With the globalization of the society nowadays, more and more students at Ewha are extending their studies overseas. Two graduates of Ewha studying abroad and attending graduate schools in another country have sat down with Ewha Voice to share their stories.
Studying overseas for a doctorate degree
The moment when people decide to go to graduate school varies from person to person. In the case of Gi Eunbyeol, she had a clear goal of wanting to study a major beyond a bachelor’s degree since she was a high school student. In fact, she began working as a research intern after completing her first year of undergraduate studies. Gi graduated from Ewha Womans University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry & nano science, completed her master’s degree at Ewha graduate school, and is currently majoring in inorganic chemistry at Iowa State University.
At first, Gi thought it did not matter much whether to go to graduate school in Korea or overseas. However, after doing some research, she found that the leading country in her field of study was the U.S. and continued her studies with plans to graduate school overseas.
Gi prepared to enroll in the fall semester of 2019. Since it was before the pandemic, most graduate schools required applicants to submit the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score. It was a little obstacle for Gi as her GRE score did not rise as quickly as she had hoped. In addition to the preparation process, before entering graduate school and studying abroad, she was worried about how well she would adapt to different circumstances when studying abroad.
“There were difficult times,” Gi said. “However, I think I adjusted better than I first thought. I was worried that I might not be able to participate in communities other than the Korean community, but I am getting along well with friends from various backgrounds.”
According to Gi, the most impressive aspect of overseas graduate schools is the atmosphere of encouraging asking questions, which differed from her experience in Korea. Rather than being surprised by this cultural difference, she took it as a remarkable experience and wanted to absorb it.
“Whatever it is, the question is open,” Gi said. “When I was in school in Korea, most of the students thought that asking questions in the middle of class was an act of cutting off the class. So, many friends used to run to the professor and ask questions after class. What I realized here is that it is the student’s right to ask questions at the moment when they do not understand while listening to the class. No one feels strange about exercising their rights as a student.”
It was a critical experience for Gi as a TA, a teaching assistant as well as an instructor, to be asked questions by the students as well. When students ask questions while giving a class she had worked hard to prepare, she could see how well they had been following until the moment, and what explanations had been lacking.
Gi cited the Preliminary Oral Exam (also called Ph.D. Candidacy Exam or Qualifying Exam) held in January this year as the most difficult moment while studying abroad at graduate school. Each school and department have different weights on this exam, but the exam for the department of her school is said to be more stressful than the graduation examination. In the fifth semester, the Program of Study (POS) Committee will be presenting for two hours, combining both research and proposal presentations, and thesis defense sessions. Since it is not just a formality as there are those who fail or must retake the exam, all students consider this exam the most stressful moment.
“I had a difficult time preparing for the exam, but I was happy when I passed,” Gi said. “I was overwhelmed by the fact that I finally became a Ph.D. candidate. The professor who guided my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Korea finished his doctorate in the same way at the school I am attending now. I was so excited that I contacted the professor, and he congratulated me and encouraged me to work hard until graduation.”
To undergraduate students at Ewha who are interested in overseas graduate schools, Gi replied that it is competitive enough to study for a doctorate right after receiving a bachelor’s degree although she finished her master’s degree in Korea and then went abroad. According to Gi, her major, inorganic chemistry, or similar natural science majors have advantages when applying for overseas graduate schools because, due to their research experience, the students can present a clearer vision for entering graduate school even if they have not published a paper yet.
“Research-fit is critical for overseas graduate schools because we do not apply to graduate schools according to the university rankings unlike undergraduate students,” Gi said. “I recommend that you think about what kind of detailed subject you like and what you can do more by linking this subject during undergraduate years. Once you have identified your areas of interest, contact a laboratory where you can do related research and build your research experience. If you take classes in order, ask questions, gain research experience, and impress professors, you will be able to get a recommendation letter from them without difficulty.”
A journey to become a professional UX Designer and Product Designer
While many may refer to academic programs when thinking of graduate school, people who are interested in employment or changing careers also tend to attend graduate schools as well. Kim Yeon-ji currently studies UX research and design at University of Michigan after graduating from Ewha Womans University. Her majors in Ewha were computer science and engineering and digital humanities.
After Kim decided to prepare her career as a UX designer, she became aware that it is difficult to do without a design-related degree. This helped her make up her mind to go to graduate school and delve into UX design. With the two options of graduate schools in Korea and other countries, Kim first considered domestic graduate schools for financial reasons but later changed her mind to experience more and broaden her perspective.
Looking back at her last year of university when Kim prepared for graduate school along with her undergraduate studies, she recalls that the uncertainty over whether or not she would be accepted worried her the most.
“The admission was not determined based on quantitative scores but based on a holistic sum of various factors such as applications, experiences, grades, and test scores,” Kim said. “Also, there was not a lot of information about the department I applied for on the internet, which made me very anxious.”
Rather than an academic program, Kim studies in a professional program. Professional programs provide education for people who are interested in employment, so students start learning from the basics. Since Kim already had basic knowledge of UX design, human-computer interaction and related experiences, she expected to gain academic knowledge and learn a lot from her colleagues. However, she had to take basic courses in her first semester and there were students who did not even have basic knowledge regarding UX design.
After spending a few months, Kim started thinking about what she could earn from her graduate school experience. Kim decided to ask an upper classmate who had graduated from Ewha in the same field. She advised her to focus on the final purpose of her decision to come to the United States, which was to gain employment rather than academic knowledge. After taking this advice, Kim started to pay more attention to her career preparation and learn various aspects from her colleagues such as how to communicate in English and think logically.
“It is important not to take everything too negatively just because there is something unsatisfactory,” Kim said. “Get the best out of it and make the most out of the current situation.”
Kim explained that her preparation for an internship was the most difficult experience of her time in graduate school. She prepared for a summer internship to satisfy her graduation requirement. An internship experience could also help her to get a job as it is easier to switch to a full-time job from an internship than to find a job without one.
“All the unfamiliar preparations such as networking and English interviews were difficult for me,” Kim said. “Also, luck is one of the important factors for getting accepted in the United States. Even though I perfectly satisfied the skill sets, I sometimes couldn’t even pass the document examination, which made me frustrated.”
Contrastingly, there were also experineces that Kim felt were rewarding. Meeting good team members and mentors and finishing projects successfully were a great pleasure for her.
“The project I participated in this semester was great in the sense that every member was very cooperative and enthusiastic,” Kim said. “I was interested in the topic, and the results were meaningful as well. It was not that there was not a single disagreement throughout the process, but I was able to learn a lot, for example, how to manage relationships.”
There were also cultural differences between Korea and the United States, which surprised Kim. Although sometimes shy, Kim tends to actively express her opinions and participate in work. However, she was often described as a shy student by her team members as the standards of being active differed a lot from Korea.
“I actually remained silent only when I did not have more opinions to add, but they thought I was not sharing my opinions,” Kim explained. “Since then, I have started to deliver my thoughts more eagerly so that they could feel my engagement.”
For students interested in preparing for graduate schools abroad, Kim advises that they get used to networking during the preparation process.
“Ewha alumnae or even Koreans who have been working in the same or similar fields before you can be an opportunity to start networking as well as preparing for graduate school,” Kim said.