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Author Topic: Working at Korean Universities -- Warning  (Read 182030 times)
johngalt
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« on: July 05, 2008, 2:16:20 PM »

Hello,

I've noticed a few advertisements for university positions in Korea and have decided to post a friendly warning for those considering applying. I personally had 8 years of experience living in the country so do note that what I am saying is based on what I have seen not something from a book or not just a case of one bad experience.

Note that I am not anyone with something against Korea and Koreans but there are major cultural differences that anyone contemplating working there should be aware of before signing a contract. Be aware, for one, that a contract in the sense of how it is understood in the West as a binding agreement is not viewed the same way in Korea. Very often after a contract has been signed a Korean employer will start to change it and take away benefits and add extra hours, etc. They feel a contract can be changed according to the institution's needs and they need not follow the original to the letter. The reason they can make such changes is that once you have arrived in the country you cannot quit and work for another employer. You would essentially have to leave the country, which isn't usually possible after you have flown a great distance, moved many of your belongings, and spent money on airfare, etc.

I will relate a few of my experiences and you can be the judge whether it is worth the risk or not. At one university I worked at, considered one of the top three in Korea, it is common practice to present a contract to a foreign employee with the salary area left blank. They will not actually tell you the salary so you can judge if it is fair or not. If you protest they say "Don't worry, it doesn't mean anything. We will add it later." Naturally this is not a normal practice and you can gather some accounting irregularity is involved. A colleague of mine looked into this matter further and found that, according to the official formula used for calculating the salary, which he only after many hurdles was able to get access to, he was being underpaid about $200 a month. Only after a shouting match and more hassles did they reluctantly paid him his legal salary.

At another university I worked at, I was promised airfare, a position as "assistant professor," a certain number of hours (9 hours a week), and my own office. As soon as I arrived I found out the office was a shared office, my job title of "Assistant Professor" was actually going to be "instructor," they would not pay the airfare, and that my teaching hours would be 15 hours a week. I would only get overtime after 12 hours, instead of 9, and the overtime pay would be about $10/hour. When I tried to discuss these matters with the department head, he launched into a diatribe about "foreigners" in Korea always "creating problems" with contracts. I went to his office in a non-confrontational way so was very disappointed by this outburst. Naturally I quit this job after my contract was finished. I would have quit sooner had I not spent so much time and money moving and could have legally taken another position elsewhere in the country, though.

I will mention another case that I witnessed firsthand. One university, which had a low ranking, wanted to increase its ranking and so advertised for non-Korean Ph.Ds in such disciplines as anthropology, political science, history, etc. After these individuals arrived, they were told the courses in their discipline were "not available" and they would be teaching freshman English for 20 hours a week as instructors, not professors. Most of the recruits left but a few had no choice but to stay on to recoup their moving costs.

I could give many more examples, but it would look like my intention is to attack Korea or Koreans. That is not why I am writing. I had many good experiences when I was there as well. However, when it comes to issues regarding contracts problems between westerners and Koreans are frequent, so be warned.

Actually, I am thankful for the last experience as I finally decided to return to my home country. I ended up finding a good position at a reputable university. If you are willing to take the risk and just stay in Korea 1 to 2 years, then by all means take the plunge. However, if you are looking for a stable career with chance for real advancement, I really advise you to look elsewhere. It is extremely stressful and frustrating working at a Korean university. Maybe it is not the same at every university, but my experiences and what I heard from others suggest that contract problems are very common. And if you consider that a top tier university like I mentioned above has suspect practices you can only assume that lower-ranked ones do as well.

But do not take my word for it. Do your own research and reach your own decision. Also, if anyone has had positive experiences at Korean universities do post them here. I am not saying such experiences aren't possible and that everything is bad about Korea. I am just posting this to say what MAY happen if you decide to work at a Korean university.








