Universities in many European and Asian countries offer an upgrade to your PhD that turns the owner into a "habilitated doctor", that is, someone who is allowed to teach PhD students. In Sweden, the recipient of the upgrade is called a docent, which is funny because "docent" means "museum guide" in US English. It's not a job: more like an academic scout badge. No salary.

To get the upgrade here in Sweden, you need to a) publish about a thesis-worth of new research after your PhD dissertation, and b) prove that you can teach. The latter proof can either take the form of a teaching portfolio documenting actual hours spent in front of students, or of a single test lecture.

My published post-PhD work is measured in the hundreds of pages, and giving a decent test lecture is not a task I would find daunting. So I have been looking into ways to get the docent upgrade for a few years. The main reason that I want it is that it would make me more competitive on the academic job market. At Swedish universities, it's hard to give a job to someone who lacks the upgrade if someone with the upgrade also applies. Last fall when I finished the manuscript of my Ãstergötland book, I decided to go for it. The book manuscript alone, due out in print next winter or spring, would be enough to earn me a docentur under normal circumstances.

Now, in Sweden you can either get the docent upgrade from the university where you work or from the one where you got your PhD. Nobody else will accept your application. The university I'm affiliated with now, Chester, is in the UK where no comparable PhD upgrade exists, so that left me the good old University of Stockholm.

I enrolled at the Stockholm department in 1990, just when post-modernism had taken off in Swedish academic archaeology in a big way. I walked out of the department in 2003 with a PhD, a clenched jaw and the firm intention of never looking back. Much of grad school had been painful. The Science Wars and my attitude to so-called "theoretical archaeology" ensured that the department and I did not part company on good terms.

Anyway, there I was, in the autumn of last year. The docent upgrade is handed out by the Faculty of Humanities, the organisational level above the department, which had done me more than one good turn during my grad school years. But they ask the heads of the respective departments to evaluate each docent application on two points: is the applicant a) highly qualified, and might the applicant b) be useful to the university? Could I somehow navigate around the few people at the department that were likely to want to block me? I have lots of buddies at the science-friendly units there. I explained the situation to the faculty, and they said, "Ouch, that's not the best start. But you can always apply. After all, anybody who gets the upgrade gets it from us, not from their department."

So I wrote an application letter saying basically, "I'm a controversial person in some quarters, but I have 130 published pieces of work at age 37, I edit the biggest journal in my field and I write one of the biggest science blogs in my discipline worldwide. I think it would be hard to argue that I'm poorly qualified or useless." Applying didn't take me many hours, re-using bits of an old job application.

Now, docent applications submitted without the blessing of the head of department are almost unheard of. It took months for the department to reply to the faculty's question, and when they did, the sheer hostility of the thing was amazing. It really hurt at first when I read their evaluation letter. Their message basically boils down to "The guy's crazy and all that peer-reviewed research he waves about is actually really boring and small and insignificant and traditional. He's useless!". My attempt at circumnavigation ended on the rocks. The faculty turned down my application.

But there are a few things about that letter that made me smile after a while. Remember, what I had asked for wasn't a job or a grant or even the use of a desk & phone. I asked for a scout badge. But researching and writing that evaluation letter has cost somebody a lot of work. A number of quotations indicate that they spent hours trawling through this blog for incriminating bits - without making their presence known with the tiniest comment, I might add. (Hey man, I bet you're reading this too! Hello!) And the letter refers to the Kuhnian Huns affair in such a manner that the guy must have talked about it with the disgruntled professor who wrote that infamous debate piece. Too bad though that he gets the actual facts of the matter wrong and tries to make it look like I'm into censorship. Not the best source-criticism there. The sub-text of the evaluation letter is "Holy shit, we are prepared to go to any lengths to avoid giving that guy a hand or being associated with him in any way!". I seem to be a bogeyman to scare professorial children with, the stuff of whispered legend in ivy-covered halls. Quite flattering.

Or maybe I shouldn't get a big head. The department people may also be motivated to some extent by a wish to avoid giving the docent upgrade to anybody who isn't already on their payroll. The country's output of archaeology PhDs has exploded in the past 20 years, but the number of teaching jobs has remained unchanged, as has the number of badge-bearing docents. 40 years ago, maybe 20% of all PhDs ended up as docents. Today it's more like 2%. And maybe there's a reason not to open that flood gate. A department might quickly end up with more docents than employees. Still, a department that churned out lots of docents would soon find their old grad students dominating our little labour market, and I don't know why they would see that as such a bad thing.

