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PhD Study in South Korea - A Guide for 2019

South Korea’s hypermodern cities and reputation for technological innovation make it a great place to embark on PhD research. Education is valued very highly in South Korea and thousands of international students from across the world flock to the country’s renowned universities each year.

This page will cover everything you need to know about studying a PhD in South Korea, from funding opportunities and the application process through to student visas and the South Korean university system.

PhD opportunities in South Korea – what’s on offer for 2019?

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 the universities that have helped drive South Korea’s burgeoning scientific and technological success offer some very compelling reasons to undertake postgraduate study there.

The same period that has witnessed the global successes of Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia has also seen South Korean higher education climb the world rankings. South Korea hosts some of the highest placed universities in Asia – and the world. Meanwhile, the city of Seoul has been chosen as one of Times Higher Education’s top university cities.

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.

  • Generous government scholarships for international students – Tuition fees, living costs, flights and more are covered by the prestigious Global Korea Scholarships
  • World-class universities – Several South Korean universities feature among the top 100 in the world
  • Technological innovation – South Korea’s reputation for innovation is well-earned and the country enjoys some of the fastest internet speeds around
  • Vibrant cities with ancient traditions – The likes of Seoul, Busan and Incheon combine cutting-edge culture with stunning heritage sites

PhD Study in South Korea - Key Details
Universities 376
Nobel Prizes 1
Oldest University Sungkyunkwan University (1398)
International Students 61,888
PhD Length 3 years
Representative Fees ₩2,700,000 ($2,500) - ₩4,250,000 ($4,000) per semester
Academic Year March to February

PhD life in South Korea

Want to know more about what it's like to live and study abroad in South Korea during a PhD? Our detailed guide covers everything from accommodation and living costs to culture and entertainment.

South Korean universities

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 Incheon Global Campus, which includes branches of:

  • The State University of New York (SUNY)
  • George Mason University
  • Ghent University
  • The University of Utah

Take a look at our guide to international campuses for more information on this mode on studying abroad.

Graduate schools

South Korea also offers a number of graduate schools, some of which are affiliated with larger universities while others are independent institutions, specialising in specific disciplines at an advanced level.

Some graduate schools are practice-based – focusing 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.

South Korean university rankings

ecent years have seen universities in South Korea enjoying increasing levels of success in global university rankings (as well as regional rankings in Asia).


Top 10 South Korean Universities in 2020
University THE 2020 QS 2020 ARWU 2019
Seoul National University 64 37 101-150
Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) 89 95 151-200
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) =110 41 201-300
Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) =146 87 401-500
Korea University =179 83 201-300
Yonsei University (Seoul campus) 197 =104 201-300
Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) 201-250 - 301-400
Kyung Hee University 301-350 =247 301-400
Hanyang University 351-400 150 301-400
Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology 401-500 =322 901-1000
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

Do rankings matter for PhD study?

University rankings can help you choose a PhD project or programme, provided you know what to look at. Our guide explains how to use rankings as a prospective postgraduate.

PhD 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.

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 to 72 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")
  • Finally, you’ll complete a thesis under the guidance of one or more appointed supervisors

Once submitted, at least five examiners will evaluate your thesis. 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.

Fees and funding

University fees in South Korea can be relatively expensive, but the government and individual universities offer a 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

Fees vary between individual universities and between private and national institutions. Courses in subjects such as Engineering and Medicine are typically the most expensive (and take the longest to complete) while courses in humanities disciplines usually have lower fees. In general, graduate programmes at South Korean universities could cost anywhere between ₩1,290,000 (USD $1,100) and ₩25,600,000 (USD $21,900).

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 (USD $60-150).

Language courses will typically cost around ₩850,000 (USD $800) for an intensive three-week course or ₩1,500,000 (USD $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 guide to 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. These include:

Information on these and other scholarship programmes is available on the Korean Government’s StudyinKorea website.

Applying for a PhD in South Korea

Postgraduate courses at South Korean universities may start 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.

Qualifications

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)

You will need to demonstrate that you have enough financial means to cover 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 asks for evidence of a bank balance of USD $10,000.

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.

What happens during a PhD interview?

Your interview for a PhD in Japan will follow a fairly standard format (even if the actual process takes place online). Our guides explain what happens at a PhD interview and look at some of the questions you might be asked.

Student visas

If you want to study a PhD in South Korea, you’ll need to visit the Korean embassy or consulate in your home country to apply for a student visa.

As an international PhD student, you should apply for a Visa for Regular Educational Program (D-2). During your application, you’ll need the following documents:

  • A valid passport
  • A completed visa application form (this is provided by your local Korean embassy or consulate)
  • A passport-size photo
  • A letter of admission from your prospective university
  • Certified copies of your academic record
  • Proof that you have financial resources of at least USD $10,000

There’s also an application fee of USD $60 for single-entry visas and USD $90 for multiple-entry visas.

Residence permits

Once you’ve arrived in South Korea, you’ll need to register with your local immigration office within 90 days in order to apply for a Certificate of Alien Registration. The fee for this is ₩10,000 (USD $10). You’ll receive an Alien Registration Card that you should carry with you at all times during your stay in South Korea.

Next steps

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.

Can I work in South Korea after my PhD?

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.

You’ll first need to change your D-2 student visa to a D-10 Job Seeker visa. Once you’ve found a job, you can begin the process of acquiring a professional visa in South Korea.

Find a PhD in South Korea

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in South Korea? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 03/10/2019

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