 –6 +1 +1 8
2019–20 –6 +1 +1 4
2020–21 +1 –5 +1 1

I don’t have to take Fall quarters each year, but that is the quarter for which my teaching is easiest to cover by someone else, at least until I get someone trained to teach the applied electronics course.

Due to a quirk in the rules for retirement compensation, there is a significant advantage to separating from the University at the end of June, and starting retirement in July (a cost-of-living adjustment for those separated from the University but not yet retired), and I need to return from each sabbatical for at least as long as the sabbatical itself, so ending up with one credit at the end of spring is optimal use of sabbatical credits, which calls for a Winter quarter sabbatical in my last year.

I have to find someone to take over the Applied Electronics course by Winter 2021,  if I’m going to retire in summer 2021. It will also be interesting to figure out what course I’ll teach in Fall 2020, since I’ll have been out of the courses I’ve been teaching every Fall for 4 years at that point, and it might be better for me to pick up a different course.

One choice I have to make when taking partial sabbaticals is whether to “buy back” service credit for my defined-benefit retirement plan.

The defined benefit is 2.5% * years of service * (HAPC – $133*12) per year after retirement for life.   When I take partial-pay sabbatical, the “years of service” also accumulates more slowly. (HAPC is Highest Average Plan Compensation, which is the average over 36 months of base salary, excluding summer salary and stipends, for the highest-paid contiguous 36 months—taking partial-pay sabbaticals does not reduce HAPC, since it reduces % time, not base salary.)

Actually, the benefit is a bit more complicated than that, as there is a continuing 25% of the benefit to my wife, if I die before her.

As I understand it, I can buy back the service credit for 18.72% of the foregone salary—at least, that’s the Plan Normal Cost in 2016 (

The value of $1k/month for life is about $178k for someone retiring at age 66 (based on the cost of single-life annuities). Adding a 25% second-life benefit doesn’t raise the value much—maybe to $184k (25% is an unusual second life benefit, so I did not find an annuity calculator for it). More common are plans with full benefit to survivor, half benefit to survivor (2 lives treated symmetrically), or half benefit to annuity partner (lives treated asymmetrically, with no loss of benefit if partner dies, but drop in benefit if annuitant dies).

So I could buy-back 1/9 year of service for 2.08% of my annual salary, which would raise my annual income after retirement by about 0.275% of my salary.  That is a break-even time of about 91 months, substantially less than the 178 months of purchasing an annuity at age 66.  I’d have to get a 12% annual return on investment for 6 years to beat that investment, which is an unlikely return to get in the next few years.

If I’ve done my calculations right, then the service buyback is a very good investment for someone as old as me, being almost twice the return of a purchased annuity. Either I’ve done my calculations wrong (quite possible), or the leave buyback is mispriced. Since it seems that mainly senior management uses leave buyback, I can well believe that it is deliberately underpriced for old folks, as management loves giving itself perks.

For younger faculty, leave buyback might not make as much sense, since other investments are likely to grow faster than faculty salary does, and the value of the defined-benefit plan is tied to the HAPC.  Young faculty who leave UC long before retirement age get very little benefit from the defined-benefit plan, so there is higher risk associated with investing in a leave buyback.  Pre-tenure faculty should have a defined contribution plan, with the option of turning it into a defined-benefit plan when they get tenure.

2015 December 14

Sabbatical leave application 2016

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:33
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I’ve got to write an application for sabbatical leave and submit it before 2016 March 11.   My plans are to take sabbatical leave for fall quarters at ⅔ or 5/9 pay for the next five years, to gradually drain the accumulated sabbatical leave credits, rather than spending them all at once getting two quarters off at full pay.  If I do that, I can retire after Winter 2021 with one unused sabbatical credit (which is a little left as you can get, as you have to return to the university for at least as long as the duration of your last sabbatical).

It is better for the department for me to take sabbatical at partial pay, as the savings in salary is returned to the department as Temporary Academic Staffing (TAS) funds, which can be used for hiring lecturers.  If I took salary at full pay, the department would get nothing, and if I took leave without pay, they’d get my full salary—at ⅔ salary they get  the remaining ⅓, which should be enough to hire 1.5 lecturers to replace me for that quarter (and cover the 1.4 courses that I’d not be teaching).

