How I got my first college job in Korea (kind of)

“In Canada we don’t put our grade point average on our resumes.”

My blood boiled. That was it, I was done taking his shit. I knew I wasn’t going to get the job anyway and I’d had enough getting pushed around by that jerk. I’d felt attacked for the whole interview. He was a bully and I simply wasn’t going to take it any longer. I smiled with satisfaction and said, “Well, maybe if your grades were as good as mine you would.” He didn’t really have much of a response to that one. Dr. Kim and Ms. Park seemed to appreciate my response and I think I noticed a faint smile from Dr. Kim.

A week later Dr. Kim was calling me and asking me if I had time to teach Spanish to his colleague’s son who was enrolled in a middle school in the states and would be back in Korea for the summer. 2 weeks later Dr. Kim was emailing me and asking if I could fill in for an ill teacher at the university. Just 4 weeks later Dr. Kim was introducing me to his high school classmate, a professor at a technical college down the street. I had an ally. About a month after that I was signing a contract to work at the technical college. The intro from Dr. Kim was probably the most important part. Much more important than my resume, GPA or not. This is the short version of how I got my first college/university job in Korea. I was 23.

I am not sure if the above story offers much in the way of advice for people looking to land a university job in Korea. I guess the most important lesson is the one that everyone already knows. Connections are important. After all these years I still firmly believe that not backing down in the interview endeared me to Dr. Kim. Just for clarity and for the record I am not suggesting interviewees be aggressive in interviews. I am just saying that sometimes being yourself might earn points with the right people.

In the story above, the original job I was applying for was a 6 week summer camp position for university students in an immersion program run by the university.** This was back in 2001 and such immersion programs were relatively new in Korea. Prior to the interview, I thought I had a decent chance to get the job and thought I would be a pretty good fit. The Director of the camp (The Canadian mentioned above)*** didn’t seem to think so. He said he was looking for people with first aid skills, drama skills, music skills and was also apparently looking for people with more than a year of experience. Looking back on this, I would have to say, “Fair enough” as I was very inexperienced.  I’d also have to wonder why they wasted everyone’s time by having me go through the process of interviewing if I was not going to be seriously considered for the position. Why have someone come in for an interview only to pick holes in their resume the whole time? Why attack the applicant, his (albeit at the time limited) credentials and his motivation for applying? I still don’t know what it was all about but I am pretty happy with how things worked out in the end.

yonam halls of academia

a hall of academia

Notes:  
*The timing didn’t work out with the Spanish tutoring or the filling in for the sick teacher. In fact, I was offered a full-time contract to replace the sick teacher but I was already under contract somewhere else. I believe I wrote something like, “If I am the person you think I am, I can’t really leave mid-contract” as I declined the offer by email.

**I actually ended up working on the camp for 3 of the six weeks that summer. It was pretty awkweird when I showed up in the third week knowing that the Director did not want to hire me at all. I was extremely motivated to do a good job. I had a great time and made some lifelong friends. In addition, I did the camp many times later (maybe 5 or 6 more times).

***I feel it must be noted that the Director got sacked part way through the camp. I don’t have all the facts but I believe it involved things like, lying, drinking, staying up all night with students, and a complete lack of honor, shame, professionalism and sense.

Actual tips: 

I realized that some people might have clicked on this link for tips rather than just a random story from a random guy. So, I thought sharing a few tips might be the polite thing to do. It would be rude not to. These tips are not offered as an expert but just some thoughts that came to mind.  It seems the job market is quite tight these days with lots of applicants for limited jobs. This means employers are getting a stack of resumes and need to whittle it down quickly. Here is my best advice in no particular order.

