Since I will become a senior in the coming fall semester, I guess this is one question I have become more informed about compared to my time as an
innocent freshman. I do get quite some questions about this too, so I hope this post can help you a bit more in making your decision to come study in a Korean university.
Some basics you need to know about working in Korea before we start:
Local Korean companies vs Multi-National companies
For local Korean companies, they would definitely require Korean proficiency. And when I say Korean proficiency, it is not 반말 (the form of informal Korean you use with your friends), but formal, business Korean. So if your aim is to work in Korea, in a local company, you definitely have to be able to speak Korean well.
*Note: Korean multinationals like Samsung or LG are not really in this category
The number of multinational companies that choose to locate in Seoul has been increasing over the years, and Korean multinationals such as Samsung are becoming well-known brands worldwide. In this globalizing context, such companies have two tracks of employment. One would be the local track where they are looking for Koreans to work in local branches and contact with local clients, and the international track where they are looking to send employees overseas or back to their home countries, or deal with international clients. For the local track, it is the same as Korean companies – Korean proficiency is needed. Korean proficiency is not always needed for global track.
However the international track is becoming more and more competitive due to its better employee benefits and the opportunities for overseas posting. Also, working in the more global departments in multinationals gives one a higher chance of escaping from the strict hierarchy in local Korean companies, so many overseas Koreans are very interested and definitely well-qualified for this track as well. They are effectively bilingual in English and Korean, so they have an advantage over other applicants who only speak one language. So I cannot begin to stress the importance of Korean proficiency if you intend to work in Korea. Korean proficiency would also be an added bonus if you want to work in Korean multinationals as well, even if your aim is to be posted back to your home country.
Now on to the main topic – what are your chances of landing a job if you graduate with a degree from a South Korean university?
Firstly, the university you attend is important. Korea has one of the highest percentage of tertiary degree holders in the world (6th in 2012, U.S. was ranked 4th. For comparisons with other countries, refer to the list on Yahoo! Finance). For those of you who know the problems of tertiary education in the U.S., you might also guess that South Korea faces a similar situation of saturation of degree holders, and many universities that are not always up-to-standard. Therefore, to ensure the value of your education in Korea, definitely go for the top universities if you can because at least they guarantee more recognized faculty and better programs. (You can refer to my past posts on university rankings like this one here to get an idea of which universities are the better ones.) Also, most employers tend to better regard graduates from the top universities in the country because practically speaking it is a faster way of filtering applicants.
Internationally, Korean universities are not that well-known, and I concede that point. However, I do have to make my case here. Many of the American and European friends at my college chose to come to the other side of the world even when they have scored admissions into more internationally known universities in their home countries. Some explain that their interest is in Korea, while others did not aim for Korea specifically, but Asia (or rather East Asia) in general, and they wanted an English education. Some are skeptical about rankings, and they wanted to be closer to the engine of growth in Asia (aka China). The others who come specifically for Korea see the growing importance of Korea, especially with the strength of Korean brands in recent years and the North Korean problem, one of the big political problems in the region.
If you see a commonality here, it is that there is some interest in the country or region for one reason or another. Because we want to work in the region in future, we want to come to a country in the region to build up our knowledge and understanding of local culture, build up local contacts, etc. I personally am a strong believer in direct experience, and my experience in Korea for the past 3 years beats anything I’ve been reading about Korea in the 3 years before I came to Korea. Even my 4 month exchange programme in Japan allowed me to learn much much more about the Japanese culture and society compared to the times in school when I was learning the Japanese language for 4 years. If you are very interested in the region and see yourself working in related sectors or in the reason in future, here is one added bonus for your resume – you have an understanding of local culture that other international applicants may not have.
Korean companies are also increasingly looking to globalize, and thus there is great demand for English-speaking employees in recent years. Overseas Koreans might stand good chances because they are fluent in both English and Korean, thus they are able to manage both local and global operations, but many Korean companies are looking for nationals of their target market, because these nationals may have language abilities (such as Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesia, etc) or local understanding and connections, which are not things that overseas Korean might be able to offer. If you can speak English, Korean and your native language, you will definitely stand a chance for the many Korean companies expanding into other countries in the region. There is great interest in Vietnam and Indonesia in recent years and of course China, but even for Singapore, there are about 200+ Korean firms operating in Singapore, and we have the Singapore-Korea FTA in force since 2006! (No wonder whenever I go back to Singapore I always wonder if I’m home or back in Korea because I meet more and more Koreans on public transport etc.)