So, what do I do now? I shrug and go on. The Boomers are retiring at a fine pace. I'll just continue racking up qualifications and publications at a rate that is impossible to top if you have to teach and do admin. So one day perhaps I'll get a job at a department where they aren't so afraid of a scarred veteran of the Science Wars. And on the strength of that job, it'll be a lot easier to get my scout badge.


More like this

Habilitation, docentur, is a symbolic upgrade to your PhD found in Scandinavia and other countries with a strong element of German academic traditions. You can think of it as a boy-scout badge. It confers no salary, but it opens certain doors including that of supervising doctoral candidates.…
My professional goal since undergraduate days 20 years ago has been to divide my working hours between indoor research, fieldwork and teaching. And so I applied for my first academic job in June of 2003, shortly before my thesis defence. When I saw the list of applicants (this stuff is public in…
Come September I'm scheduled to fulfil a major life goal of mine after over 15 years of impatient waiting. I'm going to teach Scandy Archaeology 101 for the first time, at the University of Umeå!* The fall semester is divided into four modules of which I am head teacher for three: 1) Introduction,…
Compared to the Swedish system, academic recruitment is extremely swift in the UK. In Scandyland, it's typically 7 months from the application deadline to the rejection letter, mainly because of slow external referees. The worst I've seen was 14 months. But in the UK, it's all done in a matter of…

Martin: Apropos your July 23, 2008 post "Against Theoretical Archeology, I am an ecologist who worries lots about how basic science and social science intersect in environmental science. I find all but the last of your bullet points in the 2008 post to be eminently sensible. Regarding your last bullet, it seems to me that the objectivity and logic that are at the heart of archeology as well as of all science are values. These are the core values of basic science. I would appreciate your perspective on this point. regards, Don

Well, that sucks.

But thanks for reminding me again why I'm happy I never went into the academia! Milking snake-fangs - or even politics - would seem like a less venomous occupation.

By Akhôrahil (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

Don, you're referring to my opinion that "Politics are about values and thus non-science. Archaeology should therefore resist all attempts from inside and outside the discipline to ascribe political relevance to it."

I agree that the motivation of the Enlightenment project includes a few values that are taken as axiomatic, most importantly, "Factual knowledge about the real world is worth pursuing as an end unto itself". But if I don't buy that, then I clearly have no interest in science, and should for the sake of consistency also quit looking both ways before I cross the street.

For some reason I feel compelled to mention that I am docent of the United States kind at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

Regarding The Last Bullet Point: in Japan, there has always been reluctance to allow excavation the tombs of the early emperors. The usual reason is respect for the imperial family, but 1400 years down the road of history, I am wondering whether the powers that be are simply afraid to find proof that the imperial family is Korean in origin (Koreans being widely discriminated against in Japan, and Japanese-Koreans being considered second-class or lower citizens). I know that some Japanese archaeologists are itching to dig, the early history of Japan being extremely interesting.

Now, in Sweden you can either get the docent upgrade from the university where you work or from the one where you got your PhD.

Sounds like it is designed to legitimize discrimination against otherwise superior candidates for teaching positions, and I have to wonder if that isn't why the system hasn't been adopted in England.

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

Yes, that sucks. Can't you appeal to the faculty?

IIRC, the Finnish universities aren't as strict about who applies to become a docent, and you can do everything in Swedish too (at least at Helsinki and Ãbo Akademi). Or can you get a connection with another Swedish uni, just to get a docentship from them? Offer to teach a course on the cheap for them, or something.

(FWIW, I've a docent, from the biological sciences in Helsinki Uni)

So ... If you publish the book you get a docent and "habilitated". Presumably publishing another would get you "rehabilitated".

Bob, the dean is the appeals court here and he's informed me that the issue is settled. If I understand things correctly, they do not want to set any precedent where outsiders can demand to be foisted upon unwilling departments as docents.

Yes, if I can forge any kind of steady link with another Scandy uni I can probably get a docentship there. But the labour market is extremely crowded.

Art, the ultimate goal of my academic career has always been to end up in rehab.

You're not crazy.

You're not boring, small or insignificant.

I have no idea whether you are traditional or not.

Recently I have been laughing myself sick about what has happened in Social Sciences in Norway. Irrelevant, I know, but it's the process.

Hang in there, stay grounded, and keep doing good science - that's my 2 cents worth.

