Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Getting a job at a Korean university: the hiring committee

blue dot
Feb 09 2016

I think that most English teachers who plan to stay in Korea for more than a few years hope to eventually get a university job.

There are reasons for this. A lot of what passes for common knowledge among foreign teachers in Korea exists as a sort of grapevine of oft-repeated truisms, and the word on university positions is this: low hours, high pay, long vacations. This grapevine, by the way, is often not especially accurate, and in the case of university jobs, the truth is that conditions vary quite a lot. But for my job, I’ve found it to be mostly true. I have 14 contracted teaching hours per week and 8 weeks “official” paid vacation – although with gaps in the schedule there are usually a few more weeks on top of that. Outside of my rostered classes, I am free to set my own schedule, coming and going as I please. There are lots of overtime opportunities, with enough variety that I can pick things which are interesting to me.

There are also some things about teaching at a university that I find less satisfying than teaching at a Korean public school. Despite the rumors, my monthly pay is actually less than I’d make teaching at elementary schools with the same qualifications (although it is higher when viewed as an hourly rate, or if you include overtime). As I said, it varies: my university is pretty stingy and other universities pay more. Beyond the grapevine “facts”, I’d say that I don’t feel university teaching provides me with the same sort of culturally immersive experience that I got teaching at public schools. There, I was part of an institution that was integral to the local community; I was also the only foreigner, and always thoroughly “in” Korea. At my university there are many other foreign teachers, and the Korean staff we work with directly are all fluent in English. I also feel that as a university teacher I have less of a chance to have a positive impact on the lives of my students. Teaching Freshman English is more of an act of triage: trying to address the worst of the repairable damage caused by thirteen years of English education of uneven quality. Each semester I do have a few students who I feel I have helped a lot, but there is simply less that you can do as a teacher when you come in at the end of your students’ education, rather than at the beginning. And this is probably why I have written less about teaching university students than I wrote about teaching elementary school kids.

There are things I miss about teaching in elementary schools: the kids, the grandparents who hung out in the shelters on the school playground, the teachers who spoke no English but nonetheless drove me home and showed me kindness, the ajeossi teachers who smoked with me in the hidden places at the back of the school. But overall, university work is unquestionably better. I like my job a lot, and so do most of the other teachers who work here. I like the freedom and the extra time I have. The Korean staff I work with are great, and the other foreign teachers average quite a bit better than the usual run of waegukin you meet in Korea. Look, before I came here, I worked for three different Korean elementary schools in three years. Each of those jobs was wonderful in their own way, and I don’t regret any of them; but the fact that I’ve stayed in my current university job for three years should tell you something. So while I’d still recommend public schools as the way to go for anyone new to Korea, I would have to agree that if you plan to stay in Korea long-term, you are better off looking to transition to a university job eventually.

That’s not a particularly controversial point! As I said, most people who plan to stay here for a while would like a university job. That same grapevine says that university jobs are hard to get, that you need to join KOTESOL and network and know people, and anyway it’s probably impossible because all universities demand two years of university experience. What’s the truth of this?

Well, I have for the last two years served as a member of the hiring committee at my university. So I’ll tell you what I know. The hiring committee is always fun, but this year it was particularly dramatic. At one point the committee was ordered to disband, take down its advertisements, and cease hiring people. Then we were told to reform. And later still, we got pissed off and collectively resigned from the committee in protest and disbanded ourselves. Yeah, we have lots of fun on the hiring committee…!

Is it difficult to get a university job?

How hard is it to get a job in a Korean university? The answer is, it’s both easier and harder than you might think.

Why it’s easy: if you have the required qualifications, are reasonably personable, take teaching seriously, can put together a half-decent resume, and haven’t made a complete mess of your life, you will likely find getting a job in a Korean university very easy.* *I am assuming here that you are willing to take any university job that offers significantly better vacations and significantly reduced teaching hours compared to a public school job – if you start getting picky about salary or location, it becomes more difficult. In fact, you can expect to be in demand; the biggest concern we have, when we manage to find such people, is, “Will they take another job?” And quite often the answer is unfortunately yes, they will. All universities are looking for people like this! Most of the teachers who work at my university, when they were first looking for a university job, received more than one offer.

Why it’s difficult: Firstly, because the required qualifications are inflexible and arbitrary. Secondly, because most people who can technically meet those requirements seem to fall down in one of the other areas: they’re personally objectionable, or their resumes are awful and illiterate, or they’ve somehow managed to teach for years without learning the most basic things about teaching English, or they’re losers who have wandered around Asia for 10 years, drifting from job to job, from hagwon to university and back again, with no progress and on a generally downward trajectory of burned bridges, failed relationships, and alcoholism. (That last one might seem like I’m describing just a single candidate, but trust me – I’m describing a lot of them.)

So let’s look at each of those things. But first, an important qualification. What I know of these things is based on my experience at one university, the one where I work. While I have reason to believe that much of this is generally true, conditions (as I said) do vary, and I make no claim that anything I say here is true of all Korean universities.

