Habilitation (from Latin habilis "fit, proper, skillfull") is the highest academic qualification a scholar can achieve by his or her own pursuit in many countries in Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Earned after obtaining a research doctorate, such as a PhD, habilitation requires that the candidate write a professorial thesis (or habilitation thesis) based on independent scholarship, reviewed by and defended before an academic committee in a process similar to that of the doctoral dissertation. However, the level of scholarship has to be considerably higher than that required for a research doctoral (PhD) thesis in terms of quality and quantity, and must be accomplished independently, in contrast with a PhD dissertation typically directed or guided by a faculty supervisor.
In the sciences, publication of numerous (frequently ten or more) research articles is required during the habilitation period of about four to ten years. In the humanities, a major book publication may be a prerequisite for defense. The teaching ability of the habilitation candidate is usually also evaluated.
Whereas the PhD is sufficient qualification for a full university faculty position in many other countries, where in use, only the habilitation qualifies the holder to independently supervise doctoral candidates.
Habilitation qualifications exist in France (Habilitation à diriger des recherches, "accreditation to supervise research", abbreviated HDR), Switzerland, Germany (Priv.-Doz. and/or Dr. habil.), Poland (dr hab., doktor habilitowany), Austria (formerly Univ.-Doz., now Priv.-Doz.), Denmark, Bulgaria, Portugal (Agregação), Romania (abilitare), Czech and Slovakia (Docent), Hungary, Latvia (Dr. habil.), Slovenia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania (Habil. dr.), Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia (Doktor nauk). A similar concept known as Livre-docência exists in some private universities in Brazil, and in the three state universities of the state of São Paulo, where it is a pre-requisite of full professorship. In Spain it is called "acreditación" and it is a requirement for access to some kinds of posts in state-owned universities. However, the Spain "acreditación" is equivalent to the French "qualification", which entails a similar process, and not to the habilitation in other countries, including France. Similarly, the so-called Libera docenza existed in Italy until 1970. The habilitation, derived from the Medieval Latin habilitare—"make suitable, fit"—developed in the eighteenth century.
The word habilitation can be used to describe the qualification or the process of earning it. It is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to the thesis written as part of that process.
A habilitation thesis can be either cumulative (based on previous research, be it articles or monographs) or monographical, i.e. a specific, unpublished thesis, which then tends to be very long. While cumulative habilitations are predominant in some fields (such as medicine), they have been, since about a century ago, almost unheard of in others (such as law).
It is possible to get a professorship without habilitation, if the search committee attests the candidate to have qualifications equaling those of a habilitation and the higher ranking bodies (the university's senate and the country's ministry of education) approve of that. However, while some subjects make liberal use of this (e.g. the natural sciences in order to employ candidates from countries with different systems and the arts to employ active artists), in other subjects it is rarely done.
The habilitation is awarded after a public lecture, to be held after the thesis has been accepted, and after which the pro venia legendi (Latin: [petition] "for permission to read", i.e. to lecture) is bestowed. In some areas, such as law, philosophy, theology and sociology, the venia, and thus the habilitation, is only given for certain sub-fields (such as criminal law, civil law, or philosophy of science, practical philosophy etc.); in others, for the entire field.
Although disciplines and countries vary in the typical number of years for obtaining habilitation after getting a doctorate, it usually takes longer than for the Anglo-American tenure. For example, in Poland, the statutory time for getting a habilitation (traditionally, although not obligatorily, relying on a book publication) is nine years. Theoretically, if an assistant professor does not succeed in obtaining habilitation in this time, s/he should be moved to a position of a lecturer, with a much higher teaching load and no research obligations, or even be dismissed. In practice, however, on many occasions schools extend the deadlines for habilitation for most scholars if they do not make it in time, and there is evidence that they are able to finish it in a near future.
Belgium had a similar degree until 1995: it was called "Aggregatie voor het Hoger Onderwijs" (roughly: Higher Education Faculty Qualification) in Dutch and "Agrégation pour l'Enseignement Supérieur" in French.
The degree of Docteur d'État formerly awarded by universities in France had a somewhat similar purpose. It is now replaced by the Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches. The award of the French Habilitation is a strict requirement for supervising PhD students and applying for Professeur position. Depending on the field, it requires consistent research from 3 to 10 years after appointment, and (in the sciences) typically around 15-20 publications in peer reviewed journals. Contributions in administration, course organisation can compensate for a less substantial research dossier in some rare cases as the evaluation is primarily done by external and often foreign referees.
In order to hold the rank of professor within the German system, in some scientific branches it is still necessary to have attained the habilitation. It is thus a qualification at a higher level than the degree of Promotion (the German equivalent of the Ph.D.). It is usually earned after several years of independent research, either "internally" while working at a university in a position as a Wissenschaftlicher Assistent ("academic assistant," a position equivalent to assistant professor when filled by a PhD-holder) or Akademischer Rat (academic councilor) or "externally" as a practitioner such as high school teacher, lawyer, etc.
Only those candidates receiving the highest or second-highest grade for their Ph.D. thesis are encouraged to proceed to the habilitation. Since 2006, in some federal states of Germany, there have been new restrictions by the federal laws regarding the degree of the Ph.D. thesis which allow only excellent candidates to enter the habilitation process.