  1. Cast a wide net.
    By this I mean apply to as many places as possible. By this I mean you might want to think about places other than Seoul or Busan.
  2. Be flexible.
    Especially in terms of times and, as above, locations.
  3. Place yourself in the “team player” light and don’t ask for special treatment at the start.
    I think that lots of times universities are looking for someone that will fit in and not cause trouble and be a headache. Be that person. Do what you can to show that you will not be a pain in the butt. Making special requests before even being hired is not recommended.
  4. Try to get other university or similar experience.
    Round out your resume by teaching adults if possible.
  5. Set yourself apart from other applicants.
    I don’t think simply being a member of a professional or semi-professional organization is likely to mean much (though I have heard stories to the contrary) but I do think there are things you can do to get a leg up on the competition. Have some skills or experiences listed that will make you a more attractive candidate for the position you are applying for. (Sorry this is so vague, I don’t really have a great suggestion for this—perhaps someone will leave a gem in the comments.)
  6. Prepare a portfolio that you can share in a moment’s notice.
    Extra points for something flashy and digital.
  7. Follow the application procedures exactly as listed if you want the job.
    This is regardless of how silly they might seem. If they want you to snail mail stuff, do so. If the procedures are too silly or onerous perhaps you don’t want to work there enough. My sense is that sometimes such policies are set in order to weed out the type of people that might not follow instructions or be team players.
  8. Be prepared for interviews that might not exactly fit your idea of professional.
    Questions that could be illegal, unethical or just plain strange in your home country might be asked.
  9. Try to tailor your resume/cover letter to the institution you are applying to.
    A bit of research and extra effort can go a long way. I think this is standard advice for any job but it is amazing how often people seemingly apply for a job different than the one being offered. Show that you know where you applying and what they do there.
  10. For God’s sake, share a professional picture.
    This means no alcohol or effects of it, other people, or excessive skin. C’mon guys.
  11. Eliminate all typos on your documents.
    Have a friend check! Reviewers are people and people are people. People usually want to make their own jobs easier. Don’t let silly typos be a good excuse to be rejected.
  12. Get a reference from a Korean person.
    Experience indicates it is much more valued than one from a fellow foreigner.
    I would also say that it can’t hurt to be on friendly terms with the person that might answer the phone when called by potential new employers. I have heard numerous stories of assistant to assistant chats making or breaking someone’s chances at a job.
  13. If in doubt, be overly respectful in your wording.
    Better, in my view, to be overly formal than overly casual. Don’t give them a reason to bin you on the basis of your (perceived lack of) manners.
  14. Don’t take rejection personally.
    Lotta applications. It’s not you, it’s them. 
  15. It is much easier to sort out whilst in country.
    Skype interviews seem to be much more the exception than the rule. If at all possible, be in Korea while searching for a job.
  16. Be sure of the reasons you are looking for a uni position.
    This is to say that it is not always a better “gig” and you might want to be totally certain this is what you want. Sometimes it is not really worth it.
  17. Connections. Connections. Connections. And connections, again.
    I mentioned the importance of connections, right?
  18. Have your documents as ready to go as possible.
    It seems like fortune favors those that are prepared. This relates to the portfolio mentioned above but there is more to it as well. Preparation includes having all your ducks in a row in terms of documents.
  19. Face-to-face document drop offs? Follow up emails? Follow up phone calls?
    I just don’t know about these. I have heard good things but I also think they could be annoying and a hassle for the person dealing with the hiring.
  20. Others (and disagreements) in the comments?
    I am sure there are lots of pieces of advice that I missed here as well as some that people might disagree with. I am happy to read both!
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31 comments

  1. livinglearning

    I got my first (and only) university job because of connections. I think you can’t over-emphasize the importance of connections. I was offered another university position a day later without connections, though, that I turned down. I got that one because the director who interviewed me liked my resume.

    One thing that is often included in interviews for university positions these days that you haven’t mentioned is a demo lesson. I was asked to give demo lessons for every interview I had. In each of them, the audience was the interview team. I treated them as participants and they gave no visual or verbal feedback and asked no questions (except in the one for the job I accepted). One head teacher told me that they were just checking to make sure I could string sentences together and didn’t put them to sleep.

    So to add to your list, I’d recommend preparing and practicing a demo lesson and also being able to do it tech-free if necessary.

    • mikecorea

      That is a heck of a tip! And so. very. weird. To pretend teach a group of (potentially stuffy) people that are interviewing you.

      You reminded me of some good stories about demo lessons!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! (And “liking” and hopefully liking)

      Stories next time I see you if you are interested!

      • livinglearning

        Always interested in stories. I’ll swap with stories of interviewing and hiring (or not) applicants for vacation camps here. By the way, what on earth is the mini-Cheomseongdae doing in front of the edu-building in the picture? #offtopiccomment
        Also, definitely liked the post! Thanks for writing it and sharing your stories and thoughts.

      • mikecorea

        Living Learning Asks, “By the way, what on earth is the mini-Cheomseongdae doing in front of the edu-building in the picture? #offtopiccomment”

        The answer that I heard is that well, it is a technical college so they wanted to highlight the technical nature of the college by highlighting a technical success from the nation. It made a bit of sense to me at the time. Funny that when I finally saw the real one I was thinking of the fake one.

        Stories…. yes… yes yes. Sounds good.

        As for the post, as you might have guessed I started to feel bad for those who might click on the post and not get any practical advice. Then I added some practical advice. Then I added the tags, of which I am very proud.

  2. breathyvowel

    I’d add that staying in the game right to the end seems like a good idea. Lots of people switch out of positions at the last minute (so I’ve heard, at least). Didn’t one of our own, vest-sporting #keltchat members recently get his job not long before the semester started?

