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Korean University Jobs: The Golden Handcuffs

University Jobs in Korea

***Friends, family, random Internet strangers who ask me all the time why I’m leaving Korea. This post explains everything, kind of.***

All Things that Glitter

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about Korean university jobs and he mentioned that they were like having a pair of golden handcuffs on. The second he said it, I knew that it was the most perfect description of the job that I’ve been doing for the past 8 years and I wish that I’d thought of it myself years ago. Working in a Korean university is like a shiny, gold toy that catches your eye as it glitters in the sunlight and it lures you in. And it glitters hard, let me tell you. But, once you’re in, the handcuffs go on and it gets harder and harder to escape as the years pass you by. The cuffs get tighter and soon, you’re trapped in an extremely lucrative dead-end job and the key is somewhere at the bottom of the ocean in the Sea of Japan.

It’s not Exactly Prison to say the Least

Now, don’t get the wrong impression. My job is sweet and I am under no crazy illusion that I’ll ever have as good of job no matter where I go or whatever industry I get into. Let me tell you about the Korean university job awesome:

  1. 5 months PAID vacation
  2. $3000 USD per month salary
  3. Lucrative overtime opportunities-many months, my salary is closer to $5000
  4. 9 contract hours per week-usually 3-4 days
  5. Minimal prep and administration
  6. Nobody actually cares what I do in the classroom
  7. No staff meetings
  8. A boss that I quite literally NEVER see or interact with
  9. Great students who actually speak English quite well
  10. I get to live in one of the best cities in Asia (Busan) and go surfing all the time.
  11. Staff parties that involve all you can eat and drink blow-outs.

Let’s just say that I’m certainly not suffering and even when I begin to dislike my job, I simply have to remind myself that my next 10 week vacation is coming soon enough, so not to worry. These golden handcuffs sound pretty darn good, you might be thinking to yourself. Jackie wrote a book to help you get those golden handcuffs on: How to Get a University Job in South Korea.

WAIT! All that Glitters isn’t Gold

A year or two of that happy English teaching awesome and the cuffs go on. You go to Europe, check out Africa, take a backpacking tour around SE Asia, all the while you’re getting paid your full monthly salary, so it’s kind of like you’re taking a free vacation. Heck, I even made money while I was traveling around Africa, going scuba diving and going on a safari to see the hippos and warthogs. Then you do it again 4 months later, and again 4 months after that. It’s addictive, but it’s also a trap from which it’s extremely hard to escape for the following 5 reasons.

Reason #1 it’s a Trap: No Academic Integrity in Korea

Over the years, I’ve seen the most ridiculous things that would fall under the category of academic integrity misadventures. In fact, it may be the subject of my next book, once I leave Korea. Kind of a “tell-all,” about what it’s really like teaching in a Korean university and how ridiculous it all is. At first I was shocked by the cheating, plagiarism, lying, grade-fixing, diplomas to anyone who will pay for them, bribery, and paying for academic appointments, but no longer. Now, I mostly just play the game because it’s way easier than fighting the system. Koreans have mostly given up too and they know that the system is screwed up but they feel powerless to fix it.

I used to fight and give that senior an “F” who never showed up for a single class, nor did a single assignment and skipped all his tests. What did it get me? Harassment, and stalking from the students and very little support from the admin in regards to the actual grade as well as the stalking situation. Now? Here’s your D buddy, don’t let me stand in the way of paying for your diploma. You paid your tuition, so it doesn’t matter how much you actually studied. Good luck in the real world.

Reasons #2 it’s a Trap: No Room for Advancement

No matter how stellar of an employee you are, when teaching in a Korean university, there quite literally is nowhere to go but sideways or down. It’s impossible to get into any sort of admin position and if you can get a “head teacher” position, it usually involves a lot more work for no extra pay. More work, no pay? Sign me up for that “promotion” right now!

Reason #3 it’s a Trap: No Pay Raises

In Korean universities, the pay that you get is the pay that you get. To further compound the problem, you’ll often get the same pay as the newbie, fresh off that hagwon or public school boat even if you’ve been teaching in Korean universities for years and are teaching way more advanced level classes. You might get a cost of living pay raise if you’re lucky, but there’s generally no such thing as a merit based pay raise.

