Habilitation and Its (Dis)contents, by Dr Habil (at the long last) Tomasz Kamusella, Lecturer in Modern History

Kamusella Border Studies JapanI began my application for the commencement of the habilitacja (habilitation) procedure in Poland in early 2009, immediately after my monograph, The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe (Palgrave 2009) had been published, so that I could use it as the basis for this procedure. In continental Europe habilitacja in Polish, Habilitation in German or doktorskaia in Russian is another degree after PhD. It makes you a fully-fledged academic (samodzielny pracownik naukowy, or ‘unsupervised scientific worker’) by giving you the right to lecture at universities, automatically making your employment permanent at your home university (earlier you can be only employed on fixed-term contracts), and opening your way to a professorship (in its different guises it is first conferred by your university, and second by the Polish president in its two most sought-after and elevated distinctive forms – professor extraordinarius and professor ordinarius). In Poland a person with habilitacja puts dr hab in front of his or her name, standing for doktor habilitowany, or ‘habilitated doctor.’ In the English versions of their business cards Polish scholars usually render this abbreviation as dr habil, deriving it from the Latin term doctor habilitatus.

The main difficulty of the habilitacja procedure is finding a faculty with the right to confer the degree in your preferred specialisation, and which would agree to open this procedure for you. As you can sense, this process is as much about scholarship as about academic politics and personal likes and dislikes. The narrow group of scholars with habilitacja, for all practical reasons, functions as a corporation not interested in broadening its membership too widely. Basically, by law, to exist and to have the right to confer BAs (licencjat), MAs (magisterium), PHDs (doktorat) or habilitacja, universities and other tertiary-education institutions in Poland need to employ prescribed numbers of scholars with the dr habil degree. This legal restriction puts people with this degree in high demand, because there is constant dearth of them vis-à-vis the ballooning tertiary-education sector in Poland, with almost 400 (mostly private) institutions at present. Hence, scholars with the dr habil title can dictate their salaries, unlike PhDs, who have problems finding employment and who are ‘rewarded’ with pay cheques lower than those of qualified workers.

When a faculty accepts your application for a habilitacja procedure, it unfolds in a highly structured and painstakingly slow manner. First, the candidate or his home university must pay upfront for this procedure; currently PLN10,500 or £2,400, which amounts to 3-5 monthly salaries of a scholar with a PhD. The financial barrier being so high the vast majority of PhDs applying for habilitacja carry out this procedure at their home universities, which allows for non-monetary absorption of most of the expenses involved. Second, the faculty appoints two reviewers. Third, the Polish Ministry of Higher Education appoints two more. The four reviewers are to read and assess not only the candidate’s rozprawa habilitacyjna (Habilitationschrift in German or doktorskaia in Russian for ‘habilitation dissertation’), but also all his or her scholarly output after PhD. Such reviews are anything between 10 and 40 pages of text, and the reviewers have three months to deliver them, but on average take at least six. Fourth, if at least three reviews are positive the faculty votes on whether to continue with the procedure. Should they agree to do so, they settle on a date when an obrona habilitacji (habilitacja viva, or literally ‘defence’) is to take place.

habilitacja prof

The viva requires the presence of the candidate and at least three of the four reviewers. At the beginning, in front of the Faculty Council, the dean presents an abbreviated version of the candidate’s c.v., followed by the reviewers reading out the shortened versions of their reviews. Next, the reviewers ask the candidate questions related to his or her dissertation and other scholarly writings. Then the floor is open to questions from the public. After that the candidate is asked to leave the room, and the Faculty Council vote on whether to continue with the next stage of the viva. Should they agree to do so, they have another vote in the course of which they choose one of the four lectures proposed by the candidate beforehand. Then the candidate is called back and asked to deliver the selected lecture without any prop in the form of notes or the like (but the entire text of the lecture then has to be sent to the dean’s office after a successful viva). The lecture, taking into consideration the overall length of the viva (3-4 hours), should not last more than half an hour, and is followed by a Q&A period. Afterward the candidate is asked to leave the room again, and the final vote takes place on whether to confer the title of doktor habilitowany on the candidate.