By Sandgroper (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

Thanks John, good to hear, and very kind of you! I'm certainly not packing it in. I mean, hey, my research funding pours in faster than I can burn it.

Interesting post; academia is weird. Many of the rules of the game are kept secret and the rules changes as the game is played. Hopefully, I will not be entangled into political scheming when I apply for docent this fall.

What do you say about this?…

To me, this sounds like jumping to conclusions, but I am not an archaeologist.

/Douglas (childhood-friend of your brother)

When I was in grad school I cringed at the thought of having a career in academia. This is just the kind of thing that had me running for the hills. Now, granted, we don't have the docent system here in the U.S., as you mentioned (we let anyone teach), but the same shenanigans happen here too in other arenas. On the other hand, if you want a teaching job, have you considered coming back to the States? I think you'd be great. I'd write you a good letter of recommendation (not that it would have any relevance or sway).

By PsyberDave (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

In the US you would simply reach for a lawyer and sue, alleging infringement of your rights. After all, just why does a free man need someone else to say he's allowed to do something? The older I get, the more I appreciate the US feature where ordinary people have access to the law. I don't know whether ordinary people have rights in Sweden, tho.

As it stands, publicity is your best ally. You noted that the weasel snooping your blog didn't want to be identified.

By Roger Pearse (not verified) on 07 Jun 2010 #permalink

Douglas, great to hear from you! I still usually spend at least three days a week on Baggensudden, where my research study is. I remember you as a quiet and easy-going guy, so I'm sure your docent application will sail through. And you're impressively young! What field are you in?

Those nonsense runestones are rare yet have been known for a long time. I haven't read the guy's thesis, but I don't envy him the source material he chose for his PhD work.

Dave, thanks for the encouragement! I've considered applying for jobs in the US, but it's hard as archaeology is not one global discipline. It is a quilt of regional fields that share methods but needn't communicate with each other about any specifics. US job ads tend to specify that applicants should be familiar with Pueblo pottery or Woodland lithics or Moundbilder burial rites. Also, I can't just grab Junior and leave as he's time-sharing between his divorced parents.

Roger, the docent application procedure is intended as a form of quality control. That's why a free man needs someone else to say he's OK as a PhD student supervisor. Unfortunately, the system offers ample leeway for personal likes and dislikes to determine the outcome. Particularly so in subjects where the quality norms of the academic product are contested. It's not like structural engineering where anyone can see whether the bridge has collapsed or not.

Sweden has quite a fair legal system, but it does not offer the kind of sue-his-ass openings that the US system does. I'm not sorry for that. As for publicity, I believe that insufficient visibility is not one of my problems. Most people who got their docent application turned down would just go home and hide for a month. I blogged about it the minute I was told the faculty's decision.

Ugh, bad luck Martin, it's depressing to see that so much work can be ignored like that. I guess that the core message is that they know you don't teach to their ideology, therefore don't want to qualify you to teach under their auspices, and had to find enough petty crap to justify saying that. I guess the way through, as Bob O'H said, is another Scandy teaching gig, or just publish and be damned...

But the docent title isn't strictly necessary, is it? My advisor was not a docent at the time I started as a graduate student (he was by the time I graduated; may be you need to be at that point, or the rules have changed since). Plenty of university teachers aren't docents either - you don't even need to have a PhD, strictly speaking. As far as I've come to understand it, it's more of an optional badge of approval rather than a necessary career step.

For practical purposes, you're right: they'll make the head of department a grad student's main supervisor de jure and then call the real supervisor who does the work "assistant supervisor". The reason that I want the badge is that it would help me get past the competition in the formalistic Swedish job application procedure. Of course, this procedure is always subverted to some extent by the same personal dislikes that I described above.

I was appalled to hear how your docentur application was handled by SU. Just keep working, times are about to change, I think.

/ Mattias

Archaeology on the whole is of course fairly boring, non-applied science in general is an insignificant endeavour, and you are certainly pretty crazy -- so factually speaking, the evaluator no doubt got it right. But I fail to see why any of these points should bear upon your docentur application.

Keep up the good work!

So, Martin, does that same rule apply to on-line classes? I mean, if you were to teach an on-line class, would you then be eligible to receive a doncent's scout badge through that university? And does it make a difference if it's a university college (högskola) vs a university?

By Christina (not verified) on 13 Jun 2010 #permalink

if you were to teach an on-line class, would you then be eligible to receive a docent's scout badge through that university?


And does it make a difference if it's a university college

No, they also hand out badges.