Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So How Do You Become a Doctor in Korea If You're Not Korean?

TK's rant in the post about being a doctor in Korea brought about some negative reactions in the comments. He could care less; the idea that a non-Korean could simply waltz in and become a doctor in Korea is delusional and deserves ridicule.

However, TK does believe in being helpful. Owing much to the excellent, detailed information sent by a reader who explored this path, here is how a non-Korean citizen may become a doctor in Korea. Technically, it is possible--it's just that, as TK stated previously, the process is so mind-blowingly difficult that it is practically impossible for most non-Koreans. Again, if you even have to ask this blog to figure out this process, you are not going to make it.

Can you make it like Dr. Nick and say, 여러분 안녕하세요?

But what the heck, let's go ahead and satisfy some curiosity. There are four potential points of entry into Korea's medical job market:

1.  High school student about to enter college
2.  Transferring into medical school as a third year, with a bachelor's degree completed
3.  As a holder of a medical degree (e.g. M.D., MBBS, etc.)
4.  As a board-certified, full-fledged doctor

We can look each one in turn:

1.  High school student

If you are in high school, you may attend college in Korea and major in medicine. There are 36 colleges in Korea with a medicine major. Medicine majors will attend college for six years, and graduate with a bachelor's degree. The first two years are strictly undergraduate education. Years 3 and 4 are pre-clinical basic science, and years 5 and 6 are all clinical.

There are two tracks of college admission in Korea: international and domestic. Relatively few colleges in Korea have a separate admission track for international students, but there are several schools that do. The international admissions requirements--including whether or not you qualify for the international track--are different for each school.

For example, Yonsei University (which runs one of the four best hospitals in Korea) defines the international applicant as a non-Korean citizen with neither parent being a Korean citizen, who has been educated outside of Korea continuously since junior high school. The admission requirements themselves are similar to that of Korean universities, but the CSAT is replaced with the SAT/ACT with the addition of the Korean Language Proficiency Exam. If you were not continuously educated in an English-speaking curriculum or school (as defined by Yonsei), you also have to take the TOEFL. Other colleges have similar, but slightly varying, requirements.

Most colleges in Korea do not have a separate track for international applicants. If the school does not have a separate pool for international students, you will have to take the CSAT like any other Korean high school student, and score extremely high to secure admission as a medicine major. This will be practically impossible for most non-Koreans.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

2.  Transfer into Medical Program

Some of the colleges in Korea with a medicine major allow transfer admission into the third year of the six-year program, for applicants who has a bachelor's degree. Although technically the applicant would be repeating a bachelor's degree, the admission itself is similar to the graduate school admissions process. For those who have not completed high school in Korea, Korean Language Proficiency Exam will be required. The applicant will also have to take Medical Education Eligibility Test, which is equivalent of the medical (graduate) school entrance exam in other countries. MEET is conducted entirely in Korean.

It should be noted that the transfer opportunity exists as a stopgap measure. Previously, to be a doctor in Korea, one could either attend the six-year bachelor's degree program or four-year master's degree program. As of 2013, however, Korea decided to phase out the master's degree program, and instituted the transfer program in order to provide a path to study medicine for Korean students who did not choose medicine as the undergraduate degree, but was intending to attend the master's degree program.

This means that this route may disappear soon. It also means that the structure of the transfer admissions is largely indefinite. There is no indication that there is a separate international admissions process--in fact, it is almost certainly the case that this process, when created, did not contemplate non-Koreans taking this route to become a doctor in Korea. In practicality, like taking CSAT, it would be virtually impossible for a non-Korean applicant to take MEET in Korean and score higher than most other Korean applicants.

3.  As a Holder of a Medical Degree

If you have a medical degree, you can take Korean Medical Licensing Exam (KMLE) to become a doctor. But for a foreign medical school graduate to sit for the KMLE, s/he needs to first take and pass a qualifying exam. What is more, not every foreign medical school graduate may sit for the qualifying exam: if Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare deems that the foreign degree is not commensurate to Korean medical training, the degree-holder cannot sit for the exam. There are cases of medical degree holders from China, Belarus and Dominican Republic who were not allowed to sit for the qualifying exam because their degrees were considered inadequate.

Preparation for the qualifying exam is a two-year commitment, because it is very difficult. The qualifying exam is geared mostly toward Koreans who study abroad in a non-Korean medical school, which means the test is not non-Korean-friendly. (But unlike the transfer option, this route does contemplate that non-Koreans would take this exam to become a doctor in Korea.) Only one to three percent of the applicants pass the qualifying exam--which means that every year, there are less than ten foreign medical degree holders who even attempt to take the KMLE. If your Korean language skill is not at the native level, your chance of passing is pretty much nil.