Problem 1: Qualifications for teaching at a Korean university

What are the requirements for teaching English at a Korean university? Answer: I don’t know.

Look: I always try to give you correct information on here. As I said, a lot of what exists as “common knowledge” amongst ex-pats in Korea comes from word-of-mouth that gets passed from one-year veterans to newbies. You’ll often find this stuff repeated with authoritative confidence on blogs (the video bloggers seem to be especially bad when it comes to this) and as often as not, it’s either distorted or completely wrong. When I don’t know something, I tell you. And I’ve tried my best with this question. But I don’t know the answer, and you know what? I don’t believe anybody else does, either.

Let me put that in perspective. I’ve been trying to find the answer to that question for four years. I was trying to find the answer when I first wrote on here about looking for a Korean university job. Since then, I’ve served on our university’s hiring committee twice. Each time, we’ve asked for a list of these requirements. Each time, we’ve been given a list of requirements.

When we get these lists of requirements – none of us being new to the ways of Korea – we say, “Are you sure these are the requirements? These are all the requirements? Because we don’t want to offer someone a job, and then have to tell them later that they can’t have the job because there was something you didn’t tell us.” And we are assured that no – those are all the requirements.

Each time we’ll find someone we like, go to get them hired, and then are told, “Oh, actually, now there’s another requirement.” And we have to tell someone that we’ve offered a job to that we can’t hire them. And this makes everybody angry.

This time we strongly requested that our Korean office administrator – a lovely woman who is equally frustrated by the ever-shifting demands placed on us by the university’s Human Resources department – locate on the internet the actual rules for what qualifications are needed to teach English at a Korean university.

She couldn’t find them. So she called up the relevant government department. Nobody there knew, either, but they promised somebody more knowledgeable would call her back next week.

Eventually this person called her back, and gave her an answer that was completely bizarre, and more stringent than anything any university demands in their job advertisements.

At this point we gave up, because we were better off just using our own university’s vague and constantly shifting requirements than this “official” answer.

(If you’re not familiar with the ways of Korea, all this probably seems incredible. How can nobody know what the rules are? But for those who have been in Korea a while, it probably won’t be all that surprising.)

This explains I think why the listed requirements in university job ads vary so much. They vary so much that I won’t tell you my own university’s requirements – doing so would amount to a fingerprint of where I work (anyway, they kept changing throughout the hiring process). However, here are some requirements you commonly see listed:

Two years experience with an MA. Possibly also 4 years experience with a BA. The “experience” may have any of the following conditions attached to it: it must be at a university, or outside of Korea, or not accrued during the same time you were studying for your degree, or only after you received your degree, or not at a Korean elementary school, or not at a hagwon, or not at a hagwon below a certain size. EPIK experience, if it is counted at all, may be adjusted by a formula, where a year with EPIK equals some fraction of a year of university experience.

You will often hear people in forums say, “Yeah, but send your resume in anyway. They say that, but when they get desperate, they’ll hire anyone.” At least at our university, this isn’t true. We can only hire people who meet the requirements we are given.

This year, our requirements were even more strict. In fact they would have ruled out me, had they been in place when I was first hired, along with most of the rest of the hiring committee.

I can tell you that, at least for private universities, the requirements are not “laws”, exactly. They are to do with the university’s “percentage of foreign faculty” statistic, which is a criterion on which universities are judged for government funding. English teachers are the easiest way to pad out this statistic. If the government ever changes this requirement, we might all be out of jobs.* *Although it’s worth noting that, between the extra classes we offer and the English camps, our department is one of the few that actually generates a profit for the university. So we might be OK.

What does the hiring committee think of these regulations? We find them as irritating and illogical as you do. Asking for a Master’s degree and experience doesn’t bother me; I think it’s reasonable for teaching at the university level. But most of the other requirements simply prevent us from hiring the best person. To explain this, which of the following candidates would you prefer to hire?

Candidate A is a 30 year old who has been in Korea for the last four years. In their first year they worked for a small hagwon, then transitioned to EPIK and have worked at the same middle school for the last three years. Two years ago, recognising that they wanted to stay in Korea, they enrolled in a program to get their MA in TESOL, which they have now received. They have an interest in Korean culture, demonstrated by their literate cover letter and their TOPIK level 2 certification, and great references.

Candidate B has an MBA. They have been teaching predominantly in Korea, but also in China and Thailand, for the last 10 years. They have worked at a variety of hagwons and universities, rarely staying longer than a year and without any clear progression. At some point they got married to a Korean woman, and are now divorced. Their references are from former foreigner colleagues.

Obviously, Candidate A is the better choice. We wish we got more applicants like this! Except it turns out that their first hagwon wasn’t large enough to require them to be officially registered as a teacher (or something… I don’t quite understand this rule), so their experience there doesn’t count. Nor do two of their three years EPIK experience, because they were studying for their Master’s degree at the same time. So our university won’t hire them.