Demoralizing? YES. No matter how hard I work, I’m not going to get rewarded. Now, I know that some are perhaps just better people than myself, but like when this is the case, I put in a decent effort but I’m no teaching superstar. I certainly could be, but money talks, you know? Working extremely hard for no reward just isn’t my style and I’d far rather write a stellar book or go surfing, or hang out with my friends than make the most amazing lesson plan ever. There’s just nothing in it for me.

speak-Korean

Reason #4 it’s a Trap: Brain Atrophy

Teaching ESL isn’t rocket-science. Sure, you should plan your lessons and do a decent job of it, but let’s just say that by the 54th time you’ve taught the simple past, or the 37th time you’ve done the “movie” unit, you can do that crap in your sleep. After 8 years, it kind of feels like my brain is slowly rotting from the inside out. I walk around in a kind of fuzzy daze. It’s not just a hangover (I never drink on a school night!), but it’s the brain rot from working at a job that is just so easy. There quite literally is nothing new to learn, no expectations from anyone, no pressure to get something done right, no collaboration, nothing. I get kinda depressed even typing this. Actually, not gonna lie. I was already depressed about this before I even started writing this post.

Reason #5 it’s a Trap: Korean Perceptions of Foreign Teachers

Koreans generally think that foreign teachers are kind of like these ridiculous English speaking clowns, who are there to entertain, but not actually teach. Leave the real teaching to the Koreans we get told. Media reports come out every few months, trashing the “unqualified,” disease-ridden, drug-addicted foreign teachers, lumping us all together with the one or two bad apples (often Korean-Americans not even here on teaching visas!) and it kind of makes me feel like trash. I try not to let it get me down, you know? But, like year after year, it just kind of starts to seep into my brain. I talk to Korean English teachers and they say things like, foreigners can’t teach grammar or anything of substance. You’re just here for conversation¬†and let’s just say that it’s pretty damn insulting to someone like myself who is both highly qualified and highly experienced.

Does that Clear Things Up?

Korean university jobs: enter at your own risk but don’t think your’e going to be happy doing it for 20, 10 or even 5 years. Despite the fabulousness of the benefits, it grinds you down, relentlessly-picture yourself as a little cog in a machine that’s running a 24-hour shift, ever single day, forever. Korean Universities: the best dead-end job ever!

I do sincerely hope that explains a little bit about why I’m making my break to Canada. I hope the brain rot hasn’t taken over completely and that I can recover. I’d seriously rather live on rice and beans in a hovel then teach another year in a Korean university. Thankfully, I have a large pool of money and the cats and I could perhaps survive a decade of unemployment, should it come to that.


36 Comments

  1. Robin

    I can sympathize with most everything you wrote, except the last bit of reason #3: “money talks….there’s just nothing in it for me.” I spent the last 36 years teaching in the US; mostly Special Education at the elementary level. For most of the time, when asked about my salary, I could not give an accurate number because I just didn’t know….because it was never about the money. It was always about the satisfaction of 1) doing a job well, and 2) seeing my students become successful and confident learners. You did specify factors that might mitigate against that: student apathy, lack of academic integrity…..but were there not SOME students who wanted to do well and strove for that? If not, I guess we know one reason why South Korea will never be a world power.
    I can understand the brain rot after years of no change or progress in your profession and I wish you well on the way to your next adventure. I hope the next phase of your life will put you into a place where your heart and mind are more engaged than your wallet. Life is too short for anything less, even with 5 months paid vacation.

  2. Wow. You just described my four years teaching in Korean university! After four years teaching here in Busan it was time for me to get out of university as well. However, I didn’t return to Canada. My wife and I opened our own small English school so we could teach the way we thought kids would learn the best. It stressful at times but I really enjoy it.

    Good luck to you! Make sure you post the link to your book. I’m sure it will be a great read!

  3. Coffeewriter

    That absolutely sums up Korean tertiary education. But one shouldn’t think of it as Korea or bust. I had a better uni job in Vietnam and have a MUCH better uni job in Macau. The salary is actually better than most Korean universities pay and the work a hundred times more rewarding. All English teaching involves academic courses preparing students for university academia rather than language teaching – no past simple or any other grammar lessons. Teachers are qualified, highly encouraged to do research and present at conferences and well respected.

    Korea is quite simply abysmal when it comes to tertiary education and teaching in their universities is career limiting and highly ill advised. However I understand the limitations and difficulties in an over- saturated field.

  4. owen

    People who stay in Korea longer usually get married. That is possibly true of most countries. Leaving somewhere because your job isn’t great means that your social life wasn’t satisfactory either? Just a thought.

  5. Andrew

    Don’t burn you bridges there because you could end up working part time at WalMart in Canada (sadly, I’m not joking), and be looking to go back to Asia. Canada is a great place for a vacation, but terrible for work.

  6. When was this written? I know the date says recently but it seems based on post World Cup gigs that a “professor” could actually still get. 9 hours a week? Even Hongik/Yonsei stopped that generosity around 2007 and basically moved towards a hakwon “unikwan” model of at least 18 hours. And then there’s the salary. Most uni gigs, even the supposed best unis, stopped paying big money a long time ago. 2.5 would be above board. And as for paid vacation…. make sure you work an inhouse “camp” first. And if you expect to stay around for more than 2 years, think again. Most universities know they don’t have to pay well or hunt for a foreign “ESL professor” or give them tenure anymore. You can stay for more than two years if you “reapply.”

