I work at one of the top five universities in Korea, and I got the job while overseas, something most people said was impossible to do. I’ve been teaching English for nine years now, and 6 of those have been at universities. I’m not yet 30 either. University jobs in Korea aren’t what they used to be. Granted, most jobs in Korea aren’t what they used to be. The golden days are gone. Most of my friends have been in Korea for over a decade, and they say that if you take the cost of living into account and inflation, they make less now than they did when they first came here.
If you’re looking to teach English, Korea is one of the best places to save. The cushy university jobs offer months of paid vacation. I get five months. If I teach classes at my university during the break, I can double my salary. Not bad.
So are you interested in teaching at a university in Korea yet? If so, then read on.
There are two different basic types of university jobs: unigwon and regular university jobs. Unigwons, named for university and hagwon, usually have you teach some kids’ classes. Regular university jobs will have you teaching adults; university students are generally between 18 and 24 years old. Regular university jobs are divided into teaching credit courses and teaching non-credit courses. Credit courses often pay more and are common subjects that are taught in English, such as Science, Business, Writing, Presentation, Literature, and so on. Non-credit courses usually pay less and are usually the four skills or conversation classes.
So now I bet you’re thinking, sounds great, sign me up. Now just hang on a second; let’s see if you’re qualified. Suppose you’re going to teach classes in English. In that case, you have to have a passport (and they usually require most of your education to have taken place using English) from an English-speaking country: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the US. French Canadians might have difficulties, and every university is different. Next, you’re going to need a bachelor’s degree, which also has to be from an English speaking country.
Those are the basic qualifications. If you get an E2 visa or an English teacher visa, you’re also going to have to have a current, clean federal background check. Even though you’ll be teaching at a university, most employers will get you an E2 visa rather than the coveted E1 professor visa. For the E1, you will have to have proof of two years of teaching experience.
The more qualified you are, the better. If you’ve been to conferences, given workshops, been published, done a master’s degree, completed a TEFL course (with at least 120 hours and 6 of teaching practice), or written a thesis, then great. Keep in mind that more and more universities are asking for master’s degrees and at least two years of the university experience. With Korea being flooded by English speakers who can’t get work back home, universities can afford to be picky. I’ve seen licensed teachers and people with PhDs working alongside fresh off the boat graduates and they’re all working at public schools making about the same.
The main hiring season starts October 1st for a March 1st job. The academic year begins on March 1st here in Korea. The other hiring season is in the spring for a September 1st start. Right before the semester starts is another good time to look for jobs because some teachers decide to accept jobs elsewhere at the last minute. This means the university has to scramble to find a replacement. If you haven’t already scanned all your docs, then you should do that. Employers commonly ask for your CV (with photo), cover letter, degree, transcripts, certificates, passport, and reference letters.
Some university jobs are extremely competitive. Those in Seoul are usually more difficult to get than that outside of Seoul. That being said, some universities have two campuses and often pay up to 500,000 won a month (currently $435 US) extra for the teachers who are at the campus that is NOT in Seoul. The cost of living is lower outside of Seoul as well. Korea University, Hongik, and Yonsei university which are part of the SKY universities have campuses outside of Seoul. The SKY (Seoul National, Korea, Yonsei) universities, KAIST, Ewha, Hongik, and Sookmyung are pretty competitive positions, so if you’ve never taught in the Korean university system before it might be difficult to land a job there. However, you’ll never know unless you try.
Age and being outside of Korea will work against you. Most universities have a cutoff age of 50 or 55. Mine won’t hire teachers over the age of 45. If you can’t interview in the country, some places won’t consider you. Some may do a Skype interview.
Some universities have a cap on how long you can teach there. Most are capped at 5 years because that’s when the pension contribution for employers goes up, though some are capped at 2 or 4 years.
Salaries vary as do hours. I’ve seen universities pay as little as 1.8 mil won ($1,566US) for 20 hours a week and up to 3.7 mil won ($3,219US) for 12 hours a week. Overtime is also nice and can vary between 20,000 won up to 50,000. I’ve taught a class that even paid 100,000. The great thing about universities is that you can get extra work at the university legally. From teaching other classes to proofreading, editing, writing books, tutoring professors, teaching camps, or even voiceovers, there are lots of chances to pick up extra hours.
My contract calls for 15 class hours, which is 5 classes, and everything over that is overtime. I usually teach eight classes, and all are credit classes except one. Six classes meet twice a week, and I teach the same lesson to each class, meaning I only have to prep two lessons a week. One class is a conversation class that meets four times a week, and one class is a culture class that meets once a week. I’ve created the curriculum for the conversation class and culture class and have applied to teach a current events class next year. We have to keep three office hours a week, but that’s not too hard.
One thing that has to be said about university jobs is that admin is often hands-off in the sense that you are expected to be an experienced teacher and should know what you’re doing. So they’ll give you the book and tell you how many essays, papers, quizzes, and exams there should be, and you’re expected to create a syllabus and the topics for the essays and papers and write the examinations and finals.
As with any job in a foreign country, there will be cultural clashes. Remember that losing face is a big deal in Korea, so it’s best to smile and nod, keep your head down, and do your own thing.
If you’re looking to get into the university system in Korea, it’s usually challenging to land a plum job outright. Many teachers accept any university job, stay for a year or two, and then apply to better universities. Once you’re in the university system, you’re golden. Some teachers aim for the prestigious famous universities, and others want a few hours, a high salary, lots of vacation, or all of the above. Some of the best university jobs are at universities that few have heard of, which is probably why the job is so good.