A promotion of sorts.

After a lengthy multi-phase assessment process, in the spring of 2020 I was appointed as Docent in Biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. “Docentur” is not something I was familiar with before I started working in Sweden, so I’d like to explain what it means for those of you who may not know. In this post I’m going to explain what (I think) the Docentur is, how I achieved the status of Docent, and what it means for my academic career.

What “Docent” used to mean, and what it means now

I hold the permanent employment position of Researcher (Forskare in Swedish). I recently wrote this article for ecrLife explaining what exactly a Researcher position is, so check that out for a detailed description. In essence I perform many of the same tasks as a junior member of the university faculty (e.g. an Assistant Professor), but I am not on the tenure track, so will not be promoted, and my salary is funded entirely by external grants, rather than having a portion of my salary paid by my school.

As I understand it, the role of Docent was originally a promotional step on the academic career ladder in Sweden, allowing one to be directly promoted from post-doc to Researcher to Docent. Many older academics in Sweden still translate “Docent” to “Associate Professor” while writing their CVs in English. However, at some point the tenure track was introduced in Sweden, and the role of Docent was divorced from the Ass Prof → Assoc Prof → Prof pipeline.

Now, if you are employed as a tenure track Assistant Professor at my university, your Docent application often goes hand-in-hand with your application for promotion to Associate Professor, as the requirements are highly similar. If you are non-faculty, like me, then becoming Docent feels less like a promotion and more like a sort of pedagogic qualification. A certificate that acknowledges I have made a substantial contribution to the missions of my university: research, education, and societal outreach. It sure feels good for my achievements to be noticed – but it would’ve been really great to get a pay raise, I guess!

The Docent assessment process

In my case, the formal assessment procedure took almost exactly one year from submission of my written application to formal notice of appointment as Docent. This is longer than it really needs to take, but seems to be a typical duration right now in our university (and others with similar procedures). There are several points along the way where the process gets held up in classic Swedish bureaucracy – a meeting needs to be held for all managers to agree that an application has been received, then another meeting for all managers to agree that a reviewer should be selected to review the application, then another meeting to agree to the choice of reviewer, etc. These management meetings happen once a month, I think nine months of the year. In addition, I spent almost a year preparing and polishing my application before I even submitted it, as I wanted it to be perfect and packed with supporting evidence. The written application is 28 pages long, stretching to 73 pages with all of the appendices, and follows a strict academic CV template that is used by all (most?) Swedish universities.

The written application comprises the following sections:

  • basic CV information (1 page),
  • basic description of higher education completed (1 page),
  • research portfolio, describing my future plans and achievements to date, as well as a personal essay summarising my approach to research (8 pages),
  • pedagogic portfolio, describing every bit of teaching I’ve done for under-grad, post-grad, and PhD students, as well as an essay on what I have learned form my own pedagogical training, and how I apply it to specific instances of my teaching and supervision (12 pages),
  • management portfolio, describing my approach to leadership and the training I have taken in this area (3 pages), and
  • a list of my ten most significant research publications, with paragraphs explaining why each of them was a landmark for my career or personal development.

The following appendices are also included:

  • my degree certificates,
  • evidence of all awarded research funding,
  • every bit of teaching material I have written (syllabi, lab guides, assignment instructions),
  • completion certificates for pedagogic courses, and
  • full copies of my ten most significant research publications.

After submitting the application, the basic information was checked by HR to make sure I had reached the minimum requirements, which is that I had made some contribution to teaching and supervision, and had shown independence in my research. I was sure this would be fine – I had taken an extra year to prepare my application precisely to make sure that the application would be fully assessed. After all, if your application to Docent at KTH fails, you are required to wait 18 months before re-applying!

Next, my application was sent out to an external expert in my field, who reviewed the research portfolio. After receiving a very positive assessment, my application was passed to the internal pedagogic committee. They reviewed my application and decided that, yes, I should be interviewed, hurray! The interview was performed by three faculty members and one student representative, and they grilled me for about an hour about the way that I teach and supervise students, and how I see the next few years playing out.

A few days later they told me they were satisfied that I could pass to the final stage of the assessment – giving a public pedagogic lecture about my research! At this point, it was early April 2020, so of course the lecture had to be given online – I think I might have given the first online Docent lecture at KTH. It was a really nice chance to talk about the topics I’m passionate about in a “popular science” way, lots of my colleagues past and present attended, and many asked really interesting questions. I felt genuinely very supported, and was only sad not to be able to celebrate with them in person after the lecture! The slideshow below gives you a very condensed view of the lecture I gave, using Mike Morrison’s Twitter Poster gif template.

So how is my job different now?

Day to day not much has changed. I didn’t get a pay raise when I became Docent, but it will be a major plus for me when I have my next annual salary revision. I still teach and supervise as I did before the assessment, and have the same financial and managerial levels of responsibility as before. But I am now eligible to recruit a PhD student and be their main supervisor, and I am now eligible to serve on PhD defence committees or as a PhD examiner. I feel like some people maybe take me more seriously now I am Docent, and in the next few months I’ll learn if it has an impact on how I am viewed by the research councils when applying for funding.

The biggest change is simply how I feel about my job. Although becoming Docent was not a promotion for me, I really do feel seen by the university now in a way that I didn’t before. I know I have gone the extra mile the past few years in organising and performing teaching duties and events that promoted the university or department, and never really felt that those efforts were acknowledged. Now I do. That feeling of being seen, and that the work I do is noticed, has carried me through some weird and dark moments in this weird and dark year.

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