    The other thing I thought I’d share is that, like Anne, I had to teach a demo class as part of my interview. The thing that apparently impressed my interviewers was the fact that I made a great effort to be understood by the students, speaking slowly, choosing vocabulary carefully, and even throwing in the odd comprehension check in Korean. Not saying this is what every uni looks for, nor that this was the only thing that got me the job, but that was what I was told.

    A

    • mikecorea

      Thank you Sir TBV, for the comments.
      I almost added something about staying in the game till the end but I didn’t want a whole bunch of unsatisfied blog readers showing up on my doorstep in early September after waiting and not securing a position. I think it is a good point though. Right place right time cannot be emphasized enough. I think lots of people change their minds or leave between hiring periods which often opens up positions. I think this also points to networking as sometimes these jobs are not so well advertised.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and tips related to the demo aspect of the interview. Very useful advice I’d say….. And good on your uni for having actual students for the demo.

      I remember we had quite an interesting discussion the #KELTchat page previously about job hunting and such. It is always interesting to hear what was successful in some instances. Thanks again for the comments.

  3. Heidi Nam

    A bit more on the teaching demonstration –
    At our university, a teaching demonstration is considered professional only if it incorporates technology. PPT is a must. Innovative use of the web or smart devices may also impress if it is done smoothly with a clear benefit to the lesson. Our Korean faculty members object to lessons that aim too low, e.g. the target is something that students supposedly learned in middle school. Granted, many students in first-year university English programs need fluency practice with a good deal of the language of that is in the middle school curiculum, but at a university-level teaching demonstration, the teacher should clarify something about the language that would not have been taught at the secondary level. If there is a group of students present for the teaching demonstration, the teacher should interact with the students and give explicit feedback on their production.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Heidi! Excellent stuff.
      I can (mostly) see where the Korean faculty is coming from on this one but I think it is a point that could be very easily overlooked by a prospective teacher. The tech thing as well. To be honest I would be very unlikely to make a PPT for a short Demo class so I think this is super useful.

      I wonder how clear schools are about their expectations for the demo lesson. As an example, I once was lead to believe (or better led myself to believe) that a demo was going to be in a room full of students. Instead it was just for 2 professors. Imagine my surprise. 🙂

      Comments from you, Alex and Ann have given me a lot to think about regarding the demo part.
      (perhaps another blog post someday, though this is not something I know very much about)

      Thanks again, Heidi!

  4. prupleHand

    I think the list can be applied to almost any ELT related jobs in Korea. I also had to do a demo presentation (both in English and Korean) when I applied for my presenter position. And it was very helpful when I got in touch with the presenter who was already working there (I think people are willing to offer help if you ask). She informed me with the job descriptions and what look for in the presentation. You might not want to bug them with too many questions, but if you ask politely in a way that shows how much you want the job, they give you good tips.
    Also, number 3, “place yourself in the team player light” and connection can’t be stressed more. Thank you for the list, Mike! Your article made me reorganize my resume. Not that I am specifically looking for a new job, but who knows? Be flexible and prepared~!

    -purpleHand

    • mikecorea

      Hello Purplehand,

      I am glad the list was useful. I guess there is a lot on the list that could be useful for other jobs in the field.
      I like your point about asking for help from those already there. I think that is a great point. I think that sometimes our own view of “common sense” or common practice might not match with how things are done in a particular company/school/uni/whatever so it is nice to have some inside information.

      Interesting to see that you are reorganziing your resume. I recently found this quote and I think it matches a bit, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” (JFK).
      Updating my resume is always on my long-term to-do list. Maybe this summer!

      Thanks again for the comments and for helping me see that the list might be more useful than I originally thought.
      To be very honest, I added the list afterwards because I was worried there might be disappointed readers clicking on the link but not getting any actual advice!

      Cheers,
      From someone who sometimes wishes he was a “white hand”

  5. Rob Dickey

    Connections, definitely. If at all possible, present a paper at one of the Korean ELT societies, espec one with lots of Korean profs there. You might get an offer that very day (even when they missed your session!). But even if not, being able to say that you did often scores points in resume lookover and interview. Univ aee looking for signs of professionalism and commitment to academia.

  6. Andee

    Connections were important in my current position. Everything else was secondary… and it was a cold call one week before semester started with no advertised position.

    I was once offered a position after a teaching demo — doing the actual teaching license test with the interview panel and several of the department seniors (students) present. The students could ask me questions about teaching scenarios after the demo and before the panel interview. This was a very professional process… but rapport seemed to go further than answering questions ‘correctly’.

    Rapport coupled with professional development – publishing and presentations – were big factors in another job I was offered. Very professional overall, but with the usual meandering into personal space at one point or another. I also feel the assistant had a say in the process as well… (my gut feeling on that).

    • mikecorea

      “Usual meandering into personal space” Is a great line. It is also my latest favorite new fake band name.

