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 Östergötland 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.