Studying in Korea, what no one tells you

As you may have understood, I left via KGSP to do a PhD in the field of science. Leaving in 2018, I had to shorten my stay and cancel my scholarship. Since I know that many of you will apply for this year or are interested for the years to come, and that more and more people are contacting me, it seemed essential to me to give feedback.

*Disclaimer* I wrote this article first in french and as it is suuuper long and I am kind of lazy, I will let google translate do the job~ so i apologize in advance if it may be odd sometimes (but honestly google trad does a great job with french/english). 

To try to be as clear as possible, I will separate all of this into 3 separate articles:

1. This one will generally talk about the working conditions, things I didn't expect and everything I wish I had known before leaving.
2. A second article, which will come out pretty soon I think, will be about my personal experience, why did I quit? what happened? which conclusion?
3. A final article will be made with testimonials from other KGSP students who have agreed to share their experience and feelings.

Please read these articles carefully before committing to long-term studies in Korea 🙏 I know it's going to be long but I think it's really necessary that you know what to expect and see if you think you can adapt.

1. RESPECT: let's start by talking about Korean culture since it governs everything. If you are interested in Korea, you probably know that respect is due according to the age and status of the person and that society is based on a pyramid scheme with the boss at the top. Nothing too shocking so far. The problem is that this “respect” is taken to the extreme, which results in a lack of respect XD For example, in my laboratory, the team leader was considered and treated like a god (like, you had to open the doors for him, make sure the room temperature is perfect, take care of his plants, do kowtows, open his water bottle, etc.). Then there are the managers and all the students who were in the lab before me. So I owe that same respect to all those people. And in exchange? Well, in exchange we treat you like shit XD This system of respect is unilateral, from bottom to top but there is nothing the other way around. For a French accustomed to a minimum of recognition and respect, it is not easy to accept being relegated overnight to the state of a larva. I used to say that to survive in such an environment you have to bury your ego and your self-esteem and have a master's degree in resilience... The Korea you don't see in dramas is giving yourself to melts heart and soul for his superiors and in exchange to be belittled and shit on him permanently or even humiliated. To the point that work comes second…. For example, in a lab meeting I made a proposal which was refused. She then told me to use such technique, which I knew was not usable. But everyone in the team approved… until the end of the lab meeting where I asked the question again and they told me that in fact I was indeed right. But here, the idea is that what the team leader says is holy word even if it is false and in the same way, if he is at fault, it will be up to me to hold the responsibility in its place.

2. ACCEPTANCE: either you will be in a 100% Korean environment or you will be lucky enough to have foreigners. I say luck because it is. From my observations, if the team leader is quite terrible (as presented earlier), relations with fellow students are going pretty well. Conversely, if the team leader is rather keep cool (there are still a few of them) then relations with colleagues become a little strained. From what I could see, the integration of foreign students was not great, at best colleague, generally ignorance and at worst hazing. A doctoral student friend, after 2 years in the team was still not called by her name but by “the foreigner”…. what an integration XD Another friend is in a 95% male team and has to put up with sexist belittlement and automatic dismissal because of that. On my side, several of my colleagues had “created a coalition” against me XD so espionage, sabotage, lies etc.

3. TRAINING: you will have lessons + time in the lab. You won't learn anything in class. There it is said. Classes are actually presentation times where teachers ask you to present your research topic, for example. The good point is that it does not require a lot of work, the bad point is that it becomes a waste of time and no learning. One of my friends followed youtube videos to learn stuff in her field and another had signed up for online courses from an American university XD so clearly if you have teaching expectations, forget it. Another friend received his master's degree but does not dare to apply for jobs because he does not feel legitimate precisely because of the lack of learning received >//<

4. KOREAN: you may find courses in English in your department. However, out of all the KGSP foreigners I know, everyone who took English lessons… ended up having lessons in Korean 😥 I was the only one who had 100% of the teachers playing the game and teaching in English as announced. This criterion strongly depends on the university and the department. But in general, unless you are in some major like “international relationship”, expect to have to do your studies in Korean 😰 that means report and presentation too 😰

5. WORK: You've probably heard that Koreans work like crazy and work sick hours? It's true... and false at the same time XD in terms of schedules it's a reality, the day starts around 9am and has no end time. The policies are different from one lab to another. In my case there was no specific time so I could have left at 5 p.m. French version but honestly since everyone stays until at least 7 p.m., well we quickly give up French hours. And again, leaving at 7 p.m. I was generally among the first ones to leave and it is common to spend the night in the lab. For some of my friends, on the other hand, they had a time limit which was midnight for example. So the story was that the team leader called the lab every hour (yes because he wasn't there of course) to check that everyone was staying until midnight >//< At the level work, I was shocked! At the beginning when I arrived, I was told that the French were lazy 🤣 well, you take it in and shut up. And very quickly I realized that out of the dozens of hours of work they do…. in fact they are not efficient in the work. And the fact that the communication is also pyramidal does not help. They make you think they've been working like crazy all night... when in fact not at all, it's more a way of pleasing the superior and making an appearance. It's a bit of an unhealthy system that feeds itself. Let me explain: superiors put a lot of pressure on their employees/students and make the link between time spent at work -> efficiency and motivation. As a result, the students start their day by telling themselves that they will not leave until very late at night or even not return at all (the only goal being to make an appearance). So why rush to work? Since you literally have all day + night to do the job? In the end, I was also working like them, start working in the beginning of afternoon  and during the morning, I gleaned from right to left and wasted time unnecessarily. So here it is, the famous “Koreans work a lot” it is mainly because the system is inefficient and based on the satisfaction of the superior rather than the work itself, they need 10 hours of work where  in France the work would be done within 4 hours. I also saw Koreans coming late at night to put their name on the attendance sheet then leave and come back very early in the morning to make believe that they spent the night in the lab >//< One of the consequences of this system is that at the organizational level it's nonsense and it is common to end up with deadlines to manage at the last moment. It happened to me several times that someone came to see me at 5 p.m. and told me “we have to do this urgently, the deadline is today midnight” O.o and it's been like 2 months since the superiors knew it >/ /< and suddenly you find yourself doing everything in a rush at the last moment and people then, once finished, congratulate each other “wow, we were so efficient”…..O.o In short, if you like to organize your days and have a life beside work, it is difficult.