      I like the scenario you mentioned where applicants do a demo and are asked to actually talk about teaching. What a novel concept. You said that rapport seemed to be more important than “correct” answers. That sounds about right to me. I think it is a nice window into the applicant. This sounds a lot better than a lot of what I have heard in other situations.

      Thanks for the comments and insights, I think it can and will be helpful to readers of this blog.

    • mikecorea

      That is a nice tip in some cases I suppose. I think that a certain person currently in Thailand would not be pleased with the idea that the Michael Griffin connection was the key.

  7. expatseek

    One helluva story and it is true especially among universities in Korea that connections are important. Many universities simply never need to advertise positions at all.

  8. Pingback: How I got my first college job in Korea (kind of) | expatseek
  9. Ben Naismith

    I’m always late to these commenting parties, but always read your posts in the end! Keep up the stories – they’re my favourite part. If I have to use powerpoint in a demo lesson, I don’t think I’ll be working in Korea anytime soon… I did have to record a demo of myself teaching for one of the universities here though which I actually thought made a lot of sense. I’d love to see prospective teachers with a real class before doing any hiring.

  10. Pingback: teaching demos in interviews (story+scattered thoughts) | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  11. IELTS Singapore

    Just came across your blog. I’m an IELTS teacher in Singapore. I’m thinking of teaching in Korea.

    I know Korea has close connections to America and traditionally TOEFL is the more popular of the two (TOEFL and IELTS) and I guess also the TOEIC. Yet in recent years, has IELTS been getting more popular?

    Also, is there much of a demand for IELTS teaching?

    Thanks.

    • mikecorea

      Hi! Thanks for stopping by!
      I would mostly agree with what Rob said above.

      I do think that IELTS is growing in Korea and that there is a pretty high need for examiners. I can’t say that there is an abundance of jobs were people mostly IELTS prep classes though.
      I think the BC is the main place for classes.

      I can I also say that there is a lot of demand for under the table (illegal for the most part I guess) private lessons from IELTs instructors.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful but I can say that the popularity and recognition of IELTs has increased greatly in the past few years. It seems like a lot of people want to emigrate to Australia.

  12. Robert Dickey

    While Mike will probably offer his own perspective, I’ll share mine here.
    TOEIC is still more popular than TOEFL, which is more popular than IELTS.
    Cost of the exam is one consideration, and the fact that employers largely don’t know much about TOEFL, and far less about IELTS.
    there are locally-developed tests cutting into TOEIC.
    Frankly, if you aren’t working at British Council, there isn’t much demand for IELTS teaching, so far as I can tell.
    Rob – a past president of Korea TESOL.

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  14. trevor

    Informative article, but I’ve clearly missed something.
    The interviewer was telling you that Canadians don’t put their GPA on their resumes? That sounds quite defensive. Why would an interviewer feel it necessary to say something like that? I can see the person being interviewed saying so after being questioned about their GPA, but the interviewer?
    Just curious.

    • mikecorea

      Hi and thanks for commenting. I appreciate it.
      We have the same confusion. I have no idea why he was telling me what Canadians to and don’t do on resumes. I really think he had decided not to hire me (i wasn’t a life guard or a guitar player (keeping in mind it was for a camp) or whatever and didn’t have so much experience to that point). I think he resented having to interview me. I am guessing interviewing me wasn’t his choice so I think he wanted to try on his bully shoes that day. Actually I think he was pretty much a bully in general. I wonder if this makes more sense now? It really didn’t make much sense to me at the time. I remember thinking, “it’s fine if you don’t want to hire me but why are you wasting everyone’s time?” I think it all worked out in the end though.

  15. markmania

    I’ve worked at my university for nearly a decade and as a member of the hiring committee. Most of what the author is true but not only for uni positions but any professional position. We get literally hundreds of resumes for one or two positions so even the slightest sign of unprofessionalism can get your resume trashed. My university is filled with professional, dedicated and passionate educators. Don’t just assume you are entitled to a university position because you have an MA or some experience. You need to prove this to the hiring committee via your resume, cover letter, and interview.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments and sorry for the delay in responding.
      At first as i read the comments I wondered if you were telling me specifically, “Don’t just assume you are entitled to a university position because you have an MA or some experience. You need to prove this to the hiring committee via your resume, cover letter, and interview” but then I thought you were just giving good advice to anyone. I am especially with you on this sense of people not feeling entitled or deserving of any sort of position. You can probably speak about it with much more information but I get the sense things are quite competitive these days for positions in universities in Korea.

      I also think you make a good point about what I wrote being true for mostly any position. To be honest, I mostly sort of threw the tips together because I figured people would be looking for something more than a story.

      Thanks again for the helpful comments.

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