Korea’s ‘hourly lecturers’ struggle to make ends meet // and regret spending all those years and all that money getting their PhD

Korea’s ‘hourly lecturers’ struggle to make ends meet

While South Korea’s economic upturn is being touted as a “model case” for economic recovery from the recent global economic slump, not everyone in the country is seeing the benefits of the alleged robust performance of the Asia’s fourth largest economy that would host this year’s G-20 summit, including some who are highly educated yet struggling their make ends meet.

Literally called “hourly lecturers” for their lecture-for-pay based contracts, the nation has many Ph.D. holders who are not hired full-time by a university for a college, but provide lectures.

This article is a good awareness raiser, but it doesn’t give some of the more important facts.

There are an abundance of PhDs in Korea. Most of those are looking for tenure-track professorships. These have traditionally provided good pay, status, and security.

In years past, when there were much fewer PhDs (and an explosive growth in students), getting a job was much easier. However, with the reverse being true now (many PhDs and a saturated student market) it is extremely difficult.

Hourly lecturers now commonly work at many universities at the same time. They fill any untended class available for roughly W1.5-2.0 million per semester (depending on school and program). The more ambitious of these lecturers may teach 6-10 courses at 5-6 universities. To make a living wage, you will sacrifice any semblance of a life (and, let’s face it, the quality of instruction has to suffer).

Through this sort of hustling, as well as volunteering with academic organizations and attempting to put together time to publish, they build their network and qualifications. Most, who continue to work this angle are likely to find a tenure-track position (somewhere in Korea if they are willing to leave Seoul). Many give up and settle for other types of jobs (or stay at home moms–and less often dads).

Here are some challenges that make it more difficult to eventually land a job.

(1) Your PhD. Where did you get it? If it isn’t a popular place (regardless of program quality) for professors in your field to have graduated from, you’ll like have trouble. This is one of those times when the old boy network is in full force. This is really true in Korea and elsewhere. Aside from that, if you went to a top program in the field, then you’re likely ok, too.

(2) Undergraduate. This is one of those hidden secrets in the Korean academia. If you didn’t do your undergrad at a top school in Korea, you are going to have a VERY difficult time finding a tenure-track position regardless of where you did your PhD and how well published you are. This is a one that even most Koreans don’t understand until they come back with degree in hand and confident that they have done all the right things to assure a good job.

(3) Location. Many universities in Seoul, but everyone wants to live/work there. If you’re not flexible on where you are willing to work, you’d better have the right background for numbers 1 and 2 above.

Discouraged yet? You’d better be. If you’re thinking about going to school for that name-your-popular-humanities-major-here PhD, think about this. You are going to go into great debt (or your parents are), you’ll spend at least 4 years abroad (but likely longer), you’ll come back to Korea and either have no job or have to hustle for at least a couple years (making less than 25 million a year), and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a professorship in a saturated education market that is resulting in the closing of scores of universities (in other words, your job isn’t safe). Don’t even get me started on the changing procedures of tenure, which are becoming more and more like those in the States (massive publication), but without the same reduction of class hours and the maintenance of an actual ten year framework (more than 2x as long as you’d find in the U.S.).

So, please. Don’t do it. Don’t go this direction. This is not the career path you really want. Spend the same amount of time and pursue directions that will provide you with more options professionally and more rewards financially.

If you do decide to run the gauntlet, good luck, and I hope to see you there.

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