Habilitation is a qualification required in order to conduct self-contained university teaching, and to obtain a professorship in many European countries. Despite changes implemented in European higher-education systems consequent to the Bologna Process, habilitation is the highest qualification issued through the process of a university examination, and remains a core concept of scholarly careers in these countries.
The degree is conferred for a habilitation thesis based on independent scholarship, which was reviewed by and successfully defended before an academic committee in a process similar to that of a doctoral dissertation. In some countries, a habilitation degree is a required formal qualification to independently teach and examine a designated subject at university level.
History and etymology
The term habilitation is derived from the Medieval Latin habilitare, meaning "to make suitable, to fit", from Classical Latin habilis "fit, proper, skillful". The degree developed in Germany in the seventeenth century (c. 1652). Initially, habilitation was synonymous with doctoral qualification. The term became synonymous with post-doctoral qualification in Germany in the 19th century "when holding a doctorate seemed no longer sufficient to guarantee a proficient transfer of knowledge to the next generation". Afterwards, it became normal in the German university system to write two doctoral theses: the inaugural thesis (Inauguraldissertation), completing a course of study; and the habilitation thesis (Habilitationsschrift), which opens the road to a professorship.
Habilitation qualifications exist or existed in:
- Belgium (French-speaking part: Agrégation de l'enseignement supérieur, until 2010)
- Brazil (livre-docência)
- France (Habilitation à diriger des recherches, "accreditation to supervise research", abbreviated HDR)
- Switzerland (Priv.-Doz. and/or Dr. habil.)
- Germany (Priv.-Doz. and/or Dr. habil.)
- Luxembourg (autorisation à diriger des recherches, "authorization to supervise research", or ADR)
- Poland (dr hab., doktor habilitowany)
- Austria (formerly Univ.-Doz., now Priv.-Doz.)
- Egypt (العالمية Ālimiyya/Al-Azhar)
- Denmark (dr. med./scient./phil.)
- Italy (Abilitazione scientifica nazionale, since 2012)
- Bulgaria (Docent)
- Portugal (Agregação)
- Romania (abilitare)
- Czechia (doc., docent)
- Finland (Dosentti/Docent)
- Slovakia (Docent)
- Sweden (Docent)
- Hungary (Dr. habil.)
- Latvia (Dr. habil.)
- Slovenia (Docent)
- Greece (υφηγεσία, υφηγητής), abolished in 1983
- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania (Habil. dr.; currently abolished and no longer conferred, but those who have earned the degree earlier will use it for life)
- Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia (Доцент)
- Serbia, Доктор наука (Doktor nauka)
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., as well as at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).
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).
The level of scholarship of a habilitation is considerably higher than for a doctoral dissertation in the same academic tradition in terms of quality and quantity, and must be accomplished independently, without direction or guidance of a faculty supervisor. In the sciences, publication of numerous (sometimes 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.
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 venia legendi (Latin: "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 American academic tenure. For example, in Poland until 2018, the statutory time for getting a habilitation (traditionally, although not obligatorily, relying on a book publication) is eight years. Theoretically, if an assistant professor does not succeed in obtaining habilitation in this time, they 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 the near future.
Livre-docência is a title (similar to Habilitation in Germany) granted to holders of doctorate degrees upon submission of a cumulative thesis followed by a viva voce examination. It has practically disappeared amongst Brazilian Federal HEIs, but it is still required at a few institutions (notably in the state of São Paulo) for admissions as a Professor (Professor Titular).
The degree of Docteur d'État (State Doctor; abbreviated DrE) or Doctorat d'État (State Doctorate), called Doctorat ès lettres (Doctor of Letters) before the 1950s, formerly awarded by universities in France had a somewhat similar purpose. Following the submission of two theses (primary thesis, thèse principale, and secondary thesis, thèse complémentaire) to the Faculty of Letters at the University of Paris, the doctoral candidate was awarded the Docteur d'État.
In 1984, Docteur d'État was replaced by the Habilitation à diriger des recherches. The award of the French Habilitation is a general requirement for being the main supervisor of PhD students and applying for Full Professor positions. This requirement does not apply to the members of Directeur de Recherche corps who are assimilated to Professeur by the French Conseil National des Universités (CNU). Depending on the field, the French Habilitation requires consistent research from 3 to 10 years after appointment as an Associate Professor (Maître de Conférences), a substantial amount of significant publications, the supervision of at least one PhD student from start to graduation, and a successful track record securing extramural funding as a principal investigator. Exceptional postdoctoral researchers who are not yet appointed to a university could also obtain the Habilitation if they meet the other requirements (although this is exceptional). The Habilitation committee is constituted by a majority of external and sometimes foreign referees. The French Habilitation entitles Associate Professors (Maîtres de Conférences) to apply for Full Professor positions (Professeur des Universités).
In order to hold the rank of Full Professor within the German system, it is necessary to have attained the habilitation or "habilitation-equivalent achievements" that can be demonstrated by leading a research group, being a junior professor, or other achievements in research and teaching. The habilitation is thus a qualification at a higher level than the German doctoral degree awarded during Promotion. It is usually earned after several years of independent research, either "internally" while working at a university in a position as a Wissenschaftlicher Assistent ("scientific assistant", a position equivalent to assistant professor when filled by a doctorate-holder) or Akademischer Rat (lecturer) or "externally" as a practitioner such as high school teacher, lawyer, etc.
Only those candidates receiving the highest or second-highest grade for their doctoral 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 doctoral thesis which allow only excellent candidates to enter the process of Habilitation.
Once the habilitation thesis (Habilitationsschrift, often simply Habilitation) and all other requirements are completed, the candidate (called Habilitand/in in German) "has habilitated him- or herself" and receives the degree Dr. habil. (with the specification, such as Dr. rer. nat. habil.). It depends on the state or on the university whether the habilitation counts de jure as an additional doctorate separate from the original one (in which case he or she would be a Dr. rer. nat. Dr. rer. nat. habil.).
A distinct procedure, but a formality after completing the habilitation, is officially receiving the venia legendi, Latin for "permission for lecturing", or the venia docendi, Latin for "right of teaching" a specific academic subject at universities for a lifetime. Someone in possession of the venia legendi but not any professorship is called a Privatdozent (for men) or Privatdozentin (for women), abbreviated PD or Priv.-Doz.. The status as a Privatdozent requires doing some (generally unpaid) teaching even in order to keep up the title (Titellehre or titular teaching).
Note that the distinction Dr. habil. is almost never used together with Privatdozent, as it is implied therein, and only rarely with Professor, in which it used to be implied.
In Austria the procedure is currently regulated by national law (Austrian University Act UG2002 §103). The graduation process includes additionally to the sub-commission of the senate (including students representatives for a hearing on the teaching capabilities of the candidate) an external reviewer. Holding a Habilitation allows academics to do research and supervise (PhD, MSc, ...) on behalf of this university. As it is an academic degree, this is even valid if the person is not enrolled (or not enrolled anymore) at this institution (Habilitation ad personam). Appointment to a full professorship with an international finding commission includes a venia docendi (UG2002 §98(12)), which is restricted to the time of the appointment (UG2002 §98(13) – Habilitation ad positionem).
While the Habilitation ensures the rights of the independent research and the supervision, it is on behalf of the statute of the universities to give those rights also to, e.g., associate professors without Habilitation. Currently the major Austrian universities do that only for master's level students, but not for PhD programs.
In the Italian legal system, "habilitations" are different types of acts and authorizations.
Habilitations for associate and full professorships in Universities
Regarding university habilitations, the so-called "Gelmini Reform" of the research and university teaching system (Italian Law 240 of year 2010 and subsequent modifications) has established the national scientific habilitation for the calls in the role of associate professor and full professor (called "abilitazione scientifica nazionale", or ASN). This means that, as a prerequisite for being able to be selected by a university committee to fill these roles, it is necessary to have obtained the scientific qualification for the relative kind of teaching. For STEM fields (so called "bibliometric fields"), the qualifications requires a two-steps evaluation:
(1) first a quantitative assessment, as each candidate for and ASN as associate or full professor must have at least 2 out of these 3 requirements: having published more papers than most associate or full professors in Italian universities, having received more citations than most associate or full professors in Italian universities, having an h-index higher than most associate or full professors in Italian universities;
(2) then, a specific committee (one for each scientific sub-field) will qualitatively evaluate the scientific CV of the candidates, considering funding, mobility, autonomy of the research, awards won, and so on.
The successful candidate will then receive his or her ASN habilitation as associate or full professor (or, in some instances, for both) and may thus apply for those vacancies in Italian universities.
The ASN habilitation also allows to compete for 3-years tenure-track assistant professorship positions (called RTDb in the Italian system, as for "ricercatore a tempo determinato di tipo b"). At the end of the 3-years contract the assistant professor must have a valid ASN habilitation in order to become a permanent associate professor, otherwise he or she is permanently laid off. To prevent this (which may be disastrous to already undermanned Italian departments), it is common practice to award RTDb positions to people already habilitated as associate or full professors, which is in practical contrast with the spirit of the "Gelmini-reform".
The ASN habilitation is valid for 6 years, but a candidate can apply again to renew his or her habilitation 4 years after having received it. If an ASN habilitation application fails, the candidate can apply again, but only after a 12 months hiatus.
Due to extreme scarcity of tenure track positions in Italy, the ASN habilitation validity has been recently increased to 9 years through a government's decree in October 2019.
In the field of free regulated professions, protected by a professional body (architects, lawyers, engineers, doctors, pharmacists, journalists ...), it identifies the state examination, more properly called "state examination for the qualification for the exercise of professions" that allows the already graduated students or the ones having the necessary titles to register in the list of professionals and work. Many state exams include the possession of a specific qualification among the requirements. For example, to participate in the exam for the habilitation for the profession for an architect or an engineer, you must have already graduated from a university. However, in order to actually practice the profession it is necessary to register with the relevant professional association and, if the profession is exercised independently, it is necessary to have a VAT number. These exams are usually organized by the professional orders with the collaboration of the universities in the area.
In other cases, especially in the case of the health professions or of the childcare professional, not protected by a professional nature, the degree itself is a qualifying title.
Finally, some habilitations, since their activities can't be done autonomously, need to be hired in a suitable structure in order to effectively carry out the profession in question. This is for example the case of the education sector: once the qualifying examination has been passed, a public competition must be won for recruitment in an upper or lower secondary school.
In the Portuguese legal system, there are two types of habilitation degree. The first is normally given to university professors and is named agregação  (Decree of Law 239/2007) while the second is named habilitação and is used by doctoral researchers working in institutes outside universities (Decree of Law 124/99). Legally, they are equivalent and are required for a professor (agregação) or a researcher (habilitação) to reach the top of their specific careers (Full Professor or Coordinator Researcher). Both degrees aim to evaluate if the candidate has achieved significant outputs in terms of scientific activity, including activities in postgraduation supervision.
The process to obtain any of the degrees is very similar, with minor changes. Any PhD holder can submit a habilitation thesis to obtain the degree. For Agregação, the thesis is composed by a detailed CV of the achievements obtained after concluding the PhD; a detailed report of an academic course taught at the university (or a proposed course to be taught); and the summary of a lesson to be given. For Habilitação, the academic course report is replaced by a research proposal or a proposal for advanced PhD studies.
After the candidate submits the habilitation thesis, a jury composed from 5 to 9 Full Professors or Coordinator Researchers, first evaluates the submitted documents and the majority needs to approve the request by the candidate. If approved, the candidate then needs to defend his thesis in a 2-day public defense. During each day, the public defense has a duration of 2 hours. On the first day, the curriculum of the candidate is discussed (for both degrees) and in the case of agregação, the candidate also needs to present the academic course selected. In the second day, the candidate needs to present a lecture (agregação) or a proposal of a research project (habilitação).
The Doctor of Science in Russia and some other countries formerly part of the Soviet Union or the Eastern bloc is equivalent to a Habilitation. 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), LL.D. (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, higher doctorates from these countries are often not recognized by any German state as being equivalent to the habilitation.
Furthermore, the position or title of an Associate Professor (or higher) at a European Union-based university is systematically translated into or compared to titles such as Universitätsprofessor (W2) (Germany), førsteamanuensis (Norway), or Doktor hab. (Poland) by institutions such as the European Commission Directorate-General for Research, and therefore usually implies the holder of such title has a degree equivalent to habilitation.
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/her suitability for holding a tenured professorship.
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 an academic 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 a 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. 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 the law to be invalid in June 2004. 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.
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