Giving some examples, alumni from my school have been accepted to not just Korean multinationals like Samsung, LG, CJ E&M, etc, but also global companies not based in Korea such as Unilever, McKinsey, etc. There are also those who were accepted into prestigious graduate schools around the world. The academically rigorous, interactive liberal arts education had prepared them for future career opportunities. So who is to say that all Korean universities are sub-standard?
Recent years have seen rising unemployment rates in Korea, and some worry that they may not be able to find jobs. But if we look more closely, rising unemployment rates is not always bad, because it means that more people who are optimistic about the economy are out looking for jobs. Although the unemployment rate is at a 4-year high of 3.9%, the number of people actually employed had the fastest increase in 12 years, meaning more jobs are created, and the high unemployment rate is due to the influx of job seekers who are confident that the economy is picking up. (For more detailed explanation on how this works, since it feels really counter-intuitive, here is the link to a Wall Street Journal article) And the economy of South Korea, as we know, has been on an upward trend in recent years so there is confidence in continued growth. My personal response is also to bear in mind the university you attend, because that is definitely a factor that companies consider. (I’m not saying that companies ONLY look at good universities or other universities are terrible, but I am here to remind you to be wise in choosing universities because the quality of education in Korean universities varies greatly too, and since this post is on the topic of employment, I’m just throwing in criteria considered by employers.)
Specifically for Singaporeans, Korea is not a common destination for tertiary education, and the Singaporean community in Korea is also pretty small (compared to say Japan). However, with the closer relations between Singapore and Korea, and the growing importance of Korea in many aspects, I personally feel that I am at advantage here being one of the few “pioneers”. I put quotation marks because really, there are many more Singaporeans who came to Korea to work long ago, but in terms of undergraduates not on KGSP we’re proud to be one of the first few and we are always glad to see more students becoming interested in Korea and willing to invest in Korea for their future. Many of us here are optimistic that our education and experience in Korea will be a bonus in our resumes, apart from the entire package that comes with studying abroad in general (like cooking skills, becoming more independent, disciplining oneself since there is no mum nagging at us to shower once we reach home, etc).
Many Singaporeans who are in contact with me after finding my blog often ask about whether degrees from Korean universities will be “recognized” in Singapore since Korean universities are not well-known in Singapore. Some Singaporeans may have the perception that Korean universities are “not good” and we’re here because we’re either Kpop fans or because we cannot get into local universities, and we won’t be able to find jobs after graduation. But I have to say here that at least for my school (Underwood International College), IT IS NOT A PIECE OF CAKE. Some may think that Koreans don’t speak English well, but our school has many overseas Koreans who attended international schools/were from English-speaking countries and their English proficiency is just like you or me. Also, the kind of readings I have to do, the assignments due, are not any less demanding than, for example, NUS political science major. We study crazy hard too, and we are not here to slack like some may jump quickly to conclude. Some of my friends here, after knowing that I rejected offers from local Singaporean universities and even scholarship offers, think that I must be crazy. (Okay just one of them, she knows who she is haha.) I definitely chose to come to Korea because I believe in the education my school has to offer, and personally I have become more and more skeptical of university rankings once I scrutinize their ranking criteria. But more on that next time, I have to stay on topic after this short explanation which I hope you won’t see as just a rant, but also me trying to make a point to help you do away with the prejudice and if you really are interested in Korea studies or the region, etc, to find the courage to come to Korea and pursue what you really want to do.
Hope that you now have a better idea of whether you are suitable for Korea, and if you’ve been hesitating due to worry about future prospects, I hope this has reassured you a little if your interest is really in Korea. I am in the midst of creating the FAQ list and I will put it up soon! Till then, take care and to those who are coming in two months, hope you’re preparing well!