This habilitation qualification exists in France ("Habilitation à diriger des recherches"), Germany (Dr. habil.), Austria (Univ.-Doz.), Switzerland, Bulgaria, Poland (dr hab.), Portugal, the Czech Republic (Docent or DrSc), Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Spain (although it will disappear at the end of 2008), and countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, etc. (Doktor nauk). A similar qualification known as Livre-docência still exists also in public universities in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, but has disappeared in other parts of Brazil. The habilitation, derived from the Latin habilitare — "to make able to" — developed in the eighteenth century.
The word habilitation can be used to describe the qualification itself, or the process of earning that qualification. It is sometimes incorrectly used to refer to 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) be 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) or 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 independent research, either "internally" while working at a university in a position as a Wissenschaftlicher Assistent (academic assistant) or Akademischer Rat (academic councilor) 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.
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-Saxon 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. In practice, however, on many occasions schools extend the deadlines for habilitation for most scholars if they do not make it in time.
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 have been, since about a century ago, almost unheard of in others (such as in law). The cumulative form of the habilitation can be well 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 and some Commonwealth countries, which are awarded on the basis of a career of published work, but differ from them in that it is not an additional academic degree.
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.
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 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.
In 2004, the habilitation was the 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 their suitability to hold a tenured professorship.
On the other hand, amongst the more traditional senior researchers, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, the habilitation, (a second book) was regarded as a valuable instrument of quality control Venia legendi before giving somebody a tenured position for life. However, such Beamter positions are no longer available anymore in German academia.
If the Habilitation was in fact developed as a common transparent postdoctoral career development path with more international impact, outside Germany, there would have been a stronger argument to develop it further and not abandon it as an anachronism.
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 an habilitation.
Universities in Sweden and Finland can appoint a researcher with a doctoral degree to an unpaid academic position called Docent after an independent scientific and educational review. A docent is allowed to lecture at a university. There is no separate notion of habilitation in Finland and Sweden. The status of docent, or an equivalent scientific qualitification, is also required to serve at doctoral committees and to serve as an opponent at a dissertation defense.
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 generally requires having assisted in the supervision of a number of Masters and PhD students, consistent research for typically 5-6 years after appointment, and (in the sciences) typically around 20 publications in peer reviewed journals. Contributions in administration, course organisation can compensate for a less substantial research dossier in some cases.
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. They are not actually degrees, but more similar to a post-doctoral position that must yield a specific product.