 


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johngalt
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Posts: 64


« Reply #1 on: July 05, 2008, 3:27:20 PM »

Oh, I forgot to mention another incident from the last university I worked at. About two months into the job, I was asked to attend a job interview for some other new recruits. I was given a form to fill out assessing the candidates' skills. All of the interviewees were women. I was told by the Head of our Dept., however, that "We do not want to hire a woman this time. Please give low scores for the candidates and we will do more interviews later where there will be male candidates." I was naturally shocked and disobeyed his instructions while filling out the form. In the end one of the candidates was hired but it was clear that if a male candidate had been available he would have been chosen.  Later, I heard that the woman they hired was quite unhappy working at the university as her hours and pay and conditions were not as promised.
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nastea
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« Reply #2 on: July 06, 2008, 1:35:05 PM »

I can badmouth the hiring practices of certain Korean educational institutions (for instance, favoring white people for ESL jobs because of a supposed greater authenticity as "native speakers"), but I think that generalizing about ALL KOREANS as being sketchy about contracts based on some university practices is questionable. Would we judge AMERICANS based on the actions of, say, Yale or Harvard? I certainly hope not.

As for the patriarchal nature of hiring, it's alive and well here in the US; it goes for race and age as well.
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johngalt
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Posts: 64


« Reply #3 on: July 06, 2008, 2:18:53 PM »

"Badmouthing"? I only was describing my own personal experiences and what I saw over eight years. I can't see the crime in that. If I had those same experiences in the US or wherever I would post that as well. I also do not deny bad things happen elsewhere. But I don't find that "It happens everywhere" thing helpful. You wouldn't say that if I made a similar criticism of US universities. For example, if a racial minority or woman was discriminated against at Harvard and I posted that here you wouldn't say I was "badmouthing" anyone. You would look at the issue in question not just dismiss it. Anyway, as I said, anyone contemplating going there should research on their own. Don't just take my word for it.

But what I am saying about contracts in Korea is not my own idea. Read any book on cross-cultural communication and you will see that they say the same thing about contracts in Korea. Some generalizations are correct, not all, but some. I had no preconception of Korea before I went there but after seeing the same thing happen again and again (not just to me but others as well), well, I noticed some patterns. And I am just trying to help others prepare if they are considering working at a Korean university.

I won't add anything else to this as I see I will just be slammed, so why bother....


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johngalt
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Posts: 64


« Reply #4 on: July 06, 2008, 3:04:37 PM »

What others say about contracts in Korea:

"Like most Asian countries, Koreans believe that contracts are a starting point, rather than the final stage of a business agreement and prefer them to be left flexible enough so that adjustments can be made. Although many Koreans now appreciate the legal implications regarding the signing of contracts, they may still be interpreted as less important than the interpersonal relationship established between the two companies. It is vital that you are aware of how your Korean counterparts view these documents in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings."

Source:

http://www.test-communicaid.com/access/pdf/library/culture/doing-business-in/Doing%20Business%20in%20South%20Korea.pdf

"South Koreans treat legal documents as memorandums of understanding. They view contracts as loosely structured consensus statements that broadly define agreement and leave room for flexibility and adjustment as needed."

Source:

http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources/global-etiquette/south-korea-country-profile.html

"Koreans do not like detailed contracts. They prefer, and often insist, that contracts be left flexible enough that adjustments can be made to fit changing circumstances..... To a Korean businessman, the important thing about a contract is not so much what is stipulated but rather who signed it and the act that it exists. Do not be surprised that your business partner immediately asks for exceptions to a recently signed contract due to unforeseen business circumstances. This is normal business ...."

Source:

http://www.rln-westmidlands.com/PDFs/cultural%20briefings/South%20Korea%20Culture%20Field%20Report.pdf

"When you attempt to sign a contract in South Korea there are several things that you should keep in mind. For one thing, the contract that you sign may not necessarily be binding.... There is little stock put into paper contracts in South Korea...."

Source:

http://www.cvtips.com/job_contracts_in_korea.html

"Misunderstandings often arise over the issue of contracts because, at least traditionally, South Koreans and Westerners have had a different interpretation of them. To some Koreans, a contract is only a general guide for conducting business; a change of conditions will result in changes in the details of a particular contract."

Source:

http://www.wiuec.org/workshops/culture/nego_korea.htm

These sources are all politely worded but say or imply the same thing: paper contracts can be changed after you sign them and misunderstandings occur with westerners as a result. They also mention that personal relationships matter more than the contract. This is another way of saying you should not get upset when a contract is altered as your "relationship" with your employer is more important than your reduced salary or less attractive working conditions.

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felix_unger
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« Reply #5 on: July 06, 2008, 6:05:05 PM »

Yeah, there are enough of such stories to be able to safely draw a few broad conclusions along the lines the OP describes. Much as we on these boards draw some very broad conclusions about not rejecting other job offers until you have offer #1 in writing (because you never know), etc.