6. HOLIDAYS: if you are a non-science/technology student you will have plenty of free time. You will have about 2/3/4 lessons per semester, each lesson of 2 hours and the rest is “personal work”. Depending on the faculties and departments you will have more or less work. I know that some people found themselves bored because they had too much free time during the day 🤣 on top of that they have 2 months of vacation in winter and 2 months in summer. So it's ok, life is cool, really the good plan. Science/technology students, on the other hand, are not in the same boat. For them, it's full days, let's say 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., often including weekends and no holidays (roughly I think we have 10 days per semester, but to take them you have to go ask the superior... and nobody does it XD). So clearly I said to myself “nice I will enjoy life in Seoul”….. not so much. It's not a life that lends itself to it.

7. PRIVACY: I advise you to be careful with your social networks! I discovered late that my manager was spying on me mainly on Instagram. And suddenly when she saw that I had gone out with friends on a Saturday night in itaewon…. I got a remark 🤣 you have to make them believe that you have no life even if you try so hard to have one.

8. GRADUATION: the conditions for obtaining a diploma depend on the universities and the departments. In master's it's fine I would say, it's not very different from in France I think. On the other hand, for PhD…. So already, a 3-year doctorate in Korea is impossible! I repeat, it is IMPOSSIBLE! But no one tells you that, especially since the scholarship only covers 3 years 🤣 From memory there is a way to extend the scholarship by one semester but that's all I believe so if your teacher doesn't support you financially for the future, you will have to spend your money to finish your degree. Why is this not feasible in 3 years? simply because you will have a lot of work to do for your professor and which is not related to your degree/your research. For example, you could be asked to do the housework, prepare the teacher's lessons, give lessons, take care of exams, take care of material orders, take care of finances, etc. Another aspect that slows graduation is graduation requirements. To give you an example, in my department it works with a point system. For instance, 130 points are required to qualify for graduation. And the points are accumulated by publishing publications and basically, to obtain the doctoral degree in this department, one must accumulate about 7 publications…. as much to tell you that in 3 years it is mission impossible. Finally, very importantly, obtaining your diploma is entirely dependent on your team leader. If he doesn't like you, he can very well exploit you for several years and refuse to sign the papers 😥 it happened. If, on the contrary, you are very good and he likes you then he will delay the graduation as long as possible to keep you. Because of this kind of abuse, the rule in Korea is now a maximum of 8 years for a Ph.D. So here it is if you are in a hurry, a doctorate in Korea may not be a good idea.

9. CONTROL: I don't know exactly where it comes from but I noticed that Koreans have a need to control everything. I think it stems from a lack of confidence. This means that students are not considered as students over 25 years old who work for their career but as 5-year-old kids who are just waiting for the cat to sleep to party 😥 so they are control freaks . Example: controlling students' social networks, asking for reports all the time (I had reports every 2 days to do + 1 weekly + 1 monthly), meetings all the time with results to be presented very regularly (once a week which is a lot) and just day to day coping. I also saw my manager after asking me to do something, stay put with her cell phone to see after how many minutes I was going to start doing the requested task. One of my friends had to write on a big whiteboard all her trips during the day, even pee breaks 😲 in my lab, they assigned another student to spy on me and report everything I did and said to the manager 😲 when we went to telework, they asked us to report every day on the work we were doing but as it was not enough to prove that we were working, they asked us to spend the day with the webcam + screen sharing (in case we want to play pc games instead XD). In short, an extreme cop that reminds you every minute that they have no confidence in you.

Important point to note, if foreigners find it difficult to adapt and accept all these conditions, it is not always easy for Koreans either. They may not show it but they suffer from this system and realize that it is not a healthy way to work. So you will either have the category of those who follow in the footsteps of their elders and try to take advantage of the system by ingratiating themselves with superiors and those who are firmly convinced that this system is toxic and endure in silence counting the days until their graduation. For many, graduation is a deliverance. You will tell me, in France too, but the suffering before is not equivalent.

I probably forgot some stuff but overall I think the essential is said. I will find you in the following articles to learn more about my personal experience as well as the feedback of several students! Feel free to ask questions~

2 thoughts on “Studying in Korea, what no one tells you

Add yours

  1. If you have complaints – who at NIEED do you reach out to? You mentioned terrible language schools – which I have also heard – can you switch midway to another school if its really bad?

    1. Hello, personally I contacted NIIED once or twice about my complaints through an email address cause that’s all we got… I was ignored. As much as I know, you can not switch your university… which explains why many students do give up.

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