If you somehow pass the qualifying exam, you are allowed to sit for the KMLE. Most Korean medicine major students take a year to prepare for the KMLE. Nearly every student who majored in medicine in a Korean college passes the KMLE. On the other hand, no more than three to four foreign medical degree holders pass the KMLE each year; in many years, there is no foreign medical degree holder who passes the KMLE.

4.  As a Certified Doctor

Even as a certified doctor, you may not practice medicine in Korea unless you passed the KMLE. However, TK came across anecdotal instances of non-Korean trained doctors working in Korea without passing the KMLE. I do not know their precise legal status, but they exist. At this point of one's career, practicing in a foreign country would be a fluid arrangement rather than a set path.

*                  *                 *
So, to recap:

1.  If you are a high school student, you might be able to major in medicine as an international student in the handful of Korean colleges that have a separate admission track for international students. If you cannot make it through the international application process, you have to take the CSAT along with all other Korean high school students to be admitted as a medicine major. If you study very hard during college, you may be able to pass the KMLE and become a doctor in Korea.

2.  If you have a bachelor's degree, you might be able to transfer into the third year of the six-year medicine program in Korea. To transfer, you will have to take MEET, which is conducted in Korean, and score higher in MEET than Korean college graduates.

3.  If you have a medical degree, you have to take the qualifying exam that is mostly designed for Koreans who study abroad, and be one of the one to three percent of applicants who pass the qualifying exam. Then you could be one of the three to four people in Korea who passes the KMLE as a foreign medical degree holder.

4.  If you are a world-famous neurosurgeon or someone similar, there just might be some way for you to work as a doctor in Korea. Good luck with that.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Well there you go! I already figured that becoming a doctor in Korea was near impossible, but here is a detailed list of HOW it's impossible. Now there should be no more whining about your attitude towards the subject.

  2. ' TK came across anecdotal instances of non-Korean trained doctors working in Korea without passing the KMLE.' please post the references and let me guess, they were born to Korea parents or are racially 'Korean'?

  3. I can't actually believe you took time and effort to prepare this. Your efforts are appreciated (and this seems a much better way to inform someone who thinks to ask you about the methods of becoming a doctor in S.Korea)

  4. "Good luck wi that." Hilarious. Yeah, I don't think people understand how hard it is to be anything in Korea because you're competing with smart people who study 12 hours a day.

    On a separate note, isn't it "I couldn't care less?" Meaning, you couldn't care any less because you already care so little. Your writing is so amazing so I don't want to get nitpicky as I have plenty of typos myself when I blog. I just thought you being a bit of a perfectionist and all, you might want to know.

    1. It appears "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less", are both common idioms used to express a total indifference. Although I personally agree with you. "I could care less" to me sounds like you care too much actually. But then, if you think of that the very fact that the matter has been mentioned by the speaker, then it means they do care a little bit, but they could just ignore it. So maybe the grammatically positive version of the idiom emphasizes either the speaker's opinion about the matter, like "As you see, I do care a little bit, but it's really not worthy" or "I could ignore it, but since you do care, then I'm being generous and care with you too".

    2. Neh. The correct phrase is "I couldn't care less." It is incorrect to say "I could care less" albeit so many people use this phrase instead. It is similar to how so many people say "I could of" when they really mean "I could have."

  5. A personal story I'd like to share. I went through UC Berkeley in early 1990s and knew a Korean-American student, 1.5 generation. We hung out together through sopho year. And than I didn't see him the following year. Later Iwe somehow got in touch and he told me that he had gotten into med school in S Korea. Afaik, he hadnt graduated from Cal. 't wasn't a very well known one like Yonsei or Seoul but still a med school. Never got in touch with him again as this was before cell/facebook/email era.

    I knew he was a smart dude. But I was doubly surprised because somehow I just thought it would be impossible for a foreign school undergrad to get in (even though he was in 1st rate public school in US).

  6. Everything you said is correct but there are still foreign doctors in Korea. I met a guy today (doctor with no Korean skills) who is trully pasionate about helping 3rd world countries and he ended up working based in Korea for an NGO. Korean Gov. is apparently quite interested lately in backing NGOs in the medical field. It's still very difficult to enter this area and money-wise not so rewarding, but I just wanna add it cause your post is so negative and arrogant.

  7. I am a non-korean doctor. I want to work in Korea. Can I apply for the qualifying exam then KMLE? And I wonder what is the "qualifying exam" ? is there any information about that ?

  8. I think I'll just study a bunch of anatomical models to the point where I feel competent, then dazzle the licensing board with my prowess performing surgery on a volunteer with my ultimate set of tools? Do you think that may work??

