Korean PhD overwork culture ‘getting worse’ as research cuts bite

Postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers say they are often subject to supervisors’ whims, leaving some feeling exploited

June 4, 2024
Competitors running the marathon with a giant Dinosaur in Dinosaur Expo Park in Goseong-gun, South Korea to illustrate Korean PhD overwork culture ‘getting worse’ as research cuts bite
Source: Delly Carr/Getty Images

Cuts to research and development spending in South Korea have exacerbated poor working conditions among PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, many of whom already feel unfairly treated, according to academics.

Earlier this year, the government reduced R&D spending by 14.7 per cent, impacting some students and early career academics. Stipends have been reduced by 100,000 won (£57) a month since March, with more than half of students reporting struggling with living costs as a result, according to a survey conducted by the graduate student council at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Low pay is exacerbating discontent with what many find to be a demanding and, in some cases, exploitative work environment.

Posting on X, one former postdoctoral researcher claimed to have been “locked” in a laboratory overnight “for a discussion about my work ethic” after refusing to work on a Saturday.

The post generated a wide response, with others sharing their own experiences of the intense work culture at universities in the country, including being taken advantage of by supervisors who asked them to run personal errands on their behalf.

According to Jisun Jung, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong, in South Korea, “excessive” workers are “seen as more professional and competent”. At the same time, vague employment contracts can leave PhD students open to abuse.

“Most full-time PhD students make earnings by participating in supervisors’ research projects, teaching assistance or department administrative work,” said Dr Jung. “However, there are no explicit restrictions on working hours or minimum wage, as the payment is based on a ‘scholarship’ without signing an employment contract.”

This is not the first time that Korean universities have been in the spotlight for maltreatment of graduate students. In an extreme example, a professor was jailed in 2015 after having forced a student to eat human faeces, while another was found in 2022 to have repeatedly slapped students.

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Such reports have fuelled a long-running debate about the power imbalance between supervisors and their charges, exacerbated by the Korean cultural norm of respect for elders.

This can discourage junior staff from “challenging those in higher positions, regardless of the reasonableness of the argument”, said Kyuseok Kim, a project manager at edtech company Uway who is currently completing a PhD at Korea University. “In academia, this dynamic often resulted in professors having substantial power that was rarely questioned,” he said.

Dr Jung added that a student’s working conditions could vary depending on their supervisor’s requirements. “Unfortunately, there [have been] several reported cases of excessive workload, unreasonable requirements including personal errands, and unstable financial support,” she said. “Many PhD students are reported to have stress and burnout, leading to dropout[s].”

She said these problems were caused in part by a “lack of financial resources” for PhD programmes. “The situation has worsened with the significant reduction to the R&D budget in recent years,” she said.

Theodore Jun Yoo, an associate professor at Yonsei University, agreed, saying the discontent was “part of a larger problem” of shrinking government spending.

While funding may be limited, many institutions have taken steps in recent years to address the concerns, including introducing guidelines about acceptable working conditions.

Mr Kim argued that the situation was improving, suggesting that while there continue to be anecdotal reports of “undemocratic” research environments, “things are becoming better gradually”.


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