The sabbatical leave form is only for the Fall 2016 leave and asks a lot of questions, some of which are difficult to answer briefly.

The application form shall be accompanied by a statement providing in detail the following information:

a. A brief history of the project, from inception through progress to date and projection as to completion date. This history shall include a description of the applicant’s preparation and any significant contributions already made in the field of activity with which the project is concerned.

I’m planning to do two things in Summer and Fall 2016: work on my textbook and try to find a bioelectronics project to design, preferably in collaboration with a doctor at UCSF.  Unfortunately, I don’t know any one at UCSF who has a problem that would be interesting for me to work on, and I’m not very good at the networking needed to find such collaborators. I’m also more interested in open hardware than in proprietary development, and that could be a bad mismatch for the UC emphasis on making money off of research developments in the biomedical field.

Even if I’m vague in the request about starting a bioelectronics project, giving a brief history of the textbook development will take some thought—I can’t very well give them the 373 blog posts I’ve written about the course, as they probably want only one or two paragraphs.  I suppose I should mention the times I’ve taught the course, the evolution of the lab handouts into the current draft of the book, and the need for revision based on changing the level and pace of the course next year. The course will be moved from upper division (junior/senior) to lower division (freshman/sophomore), and split into two quarters (2 4-unit courses, replacing the current 5+2-unit course).  The move to lower division means reducing the prerequisites (I’ll still have differential calculus as a prereq, but not calculus-based physics), which in turns means beefing up the background in the text and in the class, to cover the physics that the students won’t have had.

The book may be publishable after the Fall 2016 leave, but I’ll probably want to try using it at the slower pace during Winter and Spring 2017, and revise it Summer and Fall 2017, based on that experience.  I’m still not sure when the project will be “completed”.  There are many milestones along the way: used in the course (done Spring 2015), released to the public (done in draft form starting August 2015), all the “to-do” notes in the text done (maybe never—I keep finding more that needs to be improved), adopted for teaching by someone other than me, available on paper (maybe never—the cost of printing is high relative to PDF distribution, but see Textbook should be on paper), available in EPUB and MOBI formats (maybe never—those formats are awful for math and for scientific graphics), freezing an edition and getting an ISBN, distributing through a professional publisher (maybe never—the textbook publishers take way too big a share of too high a price, providing little in return except their name).

b. Significance of the project as a contribution to knowledge, to art, to a particular profession; or as an expected contribution to the applicant’s increased effectiveness as a teacher and scholar.

I could find no intro electronics textbook that was suitable for bioengineering students at the level I wanted to teach.  Everything that had sufficient design content assumed that the students had already had at least a circuits course and often several low-level analog electronics courses. The books that assumed no prior electronics experience all ended up being “cookbooks”, which had students building things that others designed, or “physics” books, doing demos to illustrate concepts, with no design work in either case. There seems to be a real need for books that get students to design simple electronics without years of preliminary drudgery.

c. Name(s) of the location(s) or institution(s) where the project will be carried on, and the names of authorities, if any, with whom it will be conducted.

Textbook writing will happen at home.  Finding a project to collaborate on with someone else is less definite—I’ll probably try to find collaborators at UCSF, though that will not be easy to arrange, as I don’t want to move to San Francisco, but only visit for a few days at a time every couple of weeks. Stanford would be closer, but the doctors at the Stanford medical school have easy access to Stanford engineering faculty, so finding a fruitful collaboration is likely to be harder.

d. Assurances of cooperation, or authorization to conduct the project, received from individuals, institutions, or agencies.

No authorization is needed for the textbook project, and nothing has been set up yet for doing a collaboration.  It may be that I’ll spend much of the first sabbatical just finding people and setting up mechanisms for later collaborations.

e. Description of all financial support expected during the sabbatical leave, including any fellowship, grant, government-sponsored exchange lectureship, or payment for contract research. (See also APM-740-18 and 740-19.)

No external support expected. I may do small amounts of consulting (well less than the 1-day-a-week limit), if the opportunity arises.

f. Description of University service which will be provided if the applicant proposes to substitute significant University service for some or all of the teaching/instructional requirements of a sabbatical leave in residence (See APM 740-8-b & CAPM 900.700-G)

Not doing a leave in residence, but I may still do some service work at UCSC while on leave, like giving the “Speaking Loudly” workshop for Women in Science and Engineering or helping the advising office with new-student orientation.

