Big differences in how to become a docent

Svenska 2017-03-28

Becoming a docent is an important step in an academic career, but the path to achieving it can vary significantly depending on the university – it may require publications equivalent to 1, 2 or 3 theses.

Doctor, docent, professor. These are the titles of an academic career. The title of docent represents a greater scientific competence than with simply a doctoral degree, and implies independence and both a broadening of and immersion within the field of research.

Currently, there are no national guidelines; the requirement for the number of scientific publications, the amount of tuition and other educational merits, and the extent of interaction with society varies.

Important step in the academic career

Per-Olof Erixon is the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Umeå University. He describes the docent title as an important career step along the path to becoming a professor.

“Among other reasons, one must become a docent in order to act as principal supervisor for doctoral students and to be able to sit on an examination board.”

Becoming a docent at Umeå’s humanities faculty requires scientific publications that are equivalent to one additional thesis for the field and which constitute a broader and deeper approach to the subject of research. It is also important to be published internationally.

According to Per-Olof Erixon, these requirements are broadly the same in the majority of humanities faculties in Sweden. He believes that it is much easier to have the same requirements as for other universities. One reason is that the docentship board appoints an external expert from another university who will assess the docentship application.

“This means that we are assessing each other’s applications which, in turn, fosters a consistent view.”

At the same time, Per-Olof Erixon says that it is important to take into account which faculty is involved when assessing the applicant’s publications. It would be difficult to develop national guidelines applying to all faculties as different faculties have different ways of publishing their scientific findings.

Within the field of humanities, it is common to publish monographs and books in Swedish, instead of short articles in English, which is common within, for example, the natural sciences and medicine. He points out, however, that the pattern of publication within humanities has changed during recent years, in favour of articles and compilation theses.

Review of publication requirements

Per-Olof Erixon would like to see a general review of the publication requirements.

“I have some reservations about this trend for an increased number of authors for publications. There should be some restriction on how many can be involved.”

According to Per-Olof Erixon, the number of authors should be limited to three or four. When assessing applications for docentships at the humanities faculty at Umeå University, consideration is taken to the number of authors of a piece of work. He explains that, if a book has two authors, the applicant is considered to have written half a book.

Aside from the scientific work, there is also a requirement for the equivalent of one year’s tuition. He reminds us that the word ‘docent’ comes from the Latin word ‘docendi’, which means ‘the right to teach’. At Umeå University, special ‘docent days’ are held where the new docents give a lecture for a public audience and receive a diploma.

“It should be something special to be a docent – it is something to be proud of”.

Call for a national review

At the University of Gävle, the requirement is that a docent’s scientific production shall be equivalent to at least two theses. The same guidelines apply across the entire university, regardless of subject or faculty.

Patrik Sörqvist, chair of the docentship committee, believes that the guidelines at Gävle work well. He would, however, like to see a national review of the requirements and of how the general demand for ‘equivalent to two theses’ is to be interpreted.

“I believe that this is the case across the entire country, but what does this actually mean today? How has the size of the theses changed over the past thirty years? This needs to be discussed and reviewed.”

Just like Per-Olof Erixon, Patrik Sörqvist points to changes that have taken place with regard to scientific publications. He identifies a trend for inflation – in terms of both the number of publications and the number of authors. This is partly due to large working groups and comprehensive collaboration, and partly due to the external pressure to publish a large amount. He thinks that one consequence of the changes in publication habits is that today’s quantitative requirements for the awarding of a docentship should be increased.

When assessing applications for docentships, consideration should be taken to the list of publications.

“We make a balanced assessment – the actual extent of the applicant’s contribution is of significance if the applicant is, for example, one of many authors. I think that a combination of different publications and contributions is a good thing. It is important to be able to work as part of a team but it is also good to be able to do things oneself and to gain a more senior position”, he explains.

Patrik Sörqvist is also a professor of psychology and thinks, for example, that the Swedish National Committee for Psychological Sciences should be able to design guidelines for docentships within psychology. The Committee has previously developed guidelines for professorships within psychology.

Reasonable with strict requirements

Jan Ygge is chair of the docentship board at Karolinska Institutet. He believes that strict requirements are both important and reasonable.

“We don’t want to be worse than other universities, and we make assessments on a case-by-case basis.”

At Karolinska Institutet, a docent must meet the requirement for scientific work equivalent to three theses. The independence biography, in which the applicant accounts for how they have acted autonomously and independently of their supervisor, plays an important role. The extent to which they have contributed to various works, as well as whether there were many authors, is also of major significance.

Jan Ygge has nothing against the introduction of national guidelines for docentships although he can envisage some practical obstacles. As many others have done, he points out that it would be difficult to produce guidelines that apply to everybody.

“I think it would be difficult to gain support – everybody operates within their own set of rules which works for their own particular university.”

Since 2011, Karolinska Institutet has three pathways for docentships: one for tuition, one for research and one for clinical development. This system was introduced following a review which partially arose from the realisation that there were skilled pedagogues who were not quite so effective as researchers.

“The fact that competent pedagogues can acquire a docentship is of great value for the university’s teaching”, explains Jan Ygge.

Of benefit to the university

Certain universities apply a needs-assessment whereby the subject for a docentship must be of value to both tuition and research. Such needs-assessment is employed at the University of Gävle, for example.

“It is a means of managing the University’s profiling and resource management. It is possible, for example, to prioritise subjects that have post-graduate studies”, explains Patrik Sörqvist.

Aside from the independence, the pedagogical competence is also an important aspect. This applies to both the practical and theoretical experience of tuition – for example, in the form of courses relating to university pedagogy and research supervision.

“Being a docent involves a lot of supervision and teaching – a docent has to be good at these things. But it is also important to be independent and to be able to publish the results of research. If a person is not able to do this then they will hardly be able to help anyone else to do it”, summarises Patrik Sörqvist.

Text: Natalie von der Lehr

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