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A reader question about job security in Korean universities:
“I recently bought and read How to Get a University Job in South Korea. I really enjoyed it and found that it answered many of the questions I’d had about applying for university work teaching English in South Korea. While reading the book, I was hoping that you might touch on the topic of tenure for university jobs. I’m currently teaching at a Japanese university and have found that securing a tenured position is extremely difficult if not impossible in most institutions for foreigners.
Working in South Korea, have you found that most employment is contract based with limitations on renewal? Or, are there stable, tenured positions with upward mobility?”
My Answer: Job Security? Non-Existent, Unfortunately
Thanks for checking out How to Get a University Job in South Korea and also sending me your great question. I didn’t include this topic in the book simply because there are no positions teaching English in South Korean universities for foreigners that are tenure-track, and upward mobility is extremely limited in almost all cases. Most universities offer one year contracts (a limited number offer contracts of 2 years) and your renewal depends on the whims of the powers that be and until you’ve been at a place for a few years, you really should have some back-up plans come contract renewal time.
Lack of Job Security: Biggest Downside to Working in Korean Unis
This whole lack of job security is actually a major source of stress for foreigners teaching in Korean universities and probably the most negative aspect of the job, especially when some universities (my current one!) renew based solely on student evaluations. It’s a great job but you live basically in constant fear of having to change jobs before you want to.
Okay, well, the lack of pay raises is certainly another issue too, but that’s a topic for another article!
The Glass Ceiling: Alive and Well
As far as upward mobility goes, there is a serious glass ceiling for foreigners and you’ll never get past the lowest of low levels. While you can eventually move into something like my current job in the actual English department and teach better students and more interesting classes, the best you can really hope for is “head teacher.” But, this “promotion” usually comes with no pay raise and significant amounts of extra work so it’s often best avoided instead of sought out.
Korean Uni Jobs are Dwindling
And, kind of as an aside, the number of university students in Korea has already started to decline in the past few years and the drop-off will be extremely sharp in the next few upcoming ones. See this post of mine: The Korean ESL industry is Dying for more details about why I think Korea is not really an amazing destination for the long-term, like it was even 5 years ago.
Have a PhD? You Might be the Exception
The exception to this would be if you have a PhD in a field other than TESOL, but you’d still have a hard time getting tenure and moving up the ranks if you don’t speak Korean. It’s all about relationships here and greasing the right wheels, often with substantial cash payments and your lack of language skills as well as a large, large pool of bribe money would be likely to limit you significantly. Competition even for adjunct professor positions is fierce here, as it is in the west.
The Takeaway: Korea + Japan = Same
It sounds to me like the situation regarding tenure in Japan is basically the same as in Korea, so I wouldn’t recommend making a move based on that alone. If you want to spice up your life a bit and experience another country, well, go for it.
Learn more here: Teaching in Korea vs. Japan.