I was a student of two advisors on sabbatical (at different times). One advisor was completely negligent (all the time) and didn’t even tell me he was going on sabbatical. But then, since I didn’t like talking to him much anyway (he once told me, when I was babysitting for a friend while he was teaching lab, “You shouldn’t show things like that around the department”, meaning the baby). The other professor tried to be in touch, but he was rather out of touch the whole time he was in Europe. He came home for one week for a final exam and was basically inaccessible otherwise. I was house sitting for him, so he was obligated to read my emails in case they were about the house. I was the only student in the group to get any attention. Just as I was finishing my Ph.d., my advisor offered me to stay on for another year to work on a specific project with her.
When we discussed this, she said she didn’t feel she had to warn me. I did travel for short visits at the institution where she was on sabbatical, but I would not have taken the job if I had known. I really enjoyed when my advisor went on sabbatical because it forced me to be more independent. I believe this particular even made all the difference, and was the key reason of why my postdoc search was successful. All I need in my research is a computer. I am not sure if this situation applies with students in labs. My advisor was on sabbatical for the first half of the final year of my thesis. I’ve experienced sabbatics of two of my advisors. Both took the “write more grants” approach, but for one, this included many semi regular and longish (couple weeks at least) trips to various far-flung places, counter balanced with a lot of time working at home.
In neither case did I feel “abandoned,” but in both cases I practiced a lot of independence. Yes, there were email conversations to patch things over, and for more immediate concerns, both lab environments were very supportive. But one adviser was so very particular about how things are done, I was hesitant to move ahead without his advise, worrying he would make me go back and repeat things. Research progress didn’t halt, but it wasn’t exactly full steam ahead, either. My advisor went on sabbatical and has not even bothered to send me an email or inform me before going. I changed advisors and thats the best thing that happened to me. It meant starting a new topic in my 4th year but there was no choice. My advisor went on sabbatical my first year of graduate school. I was completely lost and eventually left the program with a masters for greener pastures.
I don’t know how much of that can be attributed to his absence — the program was never a good fit for me. It’s possible that his absence actually helped me realize that I had made a big mistake that much faster. I am planning on taking my first sabbatical next year. I’m not worried about my current students, but I am worried about my incoming grad students (assuming they actually show up). It seems to me the affect on the students is related to communication- about what is going to happen and actually communicating while gone. If advisors would bother to keep their students informed, we’d be less inclined to be so concerned. My advisor is going on sabbatical and she has not bothered to tell us what she is doing (read: what country will she be in even) and has become terrible at answering emails lately. My advisor went to the Middle East during last year in graduate school. He left me with the job of grant management as the senior graduate student.