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Habilitation defines the qualification to conduct self-contained university teaching and is the key for access to a professorship in many European countries. Despite all changes implemented in the European higher education systems during the Bologna Process, it is the highest qualification level issued through the process of a university examination and remains a core concept of scientific 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 the university level.
The term "habilitation" is derived from the Medieval Latin habilitare, "make suitable, 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 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.), Egypt (العالمية Ālimiyya/Al-Azhar), Denmark (dr. med./scient./phil.), Italy (Abilitazione scientifica nazionale, since 2012), Bulgaria, Portugal (Agregação), Romania (abilitare), the Czech Republic, Finland (Dosentti/Docent), Slovakia, Sweden (Docent), Hungary, Latvia (Dr. habil.), Slovenia, Greece (υφηγεσία, υφηγητής), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania (Habil. dr.; currently abolished and no longer conferred, but those who have earned the degree earlier will use it for lifetime), 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., 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 tenure. For example, in Poland, 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, 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.
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 supervising PhD students and applying for Professeur position. 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, it requires consistent research from 3 to 10 years after appointment, and a substantial amount of significant publications. 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 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 (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 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) and all other requirements are completed, the candidate (called Habilitand in German) "has habilitated himself" 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 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 ius docendi, "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 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.
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 Doctor 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.
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 (e.g., in the UK, which provides more funding for senior postdoctoral positions, more lectureships (assistant professorships), 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 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.