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The following post is a chapter from our book, Working in Thailand: How to Ditch the Desk, Board the Flight, and Land the Job, written by Patrick Taylor and Karsten Aichholz.
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Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Dr. David Achtzehn and Kit Johnson, lecturers.
Bangkok University’s School of Entrepreneurship and Management (BUSEM) is located on a leafy, modern campus off the capital’s bustling Rama IV Road.
Students clad in the typical Thai university uniform of a black skirt or trousers and a crisp white shirt or blouse can be seen rushing between classes, books in hand. Others mill around on benches or sit on steps with coffees in hand, killing time between lectures.
Compared to the crumbling, overcrowded classrooms and indifferent students that greet many teachers working in primary and secondary education, the world of a university lecturer in Thailand seems comparatively refined and civilized.
So what does the work day of a Thai university teacher, or ajahn, in the local lingo, actually look like?
Dr. David Achtzehn is the lecturer and director of Special Projects at BUSEM. He teaches six to nine hours a week, not including preparation time, personal mentoring, and exams.
Much of the rest of his time is taken up with research and project management.
I am expected to publish one to two academic articles in international peer-reviewed journals per year.”
This is a similar workload to his peers in Western universities, although he adds that
the quality of the journals deemed acceptable by Thai universities is likely to be lower than in Europe or the US.”
Outside of the classroom, Dr. Achtzehn is responsible for
[acquiring] external funding for research or teaching projects, such as running a conference, a private sector workshop, or a government funded research project.”
For Achtzehn, this is one area in which he feels working at a Thai university is superior to a Western university.
If you enjoy initiating your own projects [including acquiring funding], Thai universities offer much greater flexibility than I have experienced in Europe.”
Kit Johnson, who teaches English in Thailand at a government university, paints a similar picture.
I go to work Monday to Friday, though that’s not strictly a requirement at my faculty. The reason I go there is because I get air con in the office all day (which I don’t have at my apartment), and it’s really easy to get to. On days where I don’t have classes, I’m free to use my time exactly as I choose. On my busiest days I will have two classes, each lasting three hours in total. On those days I would arrive at 9:00 AM, teach, have lunch, teach some more, and then go to the sauna in the evening to de-stress.”
Conditions in the classroom or lecture theater obviously vary from institution to institution, and even within individual institutions themselves.
Most will include an overhead projector of some variety and/or a whiteboard. Many universities pride themselves on how many flashy mod-cons they can provide within the classroom.
However, Johnson insists that equipment pales in significance when compared to what will truly make or break your job—the students.
The single biggest factor [to consider when seeking a job] is class size. In some universities and schools you will be teaching classes of fifty to a hundred students. I much prefer a smaller class.”
Cultural hurdles familiar to teachers in the K through 12 system still play a big part in tertiary education. Students at most institutions are generally regarded as being more polite and respectful than their Western counterparts, but prone to shyness and with poor ESL skills. Johnson said
the second [most important] factor is whether the students actually want to be in your class. If you’re teaching compulsory English 101-style courses for students across all faculties of a university, you can be sure that your job satisfaction will be as low as your students’ motivation. You need to ask about these things at interview or before.”
Beneath the scholarly veneer, many expats also report that working in a Thai university comes with plenty of challenges familiar to those already working in the school system here.
Academic standards are notoriously low compared to the West—as of 2017, only one Thai university [Mahidol] featured in the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings, and just ten were represented in the top 300.
Cheating can be rife. A picture widely circulated on social media a few years ago showed students sitting in a university exam room with A4 paper strapped to either side of their heads in a desperate (and somewhat odd) bid by invigilators to prevent the test-takers from taking an instinctive glance over at their partner’s answers.
Not that it would have made much difference—academic dishonesty is equally common among educators, largely motivated by the much-resented (expats) no-fail policy that the majority of Thai schools and universities abide by.
Dr. Achtzehn is realistic about some of the problems Western academics could face in Thailand. He points to some common frustrations of
bureaucracy, slow decision making processes, communication predominantly in Thai, office politics, few opportunities for promotion, short-term contracts, conflict avoidance if problems occur, and [the] low quality of students’ work.”
However, Dr. Achtzehn is quick to point out that he takes these problems in his stride.
All large organizations have issues with bureaucracy and office politics, and less able students pose an interesting teaching challenge.”
For this work, salaries vary greatly. As many universities are mostly or even entirely government-owned, the official posted rates for foreign teachers can be surprisingly low.