However, I wonder if the original post would have gotten a better reception if the title had contained a word like "advice" rather than "warning." http://eslcafe.com/ is a great site that has plenty of ESL job ads, anecdotal advice, discussion and stories, and the occasional warning. Check it out if you're interested.
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"`We are all out of Corn Flakes...F.U.' It took me 3 hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Unger."
johngalt
Junior member
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Posts: 64


« Reply #6 on: July 07, 2008, 2:12:27 AM »

Good point about the "warning" vs. "advice" thing. Just take what I said as friendly advice.

For people who do not mind when their contract and conditions are changed after they arrive what I say won't be a problem. But if you are a person who makes plans according to agreements and changes irk you be prepared for some possible alterations. They may not occur but are quite common.

I don't know too much about the EFL teaching conditions. I am in a different field. But I'm sure similar contract issues arise there as well.
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humanista
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Posts: 131


« Reply #7 on: July 07, 2008, 12:11:13 PM »

Thanks, johngalt, for your observations. I also lived abroad for many years and have drawn some conclusions based on a lot of experience about the positives and negatives of the country where I lived. I would hope that others would accept your insights as coming from someone with plenty of experience in the area. I would bet that other Westerners who have worked in Korea would share many of your generalizations. Of course you could find exceptions to these, but to imply, as nastea did, that no generalizations of this sort have any validity is just silly. (But it was clear that someone was going to jump on you no matter how you qualified your remarks.) It's how our brains work: we seek patterns and try to draw general conclusions to try to predict future outcomes. Obviously these generalizations must be adaptable to and adjusted by changing circumstances.
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dfquinn355
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Posts: 167


« Reply #8 on: July 07, 2008, 1:48:52 PM »

Folks, please lighten up when a professional teacher who has been inside a country and experienced a culture first hand comes away from the experience with an honest, even-handed assessment of how that culture works.

Frankly, the OP is being too amenable to the Koreans and to their mindset.

Having taught and tutored many men and women from this culture in the States, and from reading Chang Rae Lee's novels about being Korean-American, I can state unequivocably that a homogeneous country like Korea WILL say and do things much, much differently and typically in an unappealing, even affrontive manner to typical American notions and mores.
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felix_unger
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« Reply #9 on: July 08, 2008, 6:52:53 PM »

Frankly, the OP is being too amenable to the Koreans and to their mindset.

Ugh--now there's a statement that makes me feel itchy.

As an American, I still haven't figured out an "honest, even-handed assessment" of "the Americans" and how their (presumably singular collective?) mindset works...nor met anyone else who has. I sure wouldn't think that a few years as a foreign worker/tourist would qualify me as an expert on any aspect of another culture. The OP's point about contracts being generally seen differently in Asia than in westernized cultures is a good one; it's pointless at best (and scary at worst) to try to take it beyond that.
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"`We are all out of Corn Flakes...F.U.' It took me 3 hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Unger."
youngster1
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Posts: 213


« Reply #10 on: July 08, 2008, 7:19:35 PM »

Frankly, the OP is being too amenable to the Koreans and to their mindset.

Ugh--now there's a statement that makes me feel itchy.

As an American, I still haven't figured out an "honest, even-handed assessment" of "the Americans" and how their (presumably singular collective?) mindset works...nor met anyone else who has.
I don't know if you really can put a general blanketing assesment on "Americans", and to do so may actually cause more conflict in the long run. Many people here take pride in the diversity of our country, and as far as I can tell, that diversity tends to keep us from developing any "singular mindset" that many other places in the world have.
Let's say for a moment that we as a country were over 90-95% the same race. I would argue that we would very quickly form a culture that could be stereotyped for any number of collective quirks that we would develop as a whole. I'm not trying to say that they would always be true, but I think that a country that is not as receptive to other cultures (not that ours is) tends to develop more noticable cultural traits.
I say that it could be a bad thing, because stereotyping as a whole, while sometimes (and I stress sometimes!) is accurate, eliminates the opportunity for people to be individuals, at least in the person's mind that is stereotyping them, and puts them all in the same group. This can cause all types of problems because people are not the same, and they will never be completely predictable. (Besides, no-one like being forced into a box!)
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You may teach what you know. . . But you recreate who you are.
johngalt
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Posts: 64


« Reply #11 on: July 08, 2008, 7:32:28 PM »

"I sure wouldn't think that a few years as a foreign worker/tourist would qualify me as an expert on any aspect of another culture."

