Q1) Hello, thanks so much for doing this interview with us. To start off, could you please introduce yourself a little?
A1) No problem. My name is Anjana and I'm from Sri Lanka. I came to Korea in 2010, and so it's been almost seven years since I first came here. I was a Korean government scholarship student, so I studied Korean in Seoul National University for a year and then joined KAIST as an undergraduate in 2011. In 2015, I graduated and afterwards joined professor ÀÌ»ó±¹‘s Nano Integrated Circuit Expertise(NICE) lab in the school of EE(KAIST) as a master student. I just graduated last month, currently working as a researcher in the same lab.
Q2) Seven years is a long time. How did you first think of coming to Korea, and here at KAIST?
A2) I came to Korea because I wanted to become a professional electrical engineer. So my options were the countries with strong electrical engineering industries, like Korea, Japan, USA, India or Singapore. And so, I ended up here. The main reason for choosing KAIST was because of English. KAIST has an English curriculum. I was planning to go to Seoul national university or Yonsei university, but their curriculums were only in Korean. I thought that would be really tedious and didn't want to do that. I didn't really know much about KAIST at the time,
Q3) So, what was it like, your undergraduate life in KAIST?
A3) It was kind of so-so, I suppose. When I first entered KAIST, it was in 2011 when the academic policies were very harsh and demanding. So my first year was really tough. There was no freedom. When you go to the library, it would always be completely booked, everyone would be studying all the time with no students outside. There was literally no life. But that was because of the policy itself and they later changed it. And academically, it got much easier to study afterwards. Other than the academical part, the undergraduate life was pretty good. It was pretty fun.
Curriculum-wise, I'm not going to say anything because KAIST has a really good program. All the professors are really talented, which is one of the reasons I stayed here for masters. So, education-wise it was great, but the social life was kind of tricky. I know that undergraduate students now speak good English and they are much more international, but back then, almost no one spoke English. It was when KAIST just began to become an international university. So the foreign and Korean students were very separated. You almost never saw any interaction between the two groups. But I think that part is now kind of changing, which is probably for the best.
Q4) Well, if you could turn back time and be an undergraduate again, what would you like to do? Is there anything you miss about it, or regret not doing?
A4) I regret not having enough fun, actually. I was just studying all the time. No one enforced me to, but I was just self motivated to do so. Because of that, I missed a lot of social events and those sort of stuff. So I just wish I had more fun back then. I wasn't enrolled in a club because, well, that's another problem. All the club activities were conducted in Korean. So as a foreign student, there was really nothing I could join. I know that it's changing, but.. Anyway, more social engagement is what I would do.
Q5) Okay, so why did you choose to stay in Korea after your graduation? Both the undergraduate and masters.
A5) Actually right now, I'm just staying here to finish my research work, but after that, when I finish this I'm leaving for my Ph.D.. After undergraduate, well, the biggest selling point in KAIST is actually the funding. The research funding is really great. You don't have to worry about anything if you get accepted for a graduate program here. Your professors will take care of it. You don't have to worry about the monitory issues, financial issues, etc. Everything will be covered. Also the advising is pretty decent. You will work with teams and the training is pretty good. The Korean graduate school system is very different from that of Europe like America. In Europe, you don't do any research. You just take the courses. Sometimes you write thesis, but you don't learn any skills, just the basics. But here you actually get your hands on the stuff. And you also have a lot of seniors that will definitely help you. That's the good part. So research-wise it's really good. And also the funding is pretty much unlimited, so you can do whatever you want. So the research environment would be the reason I stayed here after graduation.
Q6) So the next question. What is the best thing about working in Korea and why?
A6) The best thing about this particular place, KAIST of Korea, is the research environment as I've already mentioned. The academia has a lot of freedom, your professor will help you a lot and you can actually develop something on your own so that you can actually take a break and think about what you want to do. I like the research here, and the professors are great, and that's why I'm still here.
Also other than career-wise, Korea, I would say is the safest country ever. It's unbelievably safe. I mean, you can just go anywhere, do anything. You don't have to worry about anything, right? Korea is probably the best in the world when it comes to safety.
Q7) Then what is the worst thing about Korea?
A7) As a foreigner, I kind of think that Koreans are not really that open to foreigners. I mean, it depends. I feel like Koreans are more open towards and are more friendly towards European or the U.S. foreigners. But when it comes to... Even other Asians like Vietnamese, Indonesian and that kind of immigrants and even African. They kind of feel like they're not... I'm not saying there is some racism or that kind of discrimination or anything. It's just that those foreigners feel like they've been left alone and are not very welcome. I mean, it's to be expected because it's something the Korean society is starting to adapt to.
Also, if I decided to live in Korea, I would have trouble with the work-life balance. I mean, say you work for a company in Korea. What's the average working hours is 60 to 80 hours a week. But if you go to USA or Europe, it's 35 hours in minimum. So the amount of time you spend on work alone is too much here. It's okay as long as you are students, you are in the university because your life is completely different. But if you finish your school and go outside, you have to work on your social life, your family life and all that sort of stuff, you need to learn to balance all that. And that's kind of difficult in Korea.
Q8) So, you mentioned you would be leaving right away once your research is done. So what would be your plans for the future?
A8) So far I haven't finalized anything but currently I'm planning to move to USA and continue my Ph.D. I've already been contacted by a professor and I'm currently in the process of the paperwork and all that stuff. If... Well, I still haven't decided if I want to go there definitely, so I'm also looking towards Europe, also. But most likely, I will end up in USA. In my country, no. We don't have any industry in electrical engineering. So if I go back I need to start my own company and I would like to do that. But to do that, a lot of money, a lot of skills and a lot of connections. So that's the kind of thing I want to do right now.
Q9) Do you have any advice you would like to give to the undergraduates? It could be towards just general undergrad EE students but it could also be towards international students in undergrad.
A9) Well for international students, I would certainly say, learn Korean. I learned Korean and that's one of the reasons why I could stay here. The thing is that mostly my seniors, they speak Korean to me and I speak English to them. My Korean speaking is not good, but I can understand Korean pretty well, so I don't really speak in Korean. For them it's the other way around. So we mix to languages when we talk. They speak Korean and I speak English, so that works out very well. So learning Korean is definitely, definitely helpful. You're in Korea. You can't expect everyone to be speaking English. Especially if you're planning to stay after undergraduate, the more so. In undergrad, there are a lot of English speakers and there are English programs. But masters and Ph.D. students, they don't only come from KAIST. Most of our students come from outside university. And their English skills are not that great. So learning Korean definitely helps.
And then, I would say, try to socialize more with Korean students. One of the biggest problems international undergraduates do is that they just make their own group and segregate themselves from the Koreans. And Koreans, by definition, are shy and inward. They don't feel like burdening the foreigners by talking to them, so this is kind of like a vicious cycle. So I think thre should be more interconnections between foreign and the Korean students for undergraduates at least, since they have more social potentials.
Pretty much, that's it. Like, education-wise, just give your best. It's certainly a perfect environment in KAIST.