Friday, December 31, 1999

my pleasant dilemma

[Originally posted on November 14, 2014, 11:40PM.]

The Golden Goose or Dongguk?

A major life choice approaches. Do I continue at Dongguk for another year after this contract period, or do I jump ship and go full-on with the Golden Goose?

To recap: the Golden Goose job is a corporate gig that has me sitting in a quiet office for eight hours a day, five days a week—a standard 40-hour office job, with the possibility of extra work on weekends if it's crunch time. No cubicle, luckily, but I work constantly with the same manager and the same coworker in the same small office space. For the most part, it's just the three of us: three expats in the corner of a corporate branch, toiling away in relative obscurity, churning out textbooks. My role seems to have become that of watchdog and proofreader; before I came to the office, I had worked with the Golden Goose as a content-creator, writing essays and articles that form the backbone of the GG's content-based curriculum. I still formulate reading-comprehension questions, but now it's other people who write the articles we put in the books. Mostly, I review chapter after chapter, making notes and corrections. When the manuscript is sufficiently polished and formatted, it's sent off for an initial draft printing; we three guys then review the print to find any stray errors (errors sometimes creep back into the manuscript when the nascent books are handed over to the Koreans), note those errors, then send the ms back for a final printing. It's not difficult work, and my boss and coworker are good people—word nerds like me. I like the job, but then again, I do it only once a week. I have no idea what it would feel like to do such work full-time.

Dongguk, meanwhile, is standard university work. I teach twelve hours a week, do two unpaid hours of "clinic" work every week (but there are frequent cancellations), and spend a few hours per day on things like lesson prep, grading, etc. It's a full day, each day, at Dongguk as well. I'm often in the office until late, then I walk home, change clothes, and hit the mountain.

But Dongguk work is, in many ways, the diametrical opposite of what I do at the GG. Take routine, for instance. At the GG, I pretty much know how each day is going to play out. In Dongguk's classrooms, however, there might be a lesson plan, but the minutiae of classroom life play out differently from day to day, so any "routine" is only superficially routine. I have no idea, from day to day, what collective mental state my students will be in. That ambiance varies from class to class as well, as each day progresses. Then there's creativity: the GG requires me to be at my most curmudgeonly—I'm constantly bringing the hammer down on poorly written English, ironing out wrinkles in prose and essentially being the linguistic equivalent of a janitor. It's custodial work. At Dongguk, though, my creative faculties are called upon: how can I liven up a lesson? What's good or bad about how my students are currently teaching the chapter? All of these variables make life as a university prof fun and interesting. Plus, because I'm an active teacher, I'm on my feet for much of the day, as opposed to sitting on my ass for eight hours at the GG.

My GG boss is leaning on me to check out getting an F-4 visa (the so-called dongpo visa for people of Korean heritage). With this visa, I'd be easy for the GG to hire. My boss had initially thought aloud about snagging me this coming Christmas, i.e., having me leave Dongguk mid-contract. I don't want to do that: when I sign a contract, I feel a sense of commitment to it. I'd prefer to stay on campus at least until next August.

But a major decision is on the horizon, and it comes to a head in August of 2015. Quit the campus for the office, or keep things the way they are now? Leaving Dongguk after only a year would saddle me with a disappointing "We Hardly Knew Ye" feeling. Unlike working at Daegu Catholic, where I was impatient to leave, I'm starting to get my bearings at this new school, and despite the many inconveniences, I love my students (even the slower ones) and have figured out workarounds to some of the difficulties I had initially complained about on this blog. Leaving after only a year would indeed feel like a hasty departure. Then again, if my students reject me en masse via their teacher evaluations, that will make leaving easier: why stay where I'm not wanted? But switching over to full-time work at the GG wouldn't necessarily be a cake walk: I'd be going from twelve contact hours to forty. While teaching involves more than in-class time, the remaining obligations—the grading, planning, and lesson prep—are all done on my own time, at my own pace. There's none of that when you work in an office, directly under the gaze of your boss. True, my GG boss is quite lenient and allows us to take breaks whenever we feel cross-eyed from all the proofreading, but there's still an inexorable deadline to meet because that's the nature of the publishing business.

There's also the issue of pay. I currently gross about 3.9 million won per month. The GG is offering a flat 4 million, which would be ever so slightly more. My GG boss argues that, despite the initial similarity in pay, the potential to be paid more is greater in corporate work than at a university because the opportunities for upward movement at a university are nearly zero. "Ten years from now, you'll still be doing the same thing," he argues. "At the GG, you can move up the ladder." Assuming I joined the GG, if I could somehow manage to get to 5 million won per month after only a year or two of working there, I'd be able to pay down my outstanding debts all the more quickly. But how realistic is it to expect a massive, million-won-a-month raise so soon after joining the company? I suspect I'd be languishing in the 4-mil range for longer than a year. Or two or three.*

My buddy Tom thinks the perks that come with university teaching—the most valuable of which would be the amazingly long vacations—are too good to abandon. He thinks my current work situation is ideal, and right now, I'm inclined to agree: I work only one day a week at the GG and spend the rest of my week at Dongguk. Life is fun, I'm earning almost 4 million as it is, and I'm now in a position to begin saving up for my apartment next year. My opinion might change depending on how good or bad my evaluations are, but I think it would take a massive repudiation by my students to push me out the door at this point. And that's just not the feeling I'm getting from my charges: they might not find me ideal, but I don't think they hate me enough to truly crucify me in the evals.

So the choice before me is the same choice I've talked about before: life as a full-time corporate prole, stuck in an office with precious little vacation but decent income, toiling away as a proofreader under the watchful eye of a boss and a colleague; or a continued existence as a teacher, using my creativity in a job with an easy in-class schedule, but working for a bit less money. Would I go crazy if I lost my precious vacations? Hm.

Either way, though, things would be fine, which is why I refer to this as a pleasant dilemma. I do like the work I do at the GG, and I like both my boss and my lone coworker. My GG boss also likes me and appreciates the work I do; he's impatient to hire me on full-time. That's not quite the feeling I get at Dongguk, where I'm one of 48 professors, and where recognition, when it comes, arrives via the grapevine. Still, I like working at Dongguk, and feel it's a step up from working at my previous university. There's a negligible difference in pay between the two scenarios, but a huge difference in how my day-to-day existence would go. I'd miss my kids. I'd miss being in a caring profession. But no matter what I ended up doing, I'd be in a good situation and would feel useful.

What to do? Which way to jump? There's still time to think, but this dilemma, like a slowly approaching planet, is starting to dominate my field of vision.

*There's another wrinkle that complicates the pay issue. Currently, because my status at the GG is somewhat dubious, legally speaking (there are people at Dongguk who are aware that I work at the GG, but I haven't actually filed the paperwork to ask Dongguk's permission to work there), I'm not having any tax taken out of my earnings. This may, come to think of it, be another reason why my boss is anxious to bring me on board: I'd be legal, and thus not a liability to the company when tax audits happen. Anyway, my point is that the above-quoted 3.9-million figure is technically only partially gross: the Dongguk pay is 2.9 million gross, but the GG pay is a flat 1 million. My net take-home pay from both jobs is currently about 3.4 million won. If I were to switch totally over to the GG for a gross of 4 million won a month, my net would be about 3.2 million. In effect, a move over to the GG would be the opposite of the way I described it above: I'd be taking a cut in net pay instead of getting a raise. That's not exactly a point in the GG's favor, which is another reason why I'm hemming and hawing about this decision as opposed to leaping unhesitatingly over to the GG.



John said...

Ah, a true conundrum indeed. (That's a fun word that I rarely get to use, so I couldn't miss this opportunity).

Reading your post a couple of things stood out for me. I was surprised that the pay at GG would not be significantly better than you are currently making. Although I know nothing about GG's compensation practices, I would be astounded if you saw a substantial raise in pay in the short term. True, opportunities for promotion might exist in the future, but would you enjoy whatever those additional responsibilities entailed?

The other thing I noticed was the way you described the two jobs. It seemed very apparent that you find being a professor much more fulfilling. Money is important and we spend most of our lives working for it, but ah, how rare it is to have passion for what we do!

I heard someone say that when faced with a tough decision they flip a coin. And while the coin is in the air they know the outcome they are hoping for. Well, it was a gangster on Boardwalk Empire who said that, but it might be true.

Anyway, you've got time to think about it some more, but I suspect you have a pretty good idea about what you prefer.

John from Daejeon said...

Health-wise, it would probably be best to stay at the school, but you really need to think about your "long-term" plans. Where do you see yourself come retirement age, and how much money should you have set aside (as well as coming) in for those later years?

Right now, I'm back in the states for a while trying to get ahead of my end game's potential economic shortcomings. So much so, I'm thinking about heading out to the sand pit to dig up some serious coin in the shortest amount of time possible. And, unless I get a job working with King Baeksu, I might end up living in English Teacher X's grubby trailer park, but at least his pay (over $100,000/yr) would make that type of poor accommodation rather palatable even if the reality is that you are paid not to teach English. At least all that free time from not having to teach English in the sand pit while raking in the tax free cash gave ETX plenty of time to hone his funny bone in regards to being an English teacher abroad.

Kevin Kim said...

John Mac,

Yes, it's true: my own preference would be to keep teaching, a job I find much more rewarding and never boring. At the GG job, it's easy to doze off. But as I wrote, if I get low eval scores (low by my standards, anyway), I won't hesitate to pack my bags come August.

Daejeon John,

Believe me, I do think about the future. These days, it's all I ever think about. But a man has to have a steady source of income at a steady job before he can think about stocking up for retirement, and I'm still rebuilding my financial portfolio, having started from scratch five years ago. I'm now in the second year of paying into my professorial pension; if I change over to working at the GG, I'll be shifting sideways into a new style of pension plan (for corporate employees) that's not part of any university consortium.

I think that, to pile up a lot of money for the future, I'm going to need to throw a Hail Mary pass and self-publish something that earns me a ton of cash to help me pay my medical bills later on, when I'm senile and decrepit.

Charles said...

If you are committed to finishing out your contract, and if student evals will be an important part of your considerations, then it would seem to me that you have at least another six months before you need to start thinking about this issue. I realize it's impossible to not think about it at all, but the truth is that none of the thinking you do now is really going to help you, not if all the data isn't in yet.

That being said (and you knew this was coming), I agree with Tom. Of course I do. I am living the life of a prof right now, and let me tell you, I don't think I could ever give up those ridiculously long breaks. Of course, they're not really complete breaks, as I do quite a bit of work during them (in fact, it's when I get a lot of my research done), but the truth is that I can just take off for a month whenever I want during a semester break. When I returned from nearly a month in the States over the summer, the dean of my department asked me why I had come back so soon. Another huge thing for me is sabbatical, although I don't know how that works where you are. Bottom line: I wouldn't call the life of a prof easy, but it is definitely one of the most flexible jobs you can have. I honestly don't know if I could hack a 9-to-6 office job.

Also, I'm curious about the "no opportunity for advancement at universities" comment. Is that really true for you? What level were you hired at? I'm currently as assistant prof but in a few years, assuming good behavior, I will be eligible for promotion to associate prof. Some day, if I am a good boy, I may even make full professor. Promotions aside, my salary also goes up based on time served. Granted, we're not talking massive raises, but it is a consistent increase. Anyway, I just found it weird that the GG big cheese said you would be doing the same thing in ten years. Would you really be in exactly the same position?

Kevin Kim said...


The GG boss may have a point, though: if you move from assistant prof to associate prof, and from associate prof to full prof, do you ever really stop prof-ing? What difference is there, practically speaking, in terms of duties and responsibilities? And are these major differences?

I think, though, that my GG boss's point was more about rising significantly through the ranks of a company, i.e., going from someone in the trenches to someone in an actual managerial position, as he himself did. How many foreign profs at a Korean university do anything more than become coordinator or head prof? How many rise above that level? Perhaps such animals exist, but they're likely thin on the ground. Of course, one can turn the question around and ask how many foreigners rise in the ranks of Korean companies, and the answer there is probably "not very many." But my boss is clearly saying that such opportunities for advancement exist at his company, specifically.

As for your earlier points re: flexibility and vacations, I agree. Those are key to my sanity, which is what worries me about switching over to an office job where I sit in the same place all day long, staring at page after page of text.

I'll be getting my first official evals next month, and that will give me a better idea of how appreciated I am.

Charles said...

Well, that seems like kind of a weird way to look at it, to be honest. People generally become professors because they like the idea of being professors. If you're that kind of person, you're not going to like being a prof now, let alone ten years from now.

You asked how many foreign profs rise above head prof (by which I'm guessing you mean 주임교수) or coordinator. I obviously can't give you figures, but I personally know a guy who is dean of his department.

Again, though, I would question whether this is really such a bad thing, the idea of "just" being a prof. To turn it around, is advancement through the ranks to different positions where you have drastically different responsibilities necessarily a good thing? I mean, would that be your goal at GG, to some day be a manager?

Ultimately, GG Boss's comment strike me as coming from someone who either does not like academia or does not have experience in it.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, you're echoing what John McCrarey wrote above re: whether it'd be worth it to rise through the ranks at the GG, taking on responsibilities I might not enjoy.

I'm in basic agreement with you re: what's appealing about being a prof.

GG Boss actually spent many years in academia. He did his share of lecturing and was also a professional translator.