2015 December 8

Sabbatical plans for 2016–17

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:04
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In Considering splitting Applied Electronics course, I suggested that I would split the Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course into two courses next year, to make a more sane teaching/learning schedule, and said “I plan to take 1 quarter of sabbatical in each of 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2019–20 (or, at slightly reduced sabbatical salary, every year for the next 5 years).”

I’ve investigated this possibility some more, consulting with my department chair and department manager, along with other faculty in my department.  My plan is now to take sabbatical at 2/3 pay for Fall quarter next year and teach the Applied Electronics courses the other two quarters (plus the freshman design seminar one of the two quarters). The department would have to cover the grad courses I currently teach, but those are relatively easy to transition to other faculty, as about half the department has the requisite expertise.  There is even a lecturer who has taught the main course before (the last time I was on sabbatical), and the other half course is fairly easy to teach, as it can be adapted to interests of whoever is teaching it.

Initially I was worried that my taking sabbatical would hurt the department financially, because the department does not get any funding for replacing people on sabbatical leave.  But it turns out that if I take only partial pay while on sabbatical, the department gets the remaining salary, so if I take sabbatical at 2/3 pay for a quarter, the department gets 1/9 of my 9-month salary that it can spend on lecturers or TAs.  Because I’m paid more than a lecturer, that covers 1.5–2 courses of lecturer pay, which is about what I’m not teaching. So I won’t be putting the department in a financial bind by doing this.

I don’t think that I’ll miss the 1/9th of my salary, since I no longer am saving for my son’s college education, and my retirement funds have enough money in them for my planned retirement date.  If I do decide I need more money, I can teach in summer school, where each course would earn me 1/9th of my salary (or so I’ve been told).

My plans for next fall are mainly focused on finishing the textbook, which will probably include splitting it into two volumes, to correspond to the two halves of the course.  Because the course is also moving from upper division to lower division, and the prerequisites are being reduced, I’ll need to increase somewhat the background material, and rewrite it from “you should already know these things” to “background to learn very quickly”. I still don’t know whether I’ll try to get a traditional publisher to pick up the book or just continue to self-publish through Leanpub.  I’ll probably do some more investigation of that question over the summer and fall.

Over the next 5 years, I want to find some lecturers  (or faculty in other departments) who want to teach the Applied Electronics course, so that I can retire without the course disappearing.  It would make sense for the course to be renumbered to be in a different department (like Electrical Engineering or Computer Engineering), if instructors were provided by those departments.

2012 November 2

Meltdown at MIT

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:50
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There is a very moving blog post by Lydia K., an MIT junior doing a double major in math (course 18) and computer science and molecular biology (course 6-7): Meltdown | MIT Admissions.

She expresses a fairly common feeling for students: “I got very lonely and I started to wonder if I’ll ever retain enough information about the world contribute to our understanding of it.”

She puts it even better later in the post:

I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the workload.

There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid, and MIT keeps an overflowing warehouse of proof in the second basement of building 36. There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness.

There’s something to giving everything and always falling short. Eventually we’ll walk out with a deep understanding of our fields, a fantastic tolerance for failure and late nights, and raised expectations for ourselves and for humankind. Someday, we’ll look back on these four years as the best years of our lives and the foundations of the kinds of friendships that can only be formed with some suffering. But right now, IHTFP. Sometimes it feels like MIT drags your self-esteem over a jagged, gravely rockface and stretches your happiness, your mental health, and the passion and energy that brought you here like an old rubber band.

The comments on the posts from students around the country show that this is not just an MIT problem—many students are stressed by their college experiences, and students at elite schools often find themselves particularly stressed.  Most of them have gone from being the best students around to being worse than average or only a little better than average.  That is a very difficult transition to make.

I went to a mediocre undergraduate institution, which had a small group of very good students.  Because we were a small group, we could compete with and challenge each other, while still retaining a strong (perhaps too strong) sense of self-worth by comparing ourselves to the other students around us, who were mainly beer-swilling jocks (going to breakfast on Sunday mornings took a strong stomach, because the dorm hallways, stairwells, and elevators were liberally coated with vomit).