  9. It was quite amusing, both of your posts about this 'being a doctor in korea' thing. Did you just rudely tell a likely teenage girl, that she won't be a doctor?
    My ex boyfriend's mom bet that i'm never gonna do well in my high school board exams. i was one among the 5 toppers.
    One of my dad's teachers in high school, declared that he won't ever make it to med school, because he messed up an amphibian dissection. She went as far as mocking him. She later thanked him when he helped her son, as a pediatrician at our state's best hospital.
    Same thing happened to me, my biology teacher told me that I won't even get past the entrance exams, simply because she didn't like me. Haven't met her afterwards, but she'll have to address me as doctor now.
    So before you insult someone, think about the odds.
    Just so you know, my state is as big as your country and has half the number of medical schools that you have. And should i show you the marks scored or the questions that are asked in our entrance exams? About 100,000 appears and 1200 gets selected every year.
    It is difficult to get into a medical school in any place. You need not rub that into the face of people, especially on aspiring young teens. If you think that they are stupid and useless just because they asked 'you' something related to your own place, then there's nothing more to be said. All you had to say was that she needs to be proficient in your native language.
    I'm telling this because an uncle of mine, have been invited to perform surgeries, multiple times, in Seoul. They didn't care about his lack of Korean skills. So, sarcastic remarks like 'good luck being a world famous neurosurgeon' are totally unnecessary.
    So good luck being a nice person.

    P.S. Internet says South Korea is a safe place for foreigners to visit. If the people are rude and arrogant like you, then how good can a place be?

    1. I'm not the owner of this blog so not sure if I should be replying to you or not Lexie, but I just ran into this blog googling something and you (sounded like;) were talking about Korea in general so here goes anyway... I’m just an MD licensed in South Korea working abroad, not America btw.

      I agree that discouraging youngsters from following a path is insensitive. Heck, Korea used to be a culture in which the teachers can get away with saying a lot of cruel things to the students and I have friends even in medical school whose professors told them 'people like you should not be doctors' kind of stuff. That's abusive. Though, I’m a 30 something guy and I’ve heard that it’s a lot better nowadays in school.

      On the other hand, it sounds a bit... you know... contradictory, should I say? When it sounds like you try to bring nationalism and your personal experience into this story. Sorry for assuming that you are an American, but you said your state is huge so I'll safely guess you're from the US (or possibly Canada, but I don't know much about Canada so...). I haven't read through the whole conversation, just this post and the one before this, but it seems pretty clear that the author is a Korean American living in the US. Heck, with his English he probably knows about America just as much as any other American. So… I mean it’s kind of odd you’d be saying what it’s like where you live compared to Korea. He probably lives where you do, and is likely already an MD here.

      Some other things I might introduce to non-Koreans would be that the level of medicine in Korea itself is pretty good, in fact comparable to most schools in the US. As far as research output is concerned (well of course we can talk about life expectancy and neonatal mortality rates but they're pretty good too, as good as the States probably) Seoul National University places in about 10th of the American medical schools, Yonsei about 20th. Catholic University and Korea University are not too far behind.
      Your CSAT score? Again, I’m a 30 something guy so it was different back then, but in the 90’s I scored about 0.3% to get into medical school.

      People in Korea generally know that US doctors are the best in the world, even the doctors do. However we would still say it's hard to get into Korea as a doctor not because it's some prestige but because we're not as open as America. You can be unhappy with this but the Korean language is not really used very much outside of Korea itself, so you’ll have to understand this.
      Still, I think more Korean doctors would be sort of thrilled(than defensive) to know that foreigners would want to try to become a doctor in Korea, because that means our culture, level of medicine, or whatever... is appealing to foreigners. I know that I am, and even before I read this blog, when I tell my friends that there are foreigners who are asking about applying for the KMLE, most of them are greatly interested… (Or, go like ‘Why the hell do they want to come here? Do they want to work 100 hour weeks for the rest of their lives?’ kind of skepticism, but not to the applicant him/herself.)

      It may also be worth pointing out that doctors’ performing procedures or operations in isolated cases abroad WITHOUT compensation is probably legal in a good many countries. When I was a student, one of my professors who pioneered a new surgery technique showed us his surgery sessions in the UK, Germany, US on video. That’s one of the perks of the job, as you probably are well aware already.

      I've lived in the US for 3 years as an elementary school kid and another year as a researcher after graduating medical school, and I always liked it... the people are generally friendly, I didn't feel they were xenophobic to foreigners... the laid back attitude of most people. I can't say Koreans may be like that at first but you can't deny that Korea has low crime rates and they’ll bend over backwards to please you when you become friends with them.

      Have a nice day.

  10. Don't let this post stop you from coming to Korea to pursue a medical career.

    I'm currently attending the second year of korean med school, and there's a Nigerian student(in 4th grade, I think