Once the thesis (Habilitationsschrift) and all other requirements are completed, the habilitated candidate (called Habilitand in German) officially receives the venia legendi, Latin for "permission for lecturing," or the ius docendi, "right of teaching" a specific academic subject at universities for a lifetime. This status is called Privatdozent (for men) or Privatdozentin (for women), abbreviated PD or Priv.-Doz.. After serving as a Privatdozent, one may be summoned as a full professor.
Those who have achieved habilitation can denote the fact by placing the abbreviation "Dr hab." or "Dr habil." before their names, though this is only common for those who have not yet obtained or who have already relinquished a privatdozent position.
The cumulative form of the habilitation can be compared to the higher doctorates, such as the D.Sc. (Doctor of Science), Litt.D. (Doctor of Letters), LLD (Doctor of Laws) and D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) found in the UK, Ireland, and some Commonwealth countries, which are awarded on the basis of a career of published work. However, the higher doctorates are not recognized by German States as being equivalent to the habilitation.
In the United States the habilitation does not exist. There the Ph.D. is the highest academic degree and entitles the holder to supervise doctoral dissertations and conduct "unsupervised" research. It has been claimed that the level of academic achievement required for a habilitation can be compared to American and Canadian tenure review. However, the difference between habilitation and tenure review is that the former is granted as a degree-like professorial certification rather than an employment status within a given school or university and goes with the scholar if he or she switches schools, while the latter does not.
German debate about the habilitation
In 2004, the habilitation was the subject of a major political debate in Germany. The former Federal Minister for Education and Science, Edelgard Bulmahn, aimed to abolish the system of the habilitation and replace it by the alternative concept of the junior professor: a researcher should first be employed for up to six years as a "junior professor" (a non-tenured position roughly equivalent to assistant professor in the United States) and so prove his or her suitability for holding a tenured professorship.
Opinion split among German academics
Many, especially researchers in the natural sciences, as well as young researchers, have long demanded the abandonment of the habilitation as they think it to be an unnecessary and time-consuming obstacle in a scientific career, contributing to the brain drain of talented young researchers who think their chances of getting a professorship at a reasonable age to be better abroad and hence move, for example, to the UK or USA. Many feel overly dependent on their supervising Principal Investigators (the professor heading the research group) as superiors have the power to delay the process of completing the habilitation. A further problem comes with funding support for those who wish to pursue an habilitation where older candidates often feel discriminated against, for example under the DFG's Emmy-Noether programme. Furthermore internal "soft" money might be only budgeted to pay for younger postdoctoral scientists. Because of the need to chase short-term research contracts, many researchers in the natural sciences apply for more transparent career development opportunities in other countries (e.g. in the UK, which provides more funding for senior postdoctoral positions, more lectureships, many more third-party fellowship funding opportunities including the 5-year RCUK fellowship and Value in People awards, no academic culture of age discrimination, and also the postgraduate (postdoctorate) diplomas in Higher Education and Learning & Research /Academic Development). In summary, a peer-reviewed demonstration of a successful academic development and international out-look is considered more than compensation for an habilitation where there is evidence of grant applications, well-cited publications, a network of collaborators, lecturing and organisational experience, and experience of having worked and published abroad.
On the other hand, amongst many senior researchers, especially in medicine, the humanities and the social sciences, the habilitation was and still is regarded as a valuable instrument of quality control (Venia legendi) before giving somebody a tenured position for life.
Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia, three states with conservative governments, filed suit at the German Constitutional Court against the new law replacing the habilitation with the junior professor . The Court concurred with their argument that the Bundestag (the federal parliament) cannot pass such a law, because the German constitution explicitly states that affairs of education are the sole responsibility of the states and declared in July 2004 the law to be invalid. In reaction, a new federal law was passed, giving the states more freedom regarding habilitations and junior professors. The junior professor has since been legally established in all states, but it is still possible—and encouraged for an academic career in many subjects in Germany — to pursue a habilitation.
- See laws and regulations of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany: http://www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/imperia/md/content/chemie/ordnungenplaene/habil/habilordnung.pdf
- A short description of PhD and Habilitation at the Free University of Berlin, Germany: http://www.mi.fu-berlin.de/en/stud/prom-habil/index.html
- "A guide to documentation on habilitation and professorship procedures at the Faculty of Medicine of Masaryk University in Brno". Masaryk University in Brno. Retrieved 17 April 2013.
- See laws and regulations in the site of the Spanish National Agency for Habilitation: http://www.aneca.es/actividadesevaluacion/evaluacionprofesorado/acreditacion_nacional.aspx
- "Anabin database". Anabin database (in German, click on "Abschlusstypen", then "Doctor of/in"). 24 July 2009. Retrieved 12 August 2009.
- A short description of PhD and Habilitation at the Free University of Berlin,Germany
- Education in Austria at the European Education Directory
- Germany tries to break its Habilitation Habit article in the science magazin of the AAAS
- Habilitation procedure at the Technical University of Munich,Germany
- Higher Education in Hungary at the Encyclopædia Britannica
- Interview with a Swedish professor on habilitation
- Habilitation in Romania