One of my earliest childhood memories is my dad's habilitation party. My mum, sister and I met my dad in front of a huge building, the library of the University of Bonn. While we waited for him, my mum explained what a habilitation was. I don't remember her explanation in detail, but this is what I took away from it at the time: Our dad had to publish some things, which were now available in this library. No, it wouldn't be interesting for us (my sister and me) to go have a look inside the library, because they didn't have kid's books. (It blew my mind that there could be such a thing as a library which would not be interesting to me.) Yes, our dad was a published author. No, he has not written a book - he wrote some articles that were published as sort of chapters in journals, kind of like the "Bummi" magazine, but about maths. Then, I remember, we went out for dinner. To my mind, it took an eternity while we were waiting for our food after having ordered, while the adults were talking about adult stuff.
Ten year later, my dad had not found a professorship in Germany, and we moved to Australia. I finished high school, completed my bachelor, and moved on to a PhD. I had not heard the word "habilitation" for a very long time. Only once did an Australian colleague ask me during my PhD: "I heard that in Germany, after you finish your PhD, you need to write another thesis." I shrugged. "Ah yes, there was something like that."
Around twenty years after my early memory from Bonn, against my expectations, I found myself in the German academic system. I was reminded of the concept of a habilitation when applying for post-doc grants, and reading successful applications, where the applicants promised to do a habilitation as part of the post-doc. "Is this... still a thing?" I asked my prospective boss (in other words, of course -- and in an email starting, as German etiquette demands, with "Highly esteemed Mr. Professor [...]). "Yes, a habilitation is generally required", was the formal reply. I wrote in my proposal that I'd do a habilitation, but then forgot about it for a while.
After a few years, a few rejected grant proposals, but also a few successes, I had the funding to hire a PhD student. I invited a masters student whom I'd supervised during my previous post-doc at the University of Padova in Italy. Except, it turned out, that while I managed to get the funding to hire a PhD student within the German academic system, a habilitation is actually a prerequisite for supervising PhD students. To make things more complicated, our faculty had recently changed the PhD requirements, and instead of registering the names of your supervisor(s) ("Promotionsbetreuer"), we needed to find a thesis advisory board with three people, all of them habilitated, and at least one external. "Can we list an external advisor from Australia?", I asked a bureaucrat on the phone. "She isn't be habilitated: habilitation doesn't exist in Australia." I may as well have told her that I'd been hand-feeding a unicorn the other day. At some stage, my student took over the bureaucracy. "Does the habilitation requirement mean that Dr. Schmalz can't actually be my supervisor?", she asked the bureaucrat at some stage. "Of course she can be your supervisor", was the reply. "She just can't be on the advisory board." Translation: She can do the work, but she can't take the credit for it.
So, what actually is a habilitation? After some googling, I managed to patch the following information together: A habilitation is required as a demonstration that you can teach and research independently. After you finish a habilitation, you are formally qualified for a professorship position. Nowadays, there are alternative pathways to a professorship, but doing a habilitation still seems to be very common. In order to get the habilitation, you do what most aspiring researchers do anyway: you research and you teach. From my more experienced colleagues, I got the following step-by-step instruction about how to go about doing a habilitation: Step 1: Find a supervisor. Step 2: Make a written agreement about all the things you want to achieve during your habilitaiton (number of courses taught, number of first- or last-author publications, number of students supervised). Step 3: Your supervisor arranges the teaching for you.
To me, this does not make much sense. You're supposed to show that you can research independently by working with a supervisor. You can't be trusted to teach as a professor unless you have shown that you can teach by teaching. But the steps seemed quite straight-forward. Until I learned something that led me to procrastinate with starting the procedure for another couple of years: In Germany, the habilitation title is tied to the university where you work, and in order to keep it, you need to continue teaching at this university, until you find a professorship position. Once you start a professorship position, you lose the title, but you gain the professor's title, which is worth much more. (Not to mention it comes with a very high status and a permanent position.) Except, of course, professorships are far more competitive than they were back in the days when the habilitation may have made sense: it is not uncommon for researchers to be on short-term contracts for more than a decade until they either leave academia or win the lottery in the form of a professorship position (or, as my dad did, take up a position in another country). Mostly, researchers who are habilitated but don't have a professorship position continue to teach for free.
The habilitation process seems to have changed a lot since I was waiting in front of the university library in Bonn. When I discussed this with my parents, they were surprised that a habilitation supervisor is required. They were also surprised that there is no stipend: back in his days, my dad had received a "Habilitationstipendium" from the German Research Foundation to cover living expenses. I'd have to do it alongside the full-time project that I'm paid to work on. As most researchers of the older generation, my parents encouraged me to do the habilitation. To the older generation, a habilitation seems to be an honorary title. To my generation, it seems to be more of a nuisance. "What's the point of doing a habilitation?" I asked my mentor, a professor in our faculty. "It's not like it will guarantee that I will get a professorship." -- "Well, to put it differently", my mentor said, "If you don't do a habilitation, you won't get a professorship." The thing I love about academics: they will counter pessimism and whining with indisputable logic.
In the meantime, I appear to have found a loophole to the problem of losing the habilitation title if you don't continue to teach: Other Central European countries also have habilitations, but you can keep the title for life. Luckily, Munich is close to the border of one such country: Austria. So, all I have to do is find a professor who could supervise me, write to them, and tell them, basically, that I'm willing to commute and to do free teaching for them, and put their department as the second affiliation for all of my publications.
To summarise: What is a habilitation? "I guess I haven't been in Germany for long enough", I confessed to a recently habilitated colleague. "I'm still very confused about the purpose of the habilitation." She laughed, and replied: "It's not because you haven't been in Germany for long enough!" It is noteworthy that my text processing software has underlined every instance of the word "habilitation" in this blogpost as a typo, and suggests the following alternatives: "rehabilitation", "habitation", "debilitation", and "habituation".
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A few additions for non-Germans reading this:
Each university department defines the rules for PhD supervision on its own. There might be general, university-wide regulations, however, which limit the department's freedom.
At my current department, not even a habilitation is sufficient to become appointed as a PhD student's supervisor. On the other hand, leaders of a "junior research group" (like me) may supervise their own PhD students even without habilitation.
And the prerequisites for becoming a professor are also extremely heterogeneous.
In my field - computer science - a habilitation is not required in practice (people might even wonder why you wrote one instead of doing more important stuff). On the other hand, the department I'm in (lanugage, literature, and culture studies) is very traditional. Here, even a professor needs an appropriate 'venia legendi' (which you obtain by writing a habilitation) for supervising a certain PhD topic. For example, if you wrote your habilitation in English Literature, but want to supervise a PhD thesis on English culture, other professors might question your qualifications.
One important alternative to writing a habilitation is to lead a junior research group (if you are lucky enough to get a grant). Once your group has passed its intermediate evaluation, many hiring committees - at least in my field - will accept this as habilitation-equivalent qualifications ("habilitationsäquivalente Leistungen"). This often also applies to junior professors (W1) who passed their intermediate evaluation.
But of course, every discipline has its own custom rules.
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