Emailer Question: Grad School

An emailer writes:

I’m an English teacher in Gwangju and I’m considering grad school ( in political economy) at Chonnam National or one of the “SKY” schools. According to your bio you went to grad school here, so I was just wondering about the following: 1) What did you study? 2) How was the Korean grad school experience? 3) How useful has your degree been in Korea, and 4) how useful do you think a MA from a Korean university would be outside of the Korea?

Well, to answer the questions in the order they were given:

1) Northeast Asian Studies;
2) Interesting;
3) Didn’t get the degree, so couldn’t really say;
4) I think that would depend on what you were studying. If you’re planning to work in a Korea-related field, I’d imagine an MA from a Korean university might help. My own personal opinion is that if you want a purely academic experience, you’re better off studying Korean Studies outside of Korea in someplace like the United States, but if you’re looking for the intangibles you can only learn in-country, Korea’s the place to be.

I’m sure my readers, however, will be happy to share their more informed opinions on the matter.

  • random

    I’ve lived in Korea for 3 years. I just applied to grad school for media studies at Korea University (PhD).

    The advice I was given was that an advanced degree (MA, PhD) will definitely help you in Korea. Outside of Korea, it depends. If you go to a Korean university and study the same thing in the same way that you might study in the States or Canada or Europe, it’s not going to look good to potential teaching jobs in those areas. But if you study a Korean aspect of your field (for me, for example: Korean film or TV) then you can be a specialist in that area of research. This would be more beneficial to unis outside of Korea which have, for example, Asian studies departments.

    Also, I was told that I should become fairly knowledgeable in Korean language. This would be a benefit to universities outside of Korea and also within the country if you decided to stay. In Korea, you should have the ability to give a lecture in Korean to a Korean audience. This level of ability will set you on a path toward getting a good, long-term, (possibly) tenure-track position at a good Korean university. They don’t expect you to be Korean, but (long term) they want you to be able to hang within their academic structure (department meetings, discussions, etc.) This aspect is probably more relevant to PhD grads than MA grads, though.

    Also, if you don’t know already, an MA in the US/Canada/Europe is NOT a terminal degree. Koreans love to see an MA on a CV, but those in the Western world want PhDs or MFAs.

  • Above Criticism

    I did a Master’s at Yonsei GSIS, and…

    1) Korean Studies.

    2) Very good. The standard of teaching was generally very high, with professors who had almost all got their PhDs from top unis in the US or (occasionally) the UK. Some of them were major authorities in their field.
    Although some were harsher in their marking than others, my general impression was that the need to attract more international students took precedence over scrupulous marking, so I’m pretty sure my grades were more generous than they would have been at home (the UK). On the plus side, the need for foreign students also means that there is a fair range of scholarships available, especially if you’re studying Korea-related stuff.

    3) I have been working in Korea ever since graduating four years ago, and to be honest, I think the degree was more useful for the contacts I made at GSIS than for any inherent academic (much less vocational) value.

    4) As Robert said, it depends what you’re studying. I do know of a few people who got MAs in finance or international relations and got jobs overseas in financial companies or consultancies. If you’re wanting to go on to be an academic about all things Korean, the Master’s courses here can be a good stepping stone, though I’ve been told that the PhDs are next to useless.

  • Humperdinkus

    I’m finishing up an A.M. program in Political Economy at a U.S. institution. I spent a year after undergrad attending the Yonsei and SNU language schools, and gave serious thought to attending the GSIS program at one of the universities. While deciding, I was allowed to audit two courses at Yonsei and one course at SNU for a semester (’twas a hell of a commute), but ultimately decided to return to the U.S. and apply for graduate school here.

    Two thoughts that haven’t been mentioned yet:

    Before going in, how good’s your Korean? Yonsei requires four years of Korean language study to complete the GSIS degree (comparable with most U.S. MA programs), whereas SNU requires students to take multiple courses and write their final master’s thesis in Korean.

    The GSIS programs at both SNU and Yonsei are staffed with talented individuals who either graduated from or maintain professional contacts with top U.S. universities, and are often leaders in their field, as mentioned above. The problem is that the GSIS departments at both schools are still quite small, and because they’re methodologically rather than regionally holistic, you’ll find South Korean feminist legal scholars lumped together with North Korean security experts. Unless your Korean is good enough to take courses with other Yonsei or SNU students on political economy, you generally won’t get the comparative breadth or methodological focus that a good U.S. MA program can provide. At Columbia or UCLA or wherever the whole university – including that great Japanese or Taiwanese political economy professor – is open to you, whereas there may be a language barrier at the GSIS that you won’t be able to overcome in two years.

