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By P. Tharun Kumar
I finished my masters from Seoul National University (SNU) and am currently working as a researcher in the same university. It’s been 3 years in the university as of July, 2015 and I must say it’s been one hell of experience with ups and downs. This article details my experiences both as a personal reflection and insights as a research student aimed to help students from India who want to pursue their post-graduation here in Korea.
I have spent all my childhood in a village near Miryalaguda, 150 km away from Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. Sorry, the place is in Telangana, I am so used to saying Andhra Pradesh :D. In 2008, I started my Bachelors in Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering in IIT Madras. The life in IIT has brought a huge transformation in me, but it was with lot of confusion as I left the university. With few good decisions and some luck, I ended up in Korea for Masters. I was a vegetarian. Unlike India, Korea gave me a chance to appreciate the taste of chicken ;).
Why I chose Korea
Ours was a middle class family and I didn’t want to burden my parents with huge money required to pursue MS in US. SNU being a world class university and Korea, a world leader in shipbuilding which is contrastingly different from India were other main reasons drove me to Korea. Looking at my friends working in Shipbuilding industry in India, I can now confidently say that my decision to come here is 100% right.
In any country, university life of a student broadly differs depending on the tier of university a student belongs to and Korea is no different from that. Seoul National University (SNU) can be considered as one of the old IITs for Indians in fact it is more privileged than them for Koreans. Korea Advanced Institute of Technology (KAIST), Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) and Yonsei University comes next and all other universities lie below.
Two other factors that come into the picture are advisor’s designation and his exposure to the culture around the world. If the advisor isn’t a full time professor yet or has been working only in Korea, he compels his students to work much more than normal working hours. My advisor was a professor by the time I joined and did his PhD in the United States, so you can broadly assume my experiences as the best a student can come across here.
I still remember my first meeting with my advisor, it was very profitable: P, he offered a very good stipend and paid for the whole month in spite of working for only 10 days. It is in those beginning days of my work in lab, I was appalled at the funding our group is getting and how lavishly we spend on group dinners and drinks quite often. Koreans eat a lot and they are fit too. Also with alcohol, Koreans drink heavily and generally drinks at more than two places every time. If you like Korean food and alcohol, I must say Korea is the best place ;).
English and Managing Research Work
Koreans cannot speak English as good as Indians. You may assume that the University students may be able to manage at least. But, that’s not the case. Only about 1 in 5 can communicate well. This is the main drawback for researchers coming to Korea. Also, in some majors, you cannot avoid taking courses taught in Korean. Generally, every lab has a weekly meeting. In those meetings all the Koreans will be presenting in Korean, which means you cannot understand their work at all. You might never know all the topics your group is working on. I have been regretting for my inability to understand some of the very good works going on in our group.
Another thing I observed here is everybody works totally independently. This work independence will surely be useful in later stages of your career. But, if you come right after your Bachelors with little or no experience of research and only in MS program, you might face difficulty. Also, the project you need to work on might be totally different from the one you worked previously as the funding period of the project is limited. Hence, sometimes you may have to work on topics doesn’t interest you.
The role of lab mates is also important as few courses and graduation procedures might be in Korean. Again here, I am lucky as my lab mates had previously worked with Indians. But it may not always be the case. In fact, I know a friend who was studying in a lower tier University, where even much younger students in his lab tried to dominate him and he had to leave the lab eventually and another friend, whose professor installed cameras in lab to monitor his students. These are very rare cases, but they do exist.
How I made myself comfortable
I was a vegetarian. To my luck, an Indian family started providing lunch boxes just a week before of my arrival. After about a year of taking lunch from them, I got bored of it and at the suggestion of my friend Anil, I started visiting cafeterias and eating Korean food (only Veg and Chicken). Life has become easy after that. Initially, I didn’t have many friends here, I started myself associating with a Telugu group here “Telugu Association of South Korea” and made many friends and thereafter it’s just same as India for me. You can see me having fun with the group in the picture.
My Future plans
I like the work we do in our lab, but decided not to continue here with PhD. My next destination would be any company in this world where I can get to research in the areas of automation/semi-automation of as-built designs of onshore/offshore plants from Point Clouds. Eventually, after gaining enough experience and courage, I want to move to India and establish a company of mine where I can gain greater satisfaction.
Suggestion to prospective students from India
I have been receiving messages requesting for help with their admission into some university by developing fascination towards Korea just by watching Korean dramas. As I mentioned, if your major is neither Computer Science nor Electrical Engineering, and do not want to continue with PhD, it is very difficult to find jobs here as many companies here are not willing to recruit foreigners. Most importantly, find about the professor before joining. If it’s me, I would consult non-Koreans studying in the university after finding them from LinkedIn, Facebook groups like Indian Students Association, Indian Researchers in Korea and Indians in Korea.
Major positives about studying in Korean universities are, the tuition fee and cost of living here are less and the easiness in finding funding compared to American Universities. The professors here are willing to give stipends and push you to work constantly for Journals and to finish projects. For me, apart from these, main take away from life here is, the opportunity I got to spend time alone to retrospect myself and find what matters to me.
This article is just an opinion of mine based on my experiences. Exceptions do exist and this article is written keeping in mind that this is for students with engineering background. If you have queries, please write to email@example.com, I am happy to discuss.