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Habilitation is the highest academic qualification a person can achieve by his/her own pursuit in certain European countries. Earned after taking a doctorate, the habilitation requires the candidate to write a second dissertation, reviewed by and defended before an academic committee in a process similar to that for the doctoral dissertation. Whereas in the United States, the United Kingdom and some other countries, the doctorate is sufficient qualification for a faculty position at a university, in other countries only the habilitation qualifies the holder to supervise doctoral candidates. Such a post is known in Germany as privatdozent and there are similarly termed posts elsewhere - the American equivalent would be an assistant or associate professor. After service as a privatdozent, one may be be admitted to the faculty as a professor, a position equivalent to a "full professor" in the United States.
This habilitation qualification exists only in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and countries of former Soviet Union, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, etc. The habilitation, derived from the Latin habilitare, "made able to" - developed in the 18th century.
The word habilitation can be used to describe the qualification itself, the process of earning that qualification or, incorrectly, the thesis written as part of that process (what is called Habilitationsschrift in German). A successful habilitation requires that the candidate (called Habilitand in German or Latin) is officially given 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 males)/Privatdozentin (for females), abbreviated PD or Priv.-Doz..
In order to hold the rank of professor within the German system, it is usually 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 research, either "internally" while working at a university in a position as a Wissenschaftlicher Assistent (academic assistant) or Akademischer Rat (academic councillor) or "externally" as a practitioner such as high school teacher, lawyer, etc.. With the habilitation, the status of privatdozent (university lecturer, PD or Priv.-Doz. for short) is usually granted.
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 has the tendency to be very long. While cumulative habilitations are predominant in some fields (such as medicine), they are almost unheard of in others (such as in law). The cumulative form of the habilitation can be well compared to the D.Sc. (Doctor of Science) Degree, the Litt.D. (Doctor of Letters), the D.C.L. (Doctor of Civil Law), and D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) at Oxford and Cambridge, which are awarded on the basis of a career of published work.
Only those candidates receiving the highest or second-highest grade for their Ph.D. thesis are encouraged to proceed to the habilitation. In some federal states of Germany, since 2006 there are new restrictions by the federal laws regarding the degree of the Ph.D.thesis which allows only excellent candidates to reach for the habilitation process.
The habilitation is awarded after a public lecture, to be held after the thesis has been accepted, and after which the venia legendi 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.
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.
It is possible to get a professorship without habilitation, if the search committee attests the candidate to have qualifications equalling 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 German debate about the habilitation
In 2004, the habilitation was subject of a major political debate in Germany. The former Federal Minister for Education and Research, 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 or lecturer in the United Kingdom) and so prove his or her suitability to hold a tenured professorship.
German academia has split opinions about this change:
Many, especially researchers in the natural sciences, as well as young researchers, have long demanded the abandonment of the habilitation as they felt it to be an unnecessary and time-consuming obstacle in a scientific career, which contributes to the brain drain of talented young researchers who feel their chances of getting a professorship at a reasonable age to be better abroad and hence move, e.g., to the USA. Also, many feel overly dependent on their superior (the professor heading the research group) as he or she has the power to delay the process of completing the habilitation.
On the other hand, among senior researchers, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, the habilitation is regarded as a valuable instrument of quality control before giving somebody a tenured position for life.
Three Länder (states) with conservative governments filed suit at the German Constitutional Court against the new law replacing the habilitation with the juniorprofessur. 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 Länder 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. By now the junior professor has been legally established in all the states, but it is still possible - and necessary for an academic career in many subjects - to get a habilitation.
Similarities in other countries
Sweden and Finland have a postdoctorate degree of Docent, attributed after an independent scientific and educational review and an oral defense. The scientific merits are based on publications obtained after the doctoral degree, the educational merits are examined through the oral defense and (in some cases) through specific pedagogic courses. The degree can be obtained earliest two or four years after a doctoral degree (depending on faculty). As in France, the habilitation is necessary to supervise research, to serve at doctoral committees and to serve as faculty opponent at a doctoral defense. In English translations, a university faculty member with the position of "university lecturer" in Finland and Sweden is equivalent to an anglo-saxon Associate Professor if the person is habilitated, ie., carries the title "Docent".
The degree of Docteur d'Etat formerly awarded by universities in France had a somewhat similar purpose.
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.
Although these awards are at a higher level than the Ph.D., they can only roughly be equated to the higher doctorates awarded by universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and the Commonwealth.
Category: Academic degrees