Deconstructing engineering ‘crisis’

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Deconstructing engineering ‘crisis’


Researchers at Solar Cells Laboratory carry out experiments to improve the efficiency of solar cells on Dec. 30 last year. By Shin In-seop

Park Hyo-min admits that going to engineering school wasn’t her first choice when she mapped out her future after high school. But like so many other aspiring doctors who fail to make the cut for medical school, she chose to pursue engineering.

Now a 26-year-old graduate student pursuing a master’s at Korea University’s Department of Material Science and Engineering, she says that engineering was her calling after all.

“Honestly, when I was in high school, I wanted to go to medical school, but ended up studying engineering because of my scholastic ability test results,” said Park. “But now have I come to realize that scientific engineering fits me, and I love it.”

Park is just one of many who are undeterred by conventional wisdom in Korea that the engineering field is in crisis. In interviews, students, professors and researchers admitted that the field faces a variety of challenges - expensive tuition, a tough job market and a lack of respect for engineers in society - but they said that money and societal respect are not the be-all end-all of employment satisfaction.

“I don’t really think science engineering is in crisis at the moment. Who doesn’t struggle to get a job these days? If graduates are worried about landing a job, I sure wouldn’t want to be a liberal arts student,” said Park. “It is wrong how people think that entering the medical profession is a success and entering the engineering field is failure.

“Society places CEOs on a pedestal, but the educational system should also praise CTOs [chief technology officers],” she said.

Thirty-three researchers work with Park at Korea University’s Solar Cells Laboratory, consisting of master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral researchers.

Kang Min-gu graduated from a specialized science high school in 2000 before enrolling in the same graduate program as Park. He complained that engineers do not get as much respect as they deserve. He provided numbers from his graduating high school class as anecdotal evidence.

“Out of 90 high school classmates who graduated with me, around 30 went to medical, dentistry or pharmaceutical schools and 15 became bankers, patent lawyers, accountants or judges. Only about 30 entered the science field like me. Honestly, I envy friends who went to medical school. They earn good money and are considered successful in society,” said the 29-year-old.

“I like science more than medicine. I liked science as a child, and it fits me well,” said Kang.

He acknowledges that there are challenges in engineering, but suggested it makes engineers stronger. Most students who have the grades in high school go to medical school, he said, but only those really passionate about engineering remain.

Solar Cells Laboratory is divided into five teams that occupy three rooms in two laboratories. Mattresses and blankets are piled up in a corner of the lab for researchers who often spend the night.

“People talk about the engineering crisis, but I don’t really agree that it is a crisis. I do understand why people say that, though,” said Park Sung-eun, a 28-year-old doctoral candidate. “Compared to the time and effort we put in, we are not as respected in society as we deserve to be. It is disappointing at times to see how few from the scientific field fill top positions in corporations and in government.”

The students at Solar Cells Laboratory are led by Professor Kim Dong-whan from the Department of Material Science and Engineering.

“Media outlets look at one phenomenon and are quick to use the ‘crisis’ label, but it only drops students’ morale. They are doing great at our lab, and all this crisis talk gives students unnecessary doubts like, ‘What am I doing here like an idiot when everyone is saying engineering is in crisis?’” Kim said. “It is not that there are not any problems.”

He said the engineering field has still not fully recovered from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

“It is true that the fields of science and engineering were thrown into disarray during the Asian financial crisis, and we have not completely recovered yet. But it is nothing we can’t handle. It is not at an uncontrollable level.”

President Lee Myung-bak touched on the issue in his Jan. 3 New Year’s address, pledging increased support for research and development.

“The government will strengthen its support for science, technology and engineering sectors ... Under the overall purpose of enhancing our growth potential and future competitiveness, we will increase our investment in R&D,” Lee said.

Compared to other countries, Korean universities do not fare poorly when it comes to churning out engineers. Last year, American undergraduate institutions awarded engineering degrees to just 16 percent of their graduates, compared to Korea’s 38 percent and China’s 47 percent.

Financial burden

Money has been a controversial issue among engineering students for years, with some suggesting the government does not do enough to support postgraduate engineering programs. Others complain that engineering Ph.D. students are forced to scrape by while medical students enjoy relatively comfortable financial assistance.

Tuition for Korea University’s engineering department is 7 million won ($6,200) a semester. The school offers partial and full scholarships. But students said there are many universities that do not have the same financial support.

Professor Kim said he emphasizes to his students that they get out of life what they put into it.

“Money and honor are not the be-all end-all for satisfaction. There should be a deeper passion beneath the work,” said Professor Kim.

“People only talk about problems regarding scholarships or gaining employment when they talk about the ‘crisis.’ But it is fare more critical to create an environment where students can find meaning from their work,” he added.

By Lim Hyun-wook []
South Korea's iconic fashion designer Andre Kim died Thursday after being treated for pneumonia at an intensive care unit in a Seoul hospital. He was 75. [Yonhap]

Related Korean Article

패션디자이너 앙드레김 별세

원로 패션디자이너 앙드레 김(본명 김봉남)이 12일 오후 7시25분 연건동 서울대병원에서 지병으로 별세했다. 향년 75세

앙드레 김은 지난달 말 폐렴 증세로 서울대병원에 입원, 치료를 받아오다 병세가 악화돼 이날 세상을 떠났다.

1935년 서울 구파발에서 농사를 짓던 집안의 2남3녀 중 넷째로 태어난 앙드레 김은 고등학교 졸업 후 1961년 고(故) 최경자씨가 서울 명동에 설립한 국제복장학원 1기생으로 입학해 디자이너 수업을 받았다.

1962년 서울 반도호텔에서 첫 패션쇼를 열고 한국 최초의 남성 패션 디자이너로 데뷔한 그는 이후 서울 소공동에 '살롱 앙드레'라는 의상실을 열고 본격적인 패션 디자이너의 길을 걷기 시작했다.

1964년 당대 최고 인기배우였던 신성일과 엄앵란의 결혼식 때 엄앵란의 웨딩드레스를 디자인했고 1988년 서울올림픽 때 한국 국가대표팀의 선수복을 디자인하는 등 유명 인사들의 옷을 디자인하면서 명성을 쌓았다.

  • 한글 기사 보기
  • Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
    with the Korea JoongAng Daily
    help-image Social comment?
    lock icon

    To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

    Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

    What’s Popular Now