[Kim Seong-kon] What to do with so many jobless Ph.D.s
Published : Apr 12, 2011 - 18:28
Updated : Apr 12, 2011 - 18:28
There were times when academic doctors were so rare in Korea that it was an honor to be called Dr. Kim or Dr. Park. When Rhee Syngman, a Princeton Ph.D., was elected the first president of South Korea in 1948, the Korean people found their political leader’s academic title so fascinating that they preferred to call him Dr. Rhee instead of President Rhee. Indeed, there were days when if a person returned home with a doctoral degree, especially from a foreign university, neighbors would rush to his house to get a glimpse of the individual who brought such honor to the village. 

Today, however, academic doctors are so common in Korean society that professors, especially those in the humanities, probably would rather be called “professor” than “doctor.” A doctoral degree is a prerequisite to become a professor, so all professors are doctors, but not all doctors are professors. There is an overflow of doctors these days and numerous doctoral graduates are lining up, waiting to be appointed a professor. But only a few succeed in securing a permanent faculty position. There used to be a saying in Korea that “becoming a professor is as difficult as grabbing a star in the sky.” These days, the maxim has been modified: “Becoming a professor is as difficult as grabbing the moon.” The connotation is that professorial positions are no longer as numerous as the stars; rather, hundreds compete for a lone moon.

Among frustrated young Ph.D.s, therefore, a sarcastic joke called “The Department Store Parking Lot Theory” is circulating these days. The humorous joke compares the arduous job hunt to hunting for a parking space at a department store parking lot. When you enter a department store parking lot, you often have to drive around and around, anxiously looking for a spot. If you are not lucky, you may end up circling the lot indefinitely. Parking is not assigned on a “first come, first serve” basis, so someone who arrives later than you may find a space first if he or she gets lucky. The message is: luck and timing are crucial for landing an academic job. While most Ph.D.s fresh out of graduate school usually wait two to three years on average before finding a faculty position, some lucky ones land a university job as soon as they graduate. Meanwhile, the joke continues, that certain VIP customers can always park in the VIP-designated parking spaces. Although VIP slots are no longer reserved for the privileged in most Korean universities, frustrated fresh Ph.D.s still seem to be suspicious of the hiring procedure.

When it comes to the university job market, the United States seems no better off than Korea. Rumors say that when a tenure track position opens at an English department at some American university, for example, about 200 applicants ― all doctors ― apply for the position. In addition, admission to English Ph.D. programs has become extremely competitive as well lately. A website called the Grad Caf discloses that this year, English departments in Ivy League universities received about 400-800 applicants, while English departments at UC Berkeley and SUNY/Buffalo received 350 and 250 applications, respectively. Despite the enormous numbers of applications, most schools only selected 15-20 successful applicants. Perhaps we need to invent more moons in order to give more opportunities to those who desperately want to grab one.

It is undeniably difficult to become a professor in the United States. Once you become a tenured professor, however, you are a professor for the rest of your life; there is no mandated retirement age in American universities. Yet American professors tend to retire when they reach 75 or so, as there is no radical reduction in their income even though they choose to stop working. Besides, some elder professors may not want to be subjected to student evaluations, which seem to become less enthusiastic as the professors age.

In Korea, a professor is forced to retire when he or she reaches 65, creating an opening in his department. And yet, there are so many young doctors who cannot become a professor. Unfortunately, there are quite a few part-time instructors who are already in their 50s. Sadly, those part-timers have never had a secure, full-time job throughout their whole lives. When I gave a talk to the graduate students in the Department of German Literature at a prime private university recently, I heard that more than 50 doctors who had studied in Germany were hopelessly waiting for an opening.

What shall we do with all the Ph.D.s around us? The National Research Foundation of Korea should find a way to have the numerous unemployed Ph.D.s hired at universities, instead of simply supporting them financially for a year or so with its postdoctoral research grants. The Korean government has decided to call part-timers “non-regular professors.” But the new title alone won’t solve the chronic problems in academia. We must figure out how to transition these so called “non-regular professors” to regular faculty members. Otherwise, the surplus of Ph.D.s will continue to plague Korean universities and society for the years to come. 

By Kim Seong-kon 

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.