After the result of the vote is announced to the candidate, assuming the whole affair finished on a positive note, in line with the long-standing custom, s/he is expected to invite at least the dean and the reviewers, but preferably the entire faculty council, to dinner immediately after the viva. A week or so later the candidate is issued with an official note, which states that she has the right to use the title of dr habil. The actual conferment of the degree takes place once or twice a year, when the university rektor (or ‘rector,’ that is, Chancellor in St Andrews terms) hands out PhD and dr habil diplomas (invariably written in an exquisite hand) to their happy owners at special graduation ceremonies. Meanwhile, the documents of the successful viva are sent to the Ministerstwo Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego (Ministry of Science and Tertiary Education), in the framework of which the independent body, the Central Committee on Scientific Degrees and Titles (Centralna Komisja do Spraw Stopni i Tytułów ) checks up on and reaffirms the conferment, and registers the degree in the central data base, Polish Science (Nauka Polska).


In my case the entire habilitacja procedure took almost three years, as I commenced it in early 2009 and my viva took place on 22 November 2011. I was informed about the viva a week before, which is quite short notice when you need to reach Poland from Scotland, but it is rare for a scholar working at a UK university to be going through with a habilitacja procedure in Poland. The dr habil degree is not needed in the UK, and during my viva I was actually asked why I had applied for it. The answer was that I had only a few months earlier begun my job at the University of St Andrews, and in 2009 when I began the process I had no way of predicting this happy development.

Within the EU’s common scientific area, scholars from Britain or Ireland, where habilitacja does not exist must be accommodated somehow within continental academias, so that continental universities do not fall foul of Common Market principles. In Poland this is done in an ad hoc manner at universities where such British and Irish scholars happen to be employed, or invited to lecture or participate in other scholarly activities. The universities, on the basis of such scholars’ records of publications and research, decide whether to treat them as dr habils. The best of both worlds is enjoyed by scholars in the Netherlands, as in line with the EU regulations, the Dutch PhD is automatically treated as habilitacja in EU member states where this degree is extant.

My academic employment not depending on the final outcome of my habilitacja viva, I progressed to Warsaw quite calmly, having booked my flights for Sunday 20 November 2011. I hoped to keep Monday free to visit bookstores and the Polish National Library. No such luck. Plans may be made, but it does not mean that life will allow you to stick to them. I was to fly to Warsaw by KLM via Amsterdam. Initially, the flight got delayed due to the foggy conditions at Schiphol. When it opened for boarding I was turned away, because I would not be able to connect to the Warsaw flight in Amsterdam. I was rebooked for a bmi flight to Heathrow. Unfortunately, this London airport turned out to be as disoriented by fog as Schiphol. The flight eventually took off from Edinburgh Airport four hours later than schedule. I was sure that I would not catch my Lot (Polish Airlines) flight to Warsaw. Surprisingly, I did, as the foggy conditions delayed all the flights at Heathrow.


I left Dundee at 4am on Sunday and planned to arrive in Warsaw at 4. This I did, but at 4am the next day, Monday. To add insult to injury, my suitcase got lost en route. In Poland it is just unthinkable to attend any official occasion, and especially the one in the course of which the attention of those attending would be focused on you, in informal dress. The public can dress down a bit, while you are expected to dress up even beyond the usual standard of formal attire. When I woke up at noon on Monday, I started frantically phoning the lost luggage department at Chopin Airport in Warsaw. With no good news arriving, at 4pm I went to the nearby Promenada shopping center, where in the Royal Collection shop I tried on suits, shirts, shoes, ties, winter coats, scarfs and the like. I had to look presentable for my viva the following day, on Tuesday. As the shop’s name suggested I would have paid through the nose, but after having selected a formal outfit, at half past five, the people from the lost luggage department phoned me to let me know that my lost suitcase had resurfaced. They promised to deliver it to my hotel before 10pm. I gritted my teeth, but was happy that I did not have to purchase the expensive clothes.

And indeed, the suitcase did arrive, but at 11pm, so I spent the hours until 1am ironing and sprucing up my wardrobe. Luckily, I could sleep in, as the viva was scheduled for 11am. The logistical problems consumed whatever nervousness was left, and I approached the viva eerily calm. It all went well, and I am happy to inform you that the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities (regarded as the best private university in Poland) conferred me the dr habil degree in kulturoznawstwo (Cultural Studies).


About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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