At many institutions, your ten to fourteen hours a week will net you a relatively measly 30,000 baht (18,000 baht plus housing allowance)—even less than one could reasonably expect to make at a Thai government secondary school.
It’s assumed that enterprising teachers will make up the shortfall in their base salary by taking on some extra classes—which tend to be paid a little more generously—in their many free hours, or even working another job entirely. Johnson said
the low end is at most government universities, which offer about 28,000 baht per month. The high end is probably about 70,000 baht and up. It’s no surprise that private universities tend to pay more, but if salary is really a big deal for you, then you’re best off getting a job in an international school rather than a university.”
As Bangkok University is a private, non-profit institution, its lecturers are on the whole more generously compensated.
At Dr. Achtzehn’s level—PhD-qualified, experienced, and regularly publishing academic papers—salaries between 70,000 baht to 140,000 baht per month are much more common. It’s a slight pay-cut compared to the Western average, but the lower cost of living in Thailand makes up for it.
There’s also the opportunity to make a little extra money running projects, although as Achtzehn warns
The rules for profit-sharing from external projects vary greatly between universities.”
So how does one get into working at a Thai university?
Depending on what level you’re aiming to work at, it could be easier than you’d think. Unlike Western universities, it’s possible to gain a gig lecturing with just a master’s degree to your name, albeit in a related subject like English/TEFL/Linguistics for an English lecturer. Johnson said
You need a bachelor’s degree in order to get a work permit, and my institution, like so many others, insists that English is your mother tongue. I don’t agree that native speakers necessarily make the best teachers, but those are the rules. The university would’ve preferred it if I had a Master’s degree in TEFL, but the rate of pay the government offers is so low that there aren’t enough ideally-qualified applicants. In my case they had to accept my CELTA certificate.”
Like everything else in Thailand, this rule is not hard and fast and universities desperate for staff may be willing to bend the rules a little by accepting applicants with non-related degrees. However, these positions tend to be less rewarding. Dr. Achtzehn warns that
The salary and teaching load will usually be much higher.”
For a position like Dr. Achtzehn’s, the qualifications required are not too dissimilar to those required at a Western institute—generally a PhD in the field of teaching from a recognized university.
In addition to this, it helps to have some experience in teaching (around two years is considered a good starting point) and publishing. As Achtzehn states
With the right qualifications and a track record in teaching and publishing, you are in a great position.”
It’s a buyer’s market out there for good, qualified teachers.
In terms of personal attributes, Dr. Achtzehn points to reliability as one of the reasons he believes he was offered his position. He also adds that it may help to broaden your language skills.
Even [though] I am not a good example, I would highly recommend learning Thai.”
Not only would understanding the Thai language assist with students whose own abilities may be lacking, it’s also useful for dealing with administration—as Achtzehn pointed out, many official meetings are conducted in Thai, and lacking knowledge of the lingo may leave you out of the loop at times.
Kit adds that tact and diplomacy also played a part in securing his job.
At twenty-three, I was probably considered too young and inexperienced for the post. I guess I was helped by my courteous manner when answering the sometimes bizarre questions that the interview committee threw at me, like ‘Do you eat spicy food?’”
However, he is quick to point out that this is fairly unusual.
It is very rare that positions in this sector are advertised so transparently and internationally. I would advise to always contact the faculty dean or program director directly about possible openings.”
A good place to start networking is the online University Directory through which it’s fairly straightforward to scrounge up contact details for many institutes throughout the country.
LinkedIn is also useful. If you’re already in the country, it may help to take the initiative and actually show up yourself.
Many of Thailand’s most highly-regarded universities such as Chulalongkorn and Thammasat are located in and around Bangkok, making it comparatively simple to travel between them for some resume distribution.
For candidates outside of Thailand, a smattering of positions can be found at popular recruitment sites ajarn.com and teachingthailand.com, or via the institute’s own websites—franchised universities like Webster frequently post positions online.
Johnson, too, succeeded in landing a job this way.
When I first came to Thailand, I emailed my CV out to about twenty-five various language institutions, which I found by searching the Internet. Two replied, and both of those led to job offers.”
Working at a Thai university comes with many unique challenges, even for those with a background in Western academia. However, it’s what you make of your time that will ultimately prove whether or not it has been worthwhile.
The rewards—the smile of recognition on a student’s face, a brief word of thanks at a graduation ceremony—remain the same.
Now, on to You
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