When I went to grad school (at Stanford), I finally encountered substantial numbers of people obviously smarter than me, though I was still close enough to the top that I didn’t suffer from “imposter syndrome”—instead I had the feeling of finally finding a place where I belonged.  I had fellowships that let me stay a grad student at Stanford for eight years.  Only the last year of that was spent on my thesis project (when I was told I had only one more year of funding I had to find an adviser and a project fast).

I participated in many different research projects at Stanford, including several of my own choosing. Although my first published paper has never been cited, and probably was of interest to only two people (the person who made the conjecture that I proved and me), one of my other research projects has had considerable impact (307 citations and 35,000 mentions found by Google).

I enjoyed my time at Stanford immensely—I had good friends, enjoyed challenging courses and projects, and learned a lot.

Only in the past few years, after many fairly successful years as a college professor have I started having the feelings of insecurity that Lydia expresses so well. I don’t have any funding, in a small department that has the highest per-faculty funding on campus.  I can’t bring myself to write grant proposals—there were too many rejections in a row, and after putting three months work into a proposal, finding out that no one is interested in seeing the work done makes it hard for me to continue doing the research, much less rework the proposal to get it rejected again.

For the past couple of years, I haven’t even been able to find enough enthusiasm to write up work that I finished years ago.

I thought that my sabbatical last year would help me clear my backlog of old papers, get me started on new research directions and collaborations, renew my enthusiasm, and get me writing papers again.  It did not accomplish all of that, only some parts.  I did get enthusiastic about a couple of new research questions and I worked on 2 or 3 collaborations, getting a lot of programming done, but I didn’t get out any papers as first author, and I certainly didn’t get any grant proposals started.

I have ideas for new directions, and some code written that gets me preliminary results that I could use in a grant proposal.  But I don’t want to write the proposal, because getting it rejected would kill my enthusiasm for doing the work.  I’d rather do the work by myself in my spare time on my ancient computer than take the chance on getting funding for students and new machines, when there is an 80% or better chance that all the work I would put into the grant would just be rejected, and I would have nothing at all to show for the effort but a bruised ego.  (I’m becoming more and more cynical about federal funding of research—it seems designed to turn the best researchers into incompetent administrators, thus slowing research rather than speeding it.)

I did spend some time on my sabbatical learning things: like filling in the calculus-based physics that I had never taken as a math major, and learning to design printed-circuit boards. I still greatly enjoy learning new skills—I think I would still love being a grad student on a fellowship.

I also spent a lot of my sabbatical time thinking about (and reading about) teaching and pedagogy.  One possible path I’ve been giving more and more serious thought to is becoming primarily a teaching professor, stepping off the grant-writing treadmill and doing research just as a collaborator or as unfunded work by myself.  (The other common path for people who tire of grant-grubbing is to become an administrator, but I would be a terrible manager—my people skills are much weaker than the average academic’s, and most of them make poor managers.)

As my sabbatical ended, I decided to increase my teaching load this year and to tackle one of the major curricular problems of the bioengineering major: that the EE circuits course they were required to take was turning them all off to electronics, rather than enticing a third of them into bioelectronics.  Hence I spent two solid months designing a new course for them.  (The bigger problem of their having to take 6 chemistry courses when there is only really room for 3 in the curriculum remains beyond my skill to fix.)

I’ve enjoyed designing labs for the circuits class and learning (sometimes by making dumb mistakes) enough  practical circuits skills to teach the class.  I’ve been very frustrated, though, with the politics that have gone into trying to get the course offered (did I mention that I lack the people skills to be a good manager?).  The course is on for next quarter, but it has been a stressful time for me, dealing with the on-again, off-again roller coaster ride (and it still doesn’t have permanent approval, just the go-ahead for a prototype run this year).

My students often express appreciation for quick responses to their questions about the homework assignments—they don’t expect answers at 4 in the morning.  I’ve not told them that the reason I’m up at that hour is not because I’m a diligent workaholic, but because I’m so stressed I can’t sleep much most nights.

So, although I’m not an MIT undergrad and haven’t been an undergrad anywhere since 1974, Lydia’s post resonated with me.

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