Review 2016

2016 was a year where everything changed, mostly for the better, for me both personally and professionally. I rolled the dice by moving 5000 miles to start a job as a postdoc in Korea to be with someone I’d only known from the internet, and a short vacation together in South Korea last summer. Looking back, it seems a little foolhardy, but a year later I’m engaged to that person and my career has developed here much faster than it was doing in the UK 2015. There’s probably a decent Toastmasters speech to be made from this year somewhere down the line. Here’s a short reviewer of other things that have happened this year.

January started at Chris’ new year’s murder mystery party and recovery steak the next day. On January 2, Meg arrived for her vacation in the UK. It had been 5 months since we had last seen each other in Korea. Together, we visited London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle, and Carlisle. On January 20 we left for Korea.

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Meg at Kings Cross; Leaving party in Leeds (photo credit: Chris); and my last supper in the UK.

In February, I started my new job as a postdoc at the Institute for Basic Science (the unintentionally chuckle-worthy, IBS). Meg and I took a trip to Busan.

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Gwangali Beach, Busan

In March, we took a trip to Seoul. We went up Namsan Tower and ate Alabama BBQ in Itaewon.

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Alabama BBQ in Seoul, Namsan Tower view.

In April, is the cherry blossom season in Korea, My lab went on a picnic at to a local park.

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POSTECH campus in the Cherry Blossom Season; The center for Self-assembly and Complexity group picnic.

Nothing interesting happened in May or June!

In July, I returned to Seoul for the Supramolecular and Materials Chemistry Conference, which included a trip to Gyeongbokgung Palace. The weekend before we tried out an escape room in Seoul.

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Part of Gyeongbokgung Palace

In August, I visited the United States. After a layover in San Francisco, I moved on to Tennessee to visit Meg’s family.  In Tennessee, we visited the Jack Daniels distillery. We also had a 3 day trip to Washington DC, via Knoxville. During my time in the US, I got a few things off my bucket list: I went skydiving and got to experience the US constitution’s 2nd amendment.

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Me with an AK-47; the view from the Lincoln Memorial; Meg and I at the Whitehouse

In September, we went to Eonyang for the Eonyang Bulgogi festival. Korea experienced its 1st and 4th strongest recorded earthquakes within an hour of each other.

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Raw beef (left) and Eonyang bulgogi (right)

In October, southern South Korea was hit by a typhoon.  We visited a beach near Ulsan. I went to Busan for the Korean Chemical Society Fall Meeting.

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In November, we visited the Eonyang amethyst caves. I went to my first Thanksgiving dinner with friends.

In December, we had we visited Ganjelgot cape, famous for being the place where the sun rises the earliest on the Korean Peninsula and the home of Korea’s largest postbox. On Christmas day we went to Busan for the Christmas tree festival. Meg and I got engaged.

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The largest postbox in Korea; Meg and I (back in April, but it’s the best picture of us)

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Christmas in Korea

Christmas is a strange time in Korea. Around 30% of Korea’s population are Christian and Christmas is a national holiday, but it is not really celebrated in the way that the major holidays (lunar new year and Korean thanksgiving) are. Despite that, there are lots of decorations in the cities and the stores have lots of Christmasy merchandise.

On Christmas day we went to Busan to see the Busan Christmas Tree Festival and the Christmas lights. It was quite nice but far too crowded to really enjoy. I did get some pictures of the lights

Here’s a view from a 2nd-floor coffee shop that shows how crowded the streets were. They did have a very nice maple latte though and fortune cookies.

Some pictures from street level:

 

 

Korean Food Part 1

 

One of the best things about living in Korea is the food. Like many Asian cultures, food is traditionally shared in Korea. Often the main will be cooked in the center of the table  There are many side dishes (Banchan, 반찬) with most Korean meals. Kimchi 김치 is ubiquitous, often with many other types of fermented vegetable too.

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sidedishes from a Korean restaurant.

Here are a few of the foods that I like:

Korean BBQ

One of the distinctive thinks about Korean food compared to western is that in some restaurants your meat is brought to your table raw and you barbecue it yourself. You can get many different cuts of meat, from belly pork at the cheaper end to Wagyu steaks at the more expensive.  The cooked meat is normally eaten by wrapping in a salad leaf with some other vegetables and sauce .

three different cuts of bbq meat (left), and Wagyu steaks (right).

Gamjatang  감자탕

Literally means potato soup, although there is often potato in it, is not the main component.  Gamjatang is pork backbone stew. It is very similar to rib meat, but it’s from the spine. Like many Korean dishes its supposed to be shared so there’s often served as a stew in the center of the table.

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Gamjatang

Dakgalbi 닭갈비

Literally means ‘chicken rib’ it’s actually chicken breast meat cooked in a spicy sauce, which often has noodles, rice cakes (ddeok, 떡), mushrooms and vegetables added. It is from a place a called Chooncheon the northern part of south Korea.  After you finish, normally the remaining sauce is cleared up with a portion of rice which is stir-fried into the remaining sauce. It’s delicious and filling. If there is one meal I think would do very well in the west, it would be dakgalbi. I doubt, though, you would be allowed to serve uncooked chicken in the UK. In Korea, it’s a popular meal and there some western fusion varieties where there it served with cheese fondue or cheese-filled rice cakes.

Traditional dakgalbi (left) and cheese ring version (right).

The Cost of Living in Korea as a Postdoc

Korea is much, much cheaper. Things just cost less out here. From public transport, eating out, health care. The quality might not be quite as high as some places in the West, but it is still good. Korea is certainly a little ‘rougher around the edges’, but in my opinion, the cost of living to quality of life is far better value out here. I can save around 2/3 of my paycheck most months, even when I eat out and travel.

Let’s look at some examples of where Korea’s cost of living is much cheaper than the in the West: Source for the numbers (I think these are quite Seoul-centric) and my personal experience. Numbers are in Korean Won, or USD (rule of thumb W 1000 = $1)

 Housing and utilities:  

Apartment rent is quite cheap, a single bedroom apartment in a city it can be around W 600,000 / month, less in smaller cities. In my experience, it’s a little cheaper than that, closer to W 300,000. On campus housing is cheaper still.

Utilities are quite cheap around W150, 000 per month according to the figures from Numbeo. I think that’s pretty reasonable compared the West. In my experience campus housing, usually bills you for rent and utilities together, I pay less than W 300 000 /month.

The one thing that is a little different is the deposit (Key money) which can be several thousand dollars, but like a deposit you get it back at the end of the tenancy.

Eating out

Korean food is usually less than 10, 000 per serving for most restaurants, Western food and more upmarket restaurants will set you back a bit more. If you eat mostly Korean, you will eat much cheaper. Beer is at most W 5000 for 0.5L bottle.

Public transport

The local buses are very cheap, you pay a single fare no matter how far you travel and it’s only $1-$1.50 depending on the city.

Subway. Some of the larger cities have a subway and the cost is comparable to the buses.

Taxis are a little bit more expensive, but they are still cheaper than other parts of the world.

Slow trains are the cheapest way to get between cities, although it is quite slow and the schedule can be quite sparse.

Buses. There are two classes, the intercity and the express buses. The intercity buses are the easiest way to get around. They are cheap and regular (every 10 mins between some cities). The express buses are good for getting to and from Seoul (or Incheon airport), they can take a bit of time (up to 6 hours to get across the country but are reasonably priced).

KTX The fastest way to get around is the high-speed train, the KTX. It is expensive for Korea but is still reasonable compared to western countries (you can traverse the country for around $60, in three hours). There’s complimentary wi-fi, too.

If you prefer to use a car, that’s possible too. Gas is very cheap and you can often pick up used car for ~1-3 million won from another expat who’s leaving. Another thing to note is compacts qualify for discounted parking, tolls and gas.

Healthcare

Healthcare costs are subsided by your insurance (either national or employer). A simple doctor’s visit is around W 10, 000. The cost is not the major difference between healthcare here and the UK for example. Hospitals operate on a walk-in basis, and you’ll normally get seen by a doctor quickly. If not, another hospital is probably not too far away.

Taxes

At the postdoc paygrade, income tax is 17% on everything after your first 10 million won. Other withholdings include pension contributions and health insurance. In total, withholdings are ~10% of the paycheck.

There are some things that are more expensive. These are mostly the imported or the seasonal goods. The cost of living is higher in Seoul, too.

Being a science PhD, your skill-set travels. Doing science is more or a less the same wherever you go in the world. So you can absolutely take into account economic considerations when deciding where you want to do a postdoc. The prestige of postdoc-ing in the US or some top labs in Europe means that there’s always going to be many more people trying to get in than there are jobs, which drives down your value. It’s a basic law of economics: Supply and demand.  There’s not much point in fighting against this, if you want to make maximum economic benefit from your skills, then you need to go look for where demand is high and or supply is low.

You can reach out to me if you have any questions about living and working in Korea as a scientist.

The Joe Rogan Podcast

Joe Rogan is a commentator on MMA, a comedian, and a former martial arts practitioner . He is also the host of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. The JRE is approaching 800 episodes, I’ve only listened to a fraction of them. His guests include his fellow comedians, MMA fighters and people who Rogan thinks are interesting.

Generally, his podcasts are around 3 hours each where he has a long conversation with a guest in the studio. What I like about them is that 3 hours is plenty of time to really talk to a person find out what it is that makes them tick, what they believe and why they believe it. In the podcast format is much easier to digest than reading a book, which means you can listen to people you wouldn’t normally invest time and money in by buying their books and read them.

He’s had some very rational guests: Michael Schermer and Sam Harris are recurring guests; Brian Cox and Neil Degrasse Tyson have also been on the show. The podcasts I’ve found most interesting, though, are the fringe characters such as Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake is a proponent of morphic fields, which is the idea that knowledge can be passed telepathically through nature and social groups. I’ve heard and read about him and I thought he must be delusional. After listing to him on the podcast – I still think he’s wrong- but he’s very eloquent and can explain lucidly and convincingly his experiment and strange phenomena that he has observed, but then jumps to the ‘magic’ explanation. He is a true believer, he’s done experiments with Steven Rose and Richard Wiseman, Sheldrake interprets the results one way, Rose and Wiseman the opposite. It’s fascinating that intelligent people can look at the same data and reach a different conclusion. In fairness to Sheldrake, he posts both papers by him and his critics on his website.

An interesting guest he had on recently was Scott Adams, best known for creating the Dilbert comic strip, he also predicted over a year ago that Donald Trump would win the US election in a landslide. Adams is also a hypnotist, and he believes that Trump is one of the most persuasive politicians there has ever been because he uses some of the tricks that hypnotists use. Also, Trump’s hyperbole and rhetoric give him a lot of  latitude for comprising somewhere in the middle in a way that a moderate candidate couldn’t.

A criticism of the JRE it’s maybe a little too open minded, some people can just say things that are obviously ridiculous, but he doesn’t challenge them that often. But  it is nice that you can list to different points of view (with very little effort) from people you would not normally hear from, especially in these days of social media echo chambers. The podcasts with comedians are often very funny too.

Some interesting people I’ve found through listening to the JRE:

Scott Adams (see above)

Dr. Rhonda Patrick: biochemist and health and nutrition expert (recurring guest).

Prof. Gad Saad: An Evolutionary biologist who studies the evolutionary basis of consumerism (recurring guest).

Eonyang Amethyst Caves

This weekend we went up to the so-called Yeognam Alps near Eonyang to see the amethyst caverns. It was once an amethyst mine that his since been converted into a tourist attraction. It shares a mountain with a Buddhist temple (see below) which was very scenic, we could hear monks singing too. The view of the mountains is quite impressive, especially in the autumn.

First, we went on a boat ride through the caves, it was quite short and there wasn’t a lot to see. Then we explored the rest of caverns on foot. Once you’re inside the caverns you follow a route around and there were various exhibits, including some samples of amethysts and mannequins dressed like miners. There were some strange exhibits too, such as the ancient Egypt exhibit and the Dokdo hall (Dodko is disputed group of small islands between Korea and Japan). There are some impressive decorations and photo opportunities to be found while you walk around (see below). The highlight of the trip was the performance area in the middle of the cave. We saw two shows, one guy playing the drums, while his partner cut up taffy in time with drumming. The other was a show by some gymnasts and a contortion artist. Overall, I’d say the cavern and the surrounding area are worth seeing but don’t get your hopes up too high about the cavern itself.

Since we were in Eonyang, we stopped off at a restaurant for some Eonyang bulgogi. Eonyang Bulgogi is ground beef that has been seasoned with garlic and sesame and then grilled, the key requirement is that it should be served within 24 hours of the meat being butchered. We also got some ‘beef sushi’ as service; the meat was very tender, but there was too much wasabi which overpowered everything else. It was a very enjoyable meal nonetheless.Beef sushi

How to get a job as a postdoc in South Korea

Traveling from the West to the Asia is not the typical postdoc route, but there are opportunities to be found in the far east.

Traveling from the west to the far east is not the typical postdoc experience so there isn’t that many established routes. You don’t often see Korean universities posting on job boards for example.

Despite the high level of education of South Korea, they have a manpower shortage for PhD level chemists. This is beneficial for two reasons: Firstly, it’s likely that a prospective PI has money to hire you, particularly if they are established. Secondly, the financial compensation is much better than it would be in most cases in the US or Europe. There will be a later post on the cost of living in Korea and how that compares to the West.

Here is a step-by-step guide of how I got a job in Korea.

Application

The Institute for Basic Science is a Korean government-funded research institute centered in Daejeon but has campuses all over Korea. It currently has 26 centers, each with a specialization, these centers are given an annual budget (so they don’t have to worry about applying for external funding) and are headed by a world leader in the field. There are several ways in which one can join the IBS. They have a job board, a young scientist scheme, and a talent pool where you can upload your CV. Indeed, this is the route I went down. If you have a group in mind it may well be worth an email and see what they say. There are several other research funding sources in Korea, so even if they are not an IBS center they may well still be able to support you.  When selecting a group, one thing I would recommend is looking at how many international students or postdocs there are, or have recently been, in the group. Many groups conduct their business in English, but it’s not always the case. You’ll probably have more luck and, ultimately, a better experience if it’s a group that is experienced in hosting international researchers.

Interview.

Soon after uploading my CV I was contacted by the IBS center I now work at, and we arranged a skype interview. The interview process was much like a western one, i.e. there was a presentation of previous research and questions associated with that, career aspirations etc. Don’t be surprised if you get asked more personal questions, such as age and marital status. After the interview, they asked for a letter of recommendation and after they collected those I was offered a position soon after.

Visa process.

Researchers are granted an E3 (research) visa, these are very straightforward to acquire once you have a job offer from an institution in Korea. The research institute will likely handle most of it for you. It is certainly the case with the IBS. The only thing that you need to supply is copies of your qualification certificates; there is no background or criminal record checks for the E3 visa. Your employer will apply for your visa issuance number which you then put on your visa application form and apply at an embassy, usually in your home country. Another consideration is that, unless you are married to a Korean, spouses can’t work on a spouse visa; they will need their own.

Housing

I can only speak for the university I work at it but it seems to be quite normal for the university to offer on-campus housing. If this is the case, then your host university will take care of that.

That’s the process that I went through, if you have any questions about it, feel free to reach out!