I think I am quite qualified to comment on how Koreans interpret contracts with non-Koreans at Korean universities. I wouldn't be able to comment about universities and contracts in Lichtenstein, Greenland, Burkino Faso or elsewhere, but with 8 years of direct experience in Korea I know Korean universities and how they work very well. Note also I am not talking about all of Korean culture, but strictly about contracts with non-Koreans at Korean universities.

It's hard to pinpoint "Americans" as you mention because America is so diverse. But Korea is very homogenous and so it becomes easier to speak of Koreans thinking in certain ways. At Korean universities at least I have noticed this to be so.

As to how to interpret the issue of contracts that is up to the persons involved. Should one accept last minute and unfavorable changes as a "cultural difference" and happily work without feeling deceived in some way? It's not always so easy. It's easy if it happens to someone else but when it's you it's not so easy.

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youngster1
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Posts: 213


« Reply #12 on: July 08, 2008, 7:40:33 PM »

I hope you didn't take that last message as a personal attack at all. I was simply commenting on diversity. You took care not to say that all Koreans are this way, but that you've simply noticed a trend. I could do the same and say that I've noticed that a lot of Skateboarders smoke pot, and that there are sometimes drug deals at local skat-parks. I don't mean everyone who skates smokes pot, nor do I think everyone at the skate-park buys drugs. It's simply an observation and if I want to warn someone that they might encounter this, it's simply that friendly advice. Which by the way, I would like to thank you for! 
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You may teach what you know. . . But you recreate who you are.
johngalt
Junior member
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Posts: 64


« Reply #13 on: July 08, 2008, 7:46:04 PM »

"I hope you didn't take that last message as a personal attack at all."

I didn't, actually. No worries.
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mark_l
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Posts: 1


« Reply #14 on: July 08, 2008, 9:35:51 PM »

I am an American business professor who has been working in Korea for nine years now. I got my PhD from a top-20 program, worked in and American university for five years and moved to Korea afterwards. I say this merely to introduce myself.

Basically, there are two types of non-Korean academics in Korea: English assistant professors/tutors and everybody else. The latter include business, engineering, international relations/politics and foreign language other than English professors and assistant professors, as well as English professors. In general, English assistant professors/tutors are in their mid- to late 20s or early to mid-30s, work in Korea for a maximum of five or six years, and leave without having made any real efforts to integrate or to learn the language beyond a basic level. Sometimes they have PhDs in English, other times in different subjects, and quite often nothing more than a Masters degree. Some of them do have a TESOL certificate and an interest in a career in academia, more often they come to Korea to teach because it is better than the options back home. Many of them are surprisingly unprofessional, behaving in the workplace in such a way that they would be immediately fired by any serious American company or would never get tenure at an American institution. It is not uncommon for them to leave mid-way through the term because they received an offer from another institution or country or simply because they were feeling homesick. Certainly, as the OP implies, these assistant professors/tutors are not treated seriously by their universities. On the other hand, they are not serious and professional themselves. Sometimes they can have problems with their contracts, partly because universities know that they are only in Korea for the relatively good salary and to enjoy themselves, with no intention whatsoever of contributing to the department in the long term. I have to say that these assistant professors/tutors have a fairly bad reputation among Korean and among non-Korean professionals and academics.

Differently, non-Korean academics in other disciplines and English professors are treated as part of the department. They never have problems with their contracts, and in fact are sometimes paid more than Koreans if we consider that they can get free or subsidized housing and one return air ticket per year. They attend conferences, publish actively and are involved in the decisions taken by their departments. In other words, they behave as you would expect from any academic in the US, and are treated accordingly by their institutions. Not surprisingly, this group rarely encounters the “cultural” problems described by the OP. The job market in academia is international, and Korean institutions know they have to compete for the best talent at a global level. Obviously, they do not want to lose members of their department who act with professionalism.

I am not saying that the OP is one of the unprofessional English assistant professors/tutors that abound in Korea. What I am saying is that, sadly, most of them are unprofessional, thus being treated by Korean universities as disposable items.


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