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PhD Study in South Korea

by Mark Bennett

Why study for a PhD in South Korea?

There's a good chance you're viewing this article on a display device designed and developed in South Korea. Korean expertise and ingenuity might also be responsible for your stereo, your mobile phone or even your car and, if you live in one of the countries in which K Pop phenomena like "Gangam Style" have topped the charts, your exposure to Korean technological and cultural exports might run even deeper! Whilst I wouldn't recommend choosing to study a PhD abroad based purely on a country's ability to produce viral pop hits, the universities that have helped drive South Korea's burgeoning scientific and technological success do offer some very compelling reasons to undertake postgraduate study there.

The same period that has witnessed the global successes of Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia (yes, and Psy) has also seen South Korean higher education rise up the world rankings. South Korea already hosts three of the highest placed universities in Asia and Seoul National University (SNU) recently established itself as one of the world's top 50 institutions. Seoul city itself has been chosen as one of the Times Higher Education top 18 world cities for Higher Education. With the country's government identifying international student recruitment as a key strategy for developing its higher education system even further, now is a great time to consider studying for a PhD in South Korea.

The South Korean university system

Unsurprisingly, given its status as a world-leading producer of high-tech consumer and industrial products, many of South Korea's universities specialise in science and technology fields. Other subjects are popular too though, including all major arts, humanities, social science and medical disciplines. South Korea is also keen to develop research into its own local and regional culture and history, with some funding available specifically for this work.

South Korean higher education follows a three tiered system, similar to that used within the Bologna Process. Undergraduate degrees are followed by Masters and PhD level qualifications, but it's worth bearing in mind that the length of study at each stage is comparatively long. A PhD at a South Korean university will typically take a minimum of two to three years, but, depending on previous postgraduate experience in your field, you may require a longer period of enrolment in order to complete the necessary coursework and examination elements before producing a thesis.

Accreditation of South Korean universities is still developing to keep pace with the rapid expansion of its higher education sector. Currently the Korean Council for University Education operates as a private organisation evaluating and accrediting the performance of a large number of member institutions, including most of the country's top universities.

Domestic universities

Higher education institutions in South Korea fall into a number of categories and are further divided into private and public (or "national") institutions. This variety may appear confusing at first, but don't worry: from your point of view as a prospective PhD student these universities will be primarily distinguished by their specialisms and by their provision in your desired field. Both private and public institutions can award doctorates and are well represented in domestic and international rankings.

The following are some of South Korea's top internationally ranked institutions, all of which offer a variety of PhD programmes:

  • Seoul National University (public): South Korea's highest ranked university is located in its capital: the high-tech megacity of Seoul.
  • Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (public): KAIST is one of South Korea's premier science and engineering research universities, located in the central city of Daejon.
  • Pohang University of Science and Technology (private): Located on the country's east coast, Pohang (or POSTECH) specialises in science and technology research, with a large number of professional graduate schools.
  • Yonsei University (private): Yonsei is one of Korea's oldest universities and one of its most prestigious private institutions. It is located in Seoul.
  • Korea University (private): Another of South Korea's oldest institutions, Korea University is also located in Seoul, where it specialises in a large number of research disciplines and offers several dedicated graduate divisions.

International universities

In recent years Korea's domestic universities have been joined by a growing number of international campuses established by overseas institutions. Many of these are hosted at the Songdo Global University Campus, run by Yonsei University in Seoul. By the end of 2014 Songdo is expected to include branches of The State University of New York, Ghent University, George Mason University and Saint Petersburg State University, amongst others. Take a look at our article on international campuses for more information on this mode of studying abroad.

Graduate schools

South Korea also offers a number of graduate schools, some of which are affiliated with larger universities whilst others are independent institutions, specialising in specific disciplines at an advanced level. Some graduate schools are practice-based - focussing on Masters level training - and others are directed towards PhD research. Your choice between a specialist graduate school and a larger university will probably depend on the specific resources and expertise available in your subject area.

Course structure

The Korean academic year is divided into two semesters, with breaks from July to August and from December to February. This long winter break may be particularly attractive if you're hoping to travel home and visit family during seasonal holidays - or just experience more of South Korea itself (though you should be warned: temperatures can drop quite a bit during the winter months!)

PhD content and examination

Studying for a PhD in South Korea will typically involve three stages. Depending on your Masters level qualification, you may need to complete research training and taught courses to the value of 36 credits (roughly equivalent to72 of the ECTS Credits used within the Bologna System). You may then be required to pass a written examination (sometimes referred to as the "comprehensive examination") before finally completing a thesis under the guidance of one or more appointed supervisors. Once submitted your thesis will be evaluated by at least five examiners. An oral defence of your work may not actually be required provided it passes the judgement of these examiners, but you should contact your prospective institution for specific information on the coursework requirements and examination procedures for its PhD programmes.

Application and admissions

Application deadlines and procedure

Postgraduate courses at South Korean universities may commence in either of the spring and autumn semesters that make up the South Korean academic year. For entry onto a course commencing in March, you will need to apply between September and November; for entry onto a course commencing in September the application period runs from May to June. Applications may be made directly to your chosen university, but the Korean Government also offers an online service for overseas students who register at its StudyinKorea website.


Qualification requirements for entry onto a PhD programme in South Korea will vary between institutions. You should generally expect to hold or receive a Masters degree (or its equivalent) in a relevant discipline, but a good undergraduate degree may be sufficient.

Additional admission requirements

The South Korean government stipulates some basic admission standards for all universities, but individual institutions are free to develop their own specific requirements. As a general rule you will need to submit the following:

  • A completed copy of your institution's application form.
  • A personal introduction and outline of your study plan.
  • A letter of recommendation, typically provided by a member of faculty at the institution where your undergraduate or Masters degree was awarded.
  • Documentation of your existing academic record at university (if you have not yet graduated from an undergraduate or Masters programme you may provide a letter confirming your expected graduation).
  • Proof of your nationality (a photocopy of your passport will usually suffice).
  • Proof of proficiency in English and / or Korean (if required by your course).
  • Proof of financial capability: you will need to demonstrate that you have sufficient means to bear the cost of your course fees and maintenance whilst studying in South Korea and may be required to sign a personal pledge to this effect. You may also need to verify that you or your financial sponsor possess sufficient funds to support you (the Korean Government stipulates evidence of a bank balance of 10,000 US Dollars) and provide proof of their employment or other means.
  • Practical courses (such as those in creative arts or physical education disciplines) may also require a portfolio or other proof of your competence.

Language requirements

Over a third of classes in South Korean universities are taught in English (this proportion is higher in graduate schools). If your course requires some knowledge of Korean you may be asked to take a Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). The normal requirement in these cases is a score of Level 3 or above.

South Korea itself has a strong Anglophone tradition and English is a requirement of its education system from an early stage. This means that many of the Koreans you'll meet during your PhD will already be able speak English, but there will also be opportunities for you to return the favour.

Whether prompted by curiosity or the requirements of your course, you should be able to enrol in Korean language classes through your university. These are typically offered in two formats: intensive three week courses and more relaxed ten week programmes.

PhD Fees and funding in South Korea

University fees in South Korea can be relatively expensive, but the government and individual universities are offering an increasing number of scholarships and other funding options to attract students from overseas. Also, unlike many other options for foreign study, South Korea imposes no additional tuition fees on international students.


Fees vary between individual universities and between private and national institutions. Courses in subjects such as medicine are typically the most expensive (and take the longest to complete) whilst courses in humanities disciplines usually incur the lowest fees. The following figures are a rough guide to fees for postgraduate study at private and national universities in South Korea:

  • National Universities (per semester): ₩2,700,000 ($2,500) - ₩4,250,000 ($4,000)
  • Private Universities (per semester): ₩4,000,000 ($3,800) - ₩7,000,000 ($6,500)

When looking at fees and costs it is worth bearing in mind that these are usually given per semester: the cost for a full academic year will be twice these amounts.

Other costs

Depending on your institution, you may need to pay an application fee of between ₩50,000 and ₩160,000 ($50-150). Language courses will typically cost around ₩850,000 ($800) for an intensive three week course or ₩1,500,000 ($1,400) for a ten week programme. National Health Insurance (NHI) is required as a condition of residency and will cost you around ₩21,000 ($20) per month. For information on the cost of accommodation and other general living expenses for PhD students in South Korea, see our article on living in South Korea as a PhD student.

Scholarships and funding

Many universities will offer a full or partial fee waiver (typically between 30% and 100% of tuition costs) to suitably qualified international students. As you would expect, these are often awarded on a competitive basis so it is worth checking with your institution to see what kind of support is available to you and what the application process for it is.

In addition to the scholarships available at individual universities, there are general schemes established by the South Korean Government for the purpose of encouraging and supporting foreign students. The Ministry of Education offers the Korean Government Scholarship Program for Graduate Students. This pays fees as well as some travel and living costs. The National Institute of Education offers a smaller scholarship for the purpose of Supporting Excellent Self-Supporting Foreign Students. This covers a limited amount of living expenses per month, for one year. Information on these and other scholarship programmes is available on the Korean Government's StudyinKorea website.

Careers and employment

A PhD from a South Korean university will equip you particularly well for those technical and engineering fields in which South Korean expertise and innovation is world-renowned. If your aim is to seek a career in South Korea itself after graduation your PhD will be particularly valuable. A large number of foreign academics are already employed in the South Korean higher education system and there is some evidence to suggest that a domestic PhD may be advantageous to promotion and advancement within its universities. South Korea also operates a Gold Card system, assisting employment for foreign graduates of its universities who have specialised in advanced technology, e-business and science fields.

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