    I am not saying I don’t believe the stats and data you’ve put forth, but either you are a true professor with a Phd in something or you were lucky enough to work at a university that didn’t wake up and follow the trend. And why shouldn’t universities realize that their ESL programs are basically a necessary joke that don’t require a lot of investment or focus? Everyone “in the know” knows how things changed at Hongik etc., and how anyone without an MA had to commit to an online money grab via Framingham or Burmingham et. al. just to keep their jobs.

    Uni gigs, in the VAST MAJORITY of cases ARE NOT what the author describes above anymore. Students with good English? 9 hours a week? 5 months paid vacation????? Tenure??? Please let me know what uni you work at because I’d love to replace you.

  7. Matt

    Very well-written and poignant article. There is no real career to had teaching at a university here in Korea. It is good as a temporary form of employment, a way to build a great resume, or as a way to help pay off those student loans; but a career is something that has opportunities for advancement, real responsibilities and the power to pursue these, rewards for positive results, opportunities for continuing professional development, respect, and job security.

    1. admin

      My plan right now is looking more and more like I’ll just work for myself-write more books, build more websites, start a podcast, etc. So, I guess I’m not that worried about it right now.

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  10. Jimbo

    LOLL~~ Well written, Jackie. The uni system in Korea is messed up. Problem is, the elites have all the good places in uni AND all the good jobs sewn up, via connections and family networks, etc. So, academic integrity just doesn’t come into it. Period. Graduates of the ‘top universities’ are funneled into all the good jobs, and all the lower tier unis are just massive money making machines churning out worthless degrees to worthless ‘graduates’, who go on to get jobs driving underground trains or working in MegaMart, or whatever.
    …The wife’s brother (both Koreans!) is a full time financial administrator at KNU in Seoul, and told me recently that over the past few years MANY top level PhDs and Profs (published in their fields and usually in their 50s or 60s – not recent graduates from Podunk College, I mean) from overseas – US and Europe, in particular – have been hired by KNU and the other good unis on contract, big money, for a year or two (‘visiting professor’, I think it’s called), only to scram after a few months once they discover how fucked the whole system is. For example, and as you’ve pointed out, being required to pass fuck up students who’s parents are rich, etc. etc., or having to review obviously plagiarized material. Many of them leave ‘in contract’ and it can get very unpleasant, I’ve been told. All kinds of legal shit, etc. Walk outs, the works. Basically, these guys, and gals, realise how fucked it is and just walk out.
    …I’m a military contractor, myself, and far as I can see the whole English thing is fucked here. A total waste of time. The wife’s friends have teenage kids who’ve studied English at school – and hagwon – for YEARS, and still can’t even look me in the eye at Chuseok, or whatever, and answer the most basic of questions. I mean: How are you? THAT basic. I just don’t know how that works, at all. Very, very strange. You English teachers must have balls of steel to work here. I couldn’t ever do it. A total, total, waste of time. It’s a messed up place, is Korea. They have a long, long, way to go. Even the fighter jocks and chopper ‘pilots’ (LOLLL~) work off of programs made up in the U.S.!!! They are not trusted to fly multi-million dollar kit off their own bat. Now what does THAT tell ya~~~
    …Outta here, and thanks for the articles. I have a kid in school here (NOT public I can assure you – so all this stuff interests me greatly. Keep it up!!!

    1. admin

      Jimbo-I like you! I have also heard so many stories of “real” professors from Western countries coming here for extremely lucrative contracts and then ending up going back home after only a few months. Part of it is the lack of academic integrity and the other part of it that these people often have absolutely no support for things like setting up a cell-phone, opening a bank account, etc. This seems crazy to me-spending all this money for these people and then not ensuring they have a translator/life-assistant available to them at all times to help them out.

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  21. jon

    Poor “professor”, did the white monkey get tired teaching 12 hours a week, or did the 5 months off with pay get too stressful? Go back to the west, get that career job and give us a happiness report a couple years later..

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  23. Matt

    Teaching English is teaching English… it doesn’t matter whether you’re at a university, a language institute, a chaebol’s human resources department, or a public middle school. If you like teaching English and it pumps you up (as someone said in the comments regarding special-ed teaching), many of the problems listed in the original post won’t matter. All of the opinions and positions in the original post are worth reading… some of the kooky comments, too. What I don’t like about the original post is the sense of entitlement. Being given a job with minimal qualifications, solid pay, vacation, etc. requires a big “thank you” above all to the institutions and norms that made it possible. Without the serendipity of finding this gig, things could have been very different. It just seemed like the original poster milked this for all it was worth and then bailed – and then talked shit about it.

    And every job has golden handcuffs of some sort or another.

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