    You’ll also have to consider that as an international student, there are fewer opportunities for grants and no opportunities for student loans available to you. Of course, GSIS tuition at Yonsei or SNU is a drop in the bucket compared to most U.S. graduate schools, which use their MA programs as money-makers to provide funding for PhD students. You’re looking at under 20K/year at Yonsei (which I believe is the most expensive GSIS program) versus upwards of 40K/year at most private universities.

    Overall, I had trouble putting together mock schedules at SNU or Yonsei GSIS, whereas I don’t have enough time to take everything I want at my current program in the US. The Korean GSIS programs are less demanding to gain admittance to, and the requirements to graduate are less rigorous than most good U.S. MA programs. But, if given the choice between Yonsei GSIS and a lower caliber US MA program with one professor of Korean gender studies and perhaps two professors in Asian political economy that spend two week a semester covering the Korean peninsula, then obviously Yonsei would provide much greater bang for the buck. But, if it’s a choice between the Chicago or Stanford or UCLA or Harvard MA programs versus Yonsei GSIS, I would (and I did) choose the former.

  • eunsung

    I graduated from Korea University GSIS.

    1) Korean Studies

    2) I was less than fully impressed. A few of the professors seemed lazy, but a few were brilliant. Both the students and faculty sometimes treated the experience like an advanced English Hakwon; it wasn’t really about producing good research, but about quantity of writing. That’s pretty harsh, though. You can be successful at research there if you work hard.

    3) It is useful for getting a job at a Korean company, but you need to focus on extracurricular stuff as well to be successful: Speaking fluent Korean, doing internships, maintaining good relationships with professors and fellow students, etc.

    4) Not so useful, I fear, though the experience adds value and credibility to a generic International Relations career track. You have to have other experiences in that track as well, though.

    My biggest piece of advice: Complete one of the major Korean language courses before you go to GSIS, even if your courses will be in English. You will need it to be taken seriously, and it will help you to do all those other extracurricular things that you will need to do to be successful.

  • Sonagi

    Makes sense that one would need a high level of proficiency in Korean along with the MA. There are plenty of bilingual Western-educated Koreans looking for work in Korea and in English-speaking countries.

  • pitchfest

    I’m an Australian doing a PhD in biotechnology at Seoul National University. To sum the whole experience up quickly, I would have to say that it’s often frustrating, but not to the point where it’s worth quitting. Possibly.

    It entirely depends on the particular group of people you happen to work with. In terms of academic standards, some things are very good. But in other ways, I feel like I’m in an Australian university, 50 years ago. If you want to pursue your career and are intent on living in Korea for the time being, then go for it. But if you don’t mind doing it anywhere, do it back home.

  • dokdoforever

    It sounds as if Korean international graduate schools have improved in the last 15 years or so, since I attended a semester at Yonsei GSIS before going to grad school in the States. Tuition then was only 800,000W per semester. A young Yale Phd taught one of my courses, and was great. But I can’t forget the senior faculty who had the students give presentations each class and who ducked on questions since the course “wasn’t in his major.” I also got the feeling that some of the professors were using the program for English practice.

  • t_song

    Why any Westerner would want to do more than a study-abroad at a Korean university is really difficult to understand. And doing it without near-native proficiency in Korean seems to be a waste of time. Because w/o Korean skills, you’re shelved off to discussing matters with the few English-proficient faculty, other foreigners and ESL enthusiasts.

    For the positive experiences at GSIS, the most advantageous elements would of course be your classmates–as is the case with any program. However, any MBA or law or medical school is all about the networking, with faculty, students and alums. So, obviously, that dies when you go back to your homes. But in Korea it could be much stronger. That said, I’ve met my fair share of 서울대출신들 who took great pride in chatting about my one semester as an exchange student and as language school, the good 술집 near there, etc. So, some of those same connections could be made, even without the full-fledged graduate programs.

    However, if you’re the significant other of a native Korean, with no plans of moving, attending SKY could be a good move, to win Brownie points with the in-laws, but that’s not a good reason.