Our university has no problem with us hiring Candidate B.  And there are a lot of Candidate Bs out there. What makes the hiring committee’s job so difficult is trying to find good, qualified people who don’t resemble Candidate B. Unfortunately, with the system as it currently stands, all those Candidate Bs can find a job somewhere; while good, serious EPIK teachers who are looking to transition to university teaching have difficulty because of the various arbitrary requirements.

Here’s an even more absurd example:

Candidate A has a Bachelor’s degree and four years EPIK experience.

Candidate B also has a Bachelor’s degree and four years EPIK experience. One year ago, they enrolled in a Master’s of Education in TESOL degree, and they will graduate in one year.

Guess what? We can hire Candidate A, but can’t hire Candidate B. Why? Because we can accept people with a Bachelor’s plus four years experience, or a Master’s plus two years experience. Catch: teaching experience accrued while studying for your degree doesn’t count. So that year of teaching experience Candidate B has while studying for their Master’s is removed. Now they only have three years experience, and no Master’s degree(We did, in fact, manage to get this candidate hired in the end, by the simple if absurd approach of removing all reference to a Master’s degree from their resume.)

A final note: we received many applications from very highly qualified Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, and Africans. The research on this, by the way, suggests that it doesn’t make much difference: “native speaking” teachers have advantages when it comes to teaching fluency, accent and idiom, while “non-native speaking” teachers tend to be better at teaching grammar and the mechanical aspects of language learning. But our university won’t accept someone from one of those countries, no matter how highly qualified or how good a teacher they are. So those resumes went straight in the trash.

Problem 2: Terrible resumes and/or cover letters

Look, I get it: writing resumes is a painful process. I hate it. Trying to find the right balance between highlighting your accomplishments and not coming off like an arrogant asshole is difficult. But you need to suck it up and do it. A lot of the resumes and cover letters we received were just terrible.

The following are actual quotes**Unfortunately one of these applicants happened to read this blog post and was understandably unhappy about his words appearing here. So they’re no longer “actual quotes”, but fictionalized recreations which capture the spirit, if not the literal words, of the originals. See the comments from resumes and cover letters that were sent to us:

My teaching philosophy involves the incorporation of various teaching methods, pedagogical approaches, and classroom activities, in order to better facilitate educational outcomes.

So your teaching philosophy is “teaching”? Good to know. We got a lot of cover letters and resumes with stuff like this: empty blather that sounds like a first year student writing an essay the night before it’s due. And don’t bring the technical terminology if you don’t know how to use it. There were four TESOL MAs reviewing the resumes and we know what those words mean, even if you don’t.

The easiest way to go straight to the top of our pile was to state your relevant experience and qualifications in simple, clear, grammatically correct English.

Here’s an even better one!:

At this position I felt enamored with the opportunities afforded to me, enlivened by the experience of enlightening students, and tenacious in my determination to provide students with commoving educational encounters

If you’re not familiar with the verb “to commove”, don’t feel bad. None of us on the committee knew it, either. Sprinkling your cover letter with obscure 19th century vocabulary doesn’t make you sound intelligent.

Emphasize education
Why am I good for the job?
Ref. criminal record check
Rewrite 4th para

Next time, I would suggest this applicant add “remove notes to self from end of cover letter” to his list of tasks.

I look forward to hearing from u.

Lk srsly? That “u” earned this applicant an instant and unanimous rejection from the entire committee.

Dear [reference to a wrong person or institution]

This one was depressingly common. Yeah, we understand you’re applying to other universities. No need to rub our faces in it because you forgot to change the names on the email you just copy/pasted.

[excerpt which talks about why the applicant has provided references from former foreigner colleagues]

Sorry, demonstrating that at two places you worked, there was someone who didn’t consider you an antisocial incompetent is setting the bar a little low. Having “colleagues” as references is always a warning sign, but if you can penetrate the horrible grammar here, you can also see why it’s such a warning sign. Clearly, at every university he has worked for, there were plenty of people who didn’t appreciate his skills.

And, just for fun:

I’m a mature Canadian professional Christian man interested in making friends with Korean people and visiting Korea… I’m looking for a kind and generous businessman, family, single person interested in supporting my trip to Korea. I am not looking for a job only make friends and travel and experiencing Korea… My plan is not to come to Korea to work and teach, but to have fun and travel. This kind and generous Korean person would of course at their request be able to practice their English speaking skills with me while we spend time together exploring Korea.

Mature Canadian professional Christian man seeks Korean sugar daddy!

Problem 3: Are reasonably personable and take teaching seriously

It will probably not be shocking to anyone who teaches here to learn that there are many people making a living teaching English in Korea who either have no interest in teaching, or are batshit-crazy troublemakers, or both. Sometimes this is immediately apparent from reading a resume; sometimes it doesn’t show up until the interview. And sometimes we miss it even then, and end up dealing with an awful teacher for a year until they are quietly moved on (in all probability, to cause problems at another university).

That is why our preferred candidates tend to be of a type: intelligent people who have been teaching EPIK or in hagwons for a while, who have taken steps to get a Master’s degree and qualify themselves for a university job, and who demonstrate by their interests and their interview that they genuinely enjoy teaching English and living in Korea. Such candidates usually work out OK. We don’t exclude other candidates; we sometimes get good people who’ve come to the position from a different perspective. But for the most part, candidates who apply to us with a lot of university experience aren’t what we are looking for.

I’m sure there are highly qualified, excellent teachers who have been teaching at the university level in Korea for a while. But the fact is, they don’t apply to us. Anyone like that who is any good has better options than our university. Our university, being both regional and low-paying, is definitely entry level – not that there’s anything wrong with that! But it means that those candidates we get who do have a lot of “university experience” tend to be the sort of people I’ve already described enough – misfit losers who manage to continue to survive in the system by moving from job to job.

But sometimes, as I said, they can be hard to spot. We had one candidate who looked great on paper. An older guy, PhD, published author, tons of experience, who had interviewed Ken Kesey and and Hunter S Thompson. He seemed like a cool guy! We wondered why he was bothering with us and were set to interview him, until we did some investigating on Google. There we discovered:

  • an interview he’d given where he talked about how he’d written a novel entirely on acid
  • that he was, for ten years, a member of a crank right-wing forum where he posted lengthy diatribes railing against taxation and the government
  • a long-running feud between himself and a disabled and obviously schizophrenic woman, where the two of them debated what exactly had happened when he had lodged with her and had sex with her almost a decade ago
  • a photo-essay he had published on the internet documenting the rise and fall of his relationship with a Thai bar girl

That guy went from the top to the bottom of our pile really quicky! Some candidates blow themselves up in more subtle ways. One of them impressed none of us when, on being told that the university provided an airfare subsidy, he joked that he should “maybe make a quick run back home, then!” As if we would join him in chuckling at his plan to defraud the university. No, thanks.

Another common way candidates blow up is that when you start to interview them, it turns out that despite years of experience, they know very little about teaching English. They’ve spent their time in Korea (probably) playing bomb games and faking their way through lessons. If you can’t explain a very simple English grammar point, you probably don’t have the chops to get a university-level job teaching English. The depressing thing is how many people we saw with CELTA certificates and Masters of TESOL who don’t know the first thing about the mechanics of English grammar or how to structure a language lesson.

University jobs – fact and fiction

I mentioned before some of the truisms about getting a university job. As is usually the case, reality is a little more complex, and I’ve already covered a lot of them. But here are a few more I haven’t answered.

TRUISM: It’s all about contacts, and who you know.

FACT: Some of the new teachers we hire are friends of people who work here. The reason for this is simple. As I’ve suggested, it’s nice if you have amazing qualifications, but the thing we really want to know is, are you crazy? Are you going to do your work? Are you going to cause problems? And having a trusted person say, “I know them, they’ll do a good job, they’re cool,” counts for a lot. But whether you’re someone’s friend or not, you still have to submit a resume and go through the interview process. Knowing someone isn’t going to get you a job if you blow your interview, and we hire plenty of people who just send in their resume from a job ad on ESLcafe, too.

TRUISM: You need to join KOTESOL and network.

FACT: Boy, there are a lot of people who submit resumes who’ve joined KOTESOL! This idea must be really popular. I guess it does denote a certain seriousness, and it does give you the opportunity to meet people who work at universities. But at no point in the process did I hear anyone say, “Wow, they’re a KOTESOL member; they must be good.” Personally, I’ve never joined KOTESOL because I’d much rather read a journal article than schmooze with English teachers and listen to people talk. Joining KOTESOL surely can’t hurt, but I don’t believe it’s a fast-track to a university job.

TRUISM: You can’t get hired from outside Korea.

FACT: While most people we hire are in Korea, and it does make the visa process a little easier, we do interview and hire people from outside Korea. Not true of all universities, admittedly, but it’s not impossible.

TRUISM: You should buy somebody’s e-book to find the secrets to getting a job at a Korean university.

FACT: Nah…

The hiring committee

Having given you some sense of what it takes to get a position at a Korean university – or at least, at my university – I’ll now tell you about the hiring committee and how we go about finding new “professors”.* *I don’t really want to get in to the debate about whether English teachers in Korean universities should be called professors or not. The Korean title is “조교수”, which is reasonably translated as “Assistant Professor”. That said, the ranks don’t match up well with the various Western systems, and obviously the required qualifications are less. Call it whatever makes you happy.

Sometime around late October or early November, the head teacher will ask people if they want to serve on the hiring committee. It’s a voluntary job, so it usually falls to whatever teachers care the most about whom they’ll be working with next year. Next, the head teacher posts a job ad containing the university’s current requirements (as best we understand them) to all the usual places – ESLcafe, Profs Abroad, and a few other places. I’m not really sure why we bother, as 90+ percent of the applications come through ESLcafe.

We then print out the resumes and cover letters of likely candidates, and we all go through them, making notes. There’s probably about six of us doing this, so we get different perspectives. Like a lot of ESL teachers, we have a natural tendency towards a certain level of innate smartassery, and a second-rate resume will attract a lot of cynical comments. “Swallowed a thesaurus.” “Has a B.S. in B.S.” One applicant’s reference to how a certain personal quality “manifested itself” attracted the note “OMG – she’s not Spider Woman”.

Cover photos – that feature of Korean job applications – are scrutinised. They are also defaced. A particularly mug-shotty photo gets decorated with prison bars and a booking number. Hitler moustaches and devil horns may be added, along with speech balloons.

That said, we take it seriously, and people develop favorites. Often our verdicts are unanimous, but sometimes there will be a lone voice arguing for a particular candidate, and that lone voice is likely to be accused of shopping for a future wife or husband. That said, there have been candidates who have received interview offers, and eventually job offers, due to one member of the committee advocating for them, so I think it’s a worthwhile process.

To continue with the theme of “unprofessional things that happen to your resume once you’ve submitted it” – it’s hard to keep all the names straight. So candidates tend to end up with nicknames associated with memorable aspects of their resumes or physical appearance. Ukulele Girl. Irish Joe. Beardy.

You often hear that there are fifty or a hundred applicants for every position. This is partly true – an advertisement, even for our second-tier university, is likely to attract close to a hundred applicants. That said, we are also hiring for multiple positions. And as I’ve already indicated, by the time we’ve removed the non-native speakers, unqualified candidates, directionless middle-aged white guys who’ve spent ten years bumming around Asia, illiterates, creeps, and more marginal people who simply nobody really likes or wants to argue for (these last go into a separate pile – the “if we get desperate” pile), the number of people we actually want to interview is quite small.

So at this stage, we attempt to set up interviews. We usually offer people a couple of different times. If you’ve got a good reason why you can’t make those times, we’ll try to accommodate you, but attempting to reschedule the time according to what is best for you is not a good look. We want to hire people who really want the job, and will make some effort to get it.

If you make it to the interview stage, we want to hire you! Really, we want you to be great in the interview. The hiring process gets a little frustrating after a while, and all we want to do is find good, personable teachers who will act like professionals and not annoy everybody.

We then proceed with the interviews, and when we find people we like, we offer them a job. This part can be frustrating, because we often encounter “the stall”. The fact is, the candidates we like are also interviewing for other jobs, and they’d like to hear back from them before they accept our offer. So they try to delay things. We send out an offer, then don’t hear anything for two days, then people ask for a week to think about it. I get it, and I’d do the same, but the pretense can be frustrating, because we know that regardless of what they’re telling us, what they’re really doing is holding out for a better offer somewhere else. So all the lines about “I want to think about it over the weekend” are a little frustrating for us.

Our goal is to get the hiring for the next year sorted out quickly. That’s why we start in October/November – to get it done before finals, and English camp, and before everyone starts to vanish on vacations. Unfortunately, it never seems to work out that way.

This year, as I mentioned, was particularly problematic. The very first candidate we offered a position to was subsequently rejected by our university’s Human Resources department, due to a technicality regarding their experience which we had not been made aware of. This is something you hear about, and it’s no fun for anyone concerned. It makes us all look unprofessional. I can only say that it’s not our fault, and we really do try our best to prevent that happening.

That got us off to a bad start, so we made a new plan. Firstly, we would only “provisionally” offer people jobs, and make it clear that we were at the mercy of our human resources department; and secondly, we would try (again) to get a definitive list of the requirements. This led to us sending the human resources department a number of questions.

As a result, we annoyed the belligerent ajeossi who was officially responsible for hiring people. So he issued us an edict: we were to disband. We should take down our job ads. Henceforth, he would do all the hiring himself.

His plan for this was brilliant. He decided that he would put an ad up, in Korean, on the university website, then wait for the applications to roll in.

We had a meeting about this. It was at this point that someone first suggested simply calling his bluff. Let him do it! While we were all amused by this, we also knew that we would be the ones, next year, to suffer the consequence: either having to teach twice as many classes, or work with whatever incompetents he found. So we decided on a different plan: we would tell him we had disbanded, but leave the job ads up and keep interviewing, and just forward any good people we found to his ridiculous job ad. With their resumes translated into Korean, if necessary. We figured these would be the only people he would get, so he would have to hire our choices anyway.

As it turned out, in typical ajeossi fashion, after ranting and sulking for a while, he reversed himself two days later: we could continue looking for people. With one catch: he was still going to continue with his own hiring process, and he wouldn’t approve of any candidate we found until the deadline on his ad.

The result was that we found a number of good candidates who ended up taking other jobs as they, quite reasonably, got tired of waiting for us to provide them with an actual contract. Because we couldn’t get them approved. Because the deadline still wasn’t up on the ridiculous Korean ad on our university website.

We did find one great person. As I said, the candidates we end up hiring are usually of a type: teachers who have been in Korea for a while, take it seriously, and who are ready to move up to the university level. But we’re open to other sorts of candidates as well, and occasionally you turn up someone different. This woman was great: she had twenty years teaching experience in the US, teaching English and other foreign languages. She was a certified teacher and had a Masters in Education. She had traveled the world and lived in Korea for a year as a Peace Corps volunteer. She blew all of us away in the interview; she was funny and smart and you could tell she was an amazing teacher.

The catch? She was 67. Her Peace Corps year in Korea was back in the early seventies. In her retirement, she wanted to come back and have an adventure. We loved that, but we knew it was a problem. So we asked Human Resources: is there an age limit?

We were told that there was no age limit.

We knew that the retirement age in Korea is often 65, so we asked again: are you sure there is no age limit? Can you check again?

There is no age limit, we were told. Stop bothering us, we told you already, there’s no age limit.

The ajeossi’s deadline finally arrived, and we submitted this woman’s application. She was tremendously excited about the position. She had made plans to rent out her house, had told all of her family of her plans. Also no fool, she had asked us: is there an age limit? And we told her: we’ve asked multiple times. There is no age limit.

So the application came back. You can probably guess: rejected. Too old.

At this point the committee unanimously jacked up. We refused to write to her and tell her this, and insisted the ajeossi do it himself. He said he was too busy and important. Eventually the Korean staff in our office did it and signed his name. After that we also wrote to her personally, expressing our anger and disappointment.

And that is how the hiring committee voted unanimously to resign. All this played out over several months, and by the end we were done with it. We didn’t want to do it anymore, and told the ajeossi that he could go ahead with his plan to find the people himself. (It was an empty gesture; our head teacher knew we were going to have to find teachers eventually. But it made our point, and we really were sick of the process by then.)

We had been promised a free dinner for our work. After the committee disbanded, with only half the positions filled, we assumed that the dinner was cancelled. But the Korean woman in charge of our office (who herself had had a screaming match with the ajeossi over his contradictory demands and idiocy) told us to go ahead; that we’d earned it.

It was a somber dinner. Particularly so for me. Because most of the teachers who started around the same time as me were leaving. They are also most of the teachers I have got on best with; the ones with whom I’ve spent time at work and in coffee shops making jokes and talking about life; the ones I’d formed a bond with during the hysterical intensity of our university’s English Camps.

It was in this atmosphere that one more member of the hiring committee, another person I consider a friend and an ally, said, “Actually, guys, I’ve got something I should tell you…”

He’d been offered his dream job at another university, and he, too, was leaving.

After dinner I went outside and smoked a cigarette. He came out. I said, only half-jokingly, “Man, what are you doing to me?”

He understood. He felt bad about it, and I said it was OK. It was right for him to take that other job. And he understood perfectly why I was bummed about it.

Why was I so upset? Because, with so many of our best teachers leaving, including the current head teacher, a decision had been made that the person who should be in charge next year – the new head teacher – was me.

Yes, your Humble Narrator has now risen as far as it is possible, by one measure, for a foreign English teacher to rise in Korea. Next year I’ll be the head teacher at our university. With all my best friends and allies gone, with a huge mass of new teachers coming, and with the hiring process in a complete mess (we’re still working on hiring, by the way – with the new semester only a few weeks away).

It should be interesting.

Waegukin wrote these 6380 words on February 9th, 2016 | Posted in Teaching |


16 comments on “Getting a job at a Korean university: the hiring committee”

  1. the dude says:

    “You should buy somebody’s e-book to find the secrets to getting a job at a Korean university.”


  2. Waegukin says:

    Heh. Yeah. Glad you enjoyed that one^^

  3. Kat says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this read! I’m looking to come to Korea to teach English in the August 2017 intake and I plan on living there long-term. I had a lot of questions about what it takes to get a university job and I’m glad that this gave me a lot of insight. I liked your humorous inputs as well. Thanks for a great post 🙂

  4. Austin says:

    Great article. Taught with TaLK and was a great experience and could relate to a lot of points you made! Humor mixed with fact equals a good read! Best of luck with the new position!

  5. Haha says:

    LOL. You shit all over my cover letter.

  6. Waegukin says:

    If you’re not joking, sorry about that. But thanks for providing me with such an excellent illustrative example!

  7. Haha says:

    Nope, not joking. Still got the gig I wanted, so I’m not too upset. Kind of a dick move, imo, as I was trying to apply for a job, not give you material for your blog and be mocked by you and your readers. Easy to be dehumanised when you are just a name and a photo on a piece of paper with a hitler moustache drawn on.

  8. Waegukin says:

    Certainly didn’t mean to embarrass you. If you really want it removed, send me an email with your real name and I’ll take it down.

  9. Haha says:

    Not embarrased at all. Its just kinda fucked up to know that someone read my application, said something to their colleagues the lines of ‘fuck this idiot, lolz’, drew a cock in my mouth or a swastika on my forehead, then took it home and retyped what I wrote word for word to shit on me from behind a computer monitor. Because thats totally what any reasonable person would expect to have happen when applying for a job, right?

    Just treat people like human beings. Life’s shitty enough as it is, and I’m sure you remember being on the other side of a hiring committee. It sucks on both sides.

    So how about you remove that shit anyway because its the right thing to do?

    I don’t need to email you and prove who I am. I already know where you work as I know where I applied.

    Besides, your’re a good writer. You don’t need anyone else’s words to prove a point.

    Congrats on the promotion.

  10. Waegukin says:

    And congrats to you on getting the job you wanted.

    Look, I believe you are who you say you are. I respect that you’re engaging with me and not throwing a tantrum about it. I don’t think anyone on the hiring committee has forgotten what it was like to look for a job or doesn’t take the process or the applicants seriously, but it gets stressful (for reasons I talked about) and we joke around.

    I put the excerpts in because I thought seeing what not to do (in my opinion only) would be helpful to other people, and also because it made the post more entertaining. Perhaps I should have recreated fictionalized versions of them. I did check there was nothing that personally identified anyone in them, but other than that, I didn’t think about it a lot. I didn’t expect this post to blow up on reddit, and honestly wish it hadn’t. As you’ve realized, more than most things I write, it identifies who I am pretty clearly to a lot of people.

    I’d take yours down but I honestly don’t know which is yours. Other than that I’ll leave it as it is, because I don’t know that I see as clearly as you that it’s “the right thing to do” – I wonder if you’d think so, if yours wasn’t included? I will be more careful about these things in the future, though. For the most part I just imagine my blog posts going out into the ether; being read, if I’m lucky, by a few people who are interested in teaching in Korea. I don’t really expect them to intersect with anybody’s real life, but obviously I should be more aware of that.

  11. Haha says:

    I honestly can’t relate because I don’t have a blog, and so I don’t feel the need to inform or entertain people.

    And hey, I’m sure searching for someone to hire is as stressful as finding a job. That’s why personally, I wouldn’t do it for a hot meal. But I suspect that someone could make the argument that you don’t take the applicants seriously, based on your desire to post (in a sense) “Don’t be like these bozos”, and then complaining about how you have to sift through all these resumes and here are the “choice idiots” for your readers’ edutainment pleasure.

    Of course, I’m not exactly thrilled that I made the cut– out of all the apps you had to slog through, I was one of the dumbest of the lot. But you gotta recognise that asking me if I felt like if it would be “the right thing to do” if you didn’t clip my words is no different than me saying “How would you feel if someone took your resume and pissed all over it on the internet?” You probably wouldn’t be jazzed about it, and I probably wouldn’t have an opinion one way or the other, as I wasn’t affected. But damn, Waegukin (and I choose to respect your privacy here), it is disrespectful to say the least.

    So in this case, hypotheticals don’t really matter. The fact is your post did in a way “blow up on reddit”, and you did use my application in a way I never offered. Maybe it’s not difficult to justify that action because you have to satisfy an audience, but my point is, I didn’t send my resume to your university to entertain your readers or to help other people learn from my ‘mistakes’, and I doubt the others did too. You took that liberty yourself. And in that sense, it’s fucked up. This is why I suggest some creative edits or rewrites.

    I wasn’t even gonna say anything because honestly, I don’t care if you think I am hireable. I got a better job than that rural private uni where the hiring committee thought I was a tit. Personally, I thought seeing my words here was kind of funny in a surreal way. But thanking me for an illustrative example kind of irked me, because, I never gave you one. You took one. And the more I thought about it, the more that I found that to be disrespectful to my privacy as an applicant.

    Lets be real here, you write this blog because you want people to read it, this isn’t some private journal under your mattress. Also, the expat teacher community here isn’t as big as we like to think it is at times. And the purpose of the internet is to connect people, but sometimes they’ll connect in a way you didn’t consider.

    I won’t email you because I don’t was you to know who I am. You already formed your opinion about me months ago, so who I am is irrelevant. Also, this isn’t really the forum to have this discussion, but it is the only place where I can keep some of my privacy, as it feels like a part was taken. So how about we show each other some mutual respect, you find some creative means to express your disdain for resumes and cover letters without dropping a cyber turd in my (or anyone else’s) mouth, and we forget each other’s names.

  12. Waegukin says:

    You make some reasonable points. I do think I protected your privacy (even I don’t know who you are) but you’re right that a job applicant should have a reasonable expectation that his resume won’t be ridiculed on the internet. So I’ve fictionalised them as much as possible without destroying the context. (Except for the guy looking for a Korean sugar daddy. He wasn’t a job applicant, and deserves all the ridicule he gets.)

  13. Harpocrates says:

    I want to thank you for a very well-written blog post. You’ve challenged me on many levels and left me much to think about and for that, I am grateful.

    I would like to take you to task about one thing though. When you write about losers who have been working in universities over many years, are you thinking about those who have travelled everywhere, working in different countries, or have remained in Korea?

    The reason that I ask is that I’ve been here just under 20 years and have enjoyed working at various universities. One of my worst character traits is that I am a fairly honest person and therefore suck at maintaining a poker-face. I have worked as a head teacher~ and have absolutely hated it! Under an abusive Korean version of Satan is just no fun. Well, I took him to task and called him out on his idiocy & physical abuse toward another person (thus making him “lose face”) and therefore I wasn’t renewed after the end of a one year contract. (I have no regrets about that.)
    At another university, my boss, a sweet Presbyterian church lady was absolutely shocked, that I, a liberal Christian, when asked by students what I thought about Hong, Suk-cheon~ the first gay Korean to come out of the closet~ replied that – love is something beautiful that two people can celebrate & that I believed in monogamy in whatever form it took. Well, according to the church lady, I may as well have been Socrates corrupting the Athenian youth~ such a dangerous influence! & needless to say, I wasn’t renewed for another year.
    At a couple universities a long while ago, I stayed for four years and was happy with everybody, but was told that they had this silly law and would have to lay me off.
    Another one more recently, the uni. was out of town and I had to get another residence and my wife found it difficult to be apart. After a year, she begged me to leave and I did. (My very good friend who is now the head teacher, when he heard that I didn’t get a new job asked me if I wanted to come back…there was a place there for me. Man, he made my whole year, saying that! Of course my wife put her foot down.)

    Another university there were political issues~ New Dean wanting to clean house and hire new people. (As if we would be loyal to the old guy.) Making way too much money. (I made a really good impression on one Dean), and later on the new Dean comes along and says that I am being laid-off and I am welcome to re-apply for the same position. Huh?! (I guess that he was wanting to pay me a million won less per month. I was quite oblivious to all that was going on around me at the time.)
    Another Dean requesting that I “volunteer” to take on a certain project that is in my specialty. I explain (looking out for my beloved students)that there were certain harmful factors that would keep me from doing this and that the logistics really wouldn’t work at this time. Pissing her off enough not to renew my contract. (Though I actually did my job right~ had decent student evals., good peer observations, etc.)
    In the West there is a saying: Job security: you do your job right, to get to keep it! In Korea, that is not necessarily the case.
    So, understand when I say that as Cockburn sings it~ “everything is bullshit except the open hand.” I’m not the best teacher in the world, but I’m not too shabby, either. I love my students and give them lots of love, time and attention. Some even enjoy being with me outside of class. (Some that I’m still in touch with from 1998 are married with kids and celebrate life together. I take pride in their friendship!)

    I guess that my point is, if I ever get hired to another university, I will bite my tongue, not cause someone above me to lose face, and keep my head down. In addition, if I ever have the opportunity to be a head teacher, or be on a job interview committee, I would put little stock on their checkered work history and try to interview as many as possible and let them give their story. Judge whether or not they are a good teacher on a wee demonstration lesson. Everybody deserves a chance. There is enough grace to go around for everybody. Thank you for reading my story.

  14. Uniteacher says:

    I’m currently a supervisor, head teacher and also part of the hiring team at my university.
    I read your blog with interest. You had a lot of great information and insight. However, what troubled me was the lack of professionalism and respect that seems to be part of your hiring process. Making fun of applicants and going to the extent of defacing their resumes is not worthy of a university seeking serious qualified individuals. If this flippancy came across to the interviewee, this might be one of the reasons they also declined the job. Remember, they’re also interviewing you and assesing if they want to work in your environment, so you need to be professional. If people don’t meet your requirements or are an absolute NO, then move on. You’re not in high school working with your buddies.
    You need to set a good example in your new position, so grow up!

  15. Chris says:

    Great article. I’ve taught English for almost 7 years (1 in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia and 6 in Korea – 3 public/3 hakwon). I’ll leave to get my M.Phil TESOL from September 2017-18. I hope I can get a Univ. position when I return.

  16. Paula says:

    Hi Waegukin. I really enjoyed your article. I have been thinking about a teaching job in Korea for some time. I have a lot of qualifications but very little experience.
    I have a Montessori diploma, BA, MA and TEFL certificate. I have a little experience but not much. The reason I believe I would be a better fit for university teaching is I studied English literature and Philosophy in university – although not English grammar. I would be more suited to teaching a subject I know and I feel university might be less hectic and stressful than teaching a crowded room of kiddies – but I am open to options. Is it possible to get a university post based on my qualifications and experience?

Leave a Reply

Please note: if your comment is a question relating to your personal situation or a request for advice about living and teaching in Korea, please contact me directly, rather than leaving a comment here. Such questions won't be answered in comments.

Subscribe to Waegukin

If you enjoyed this, subscribe to Waegukin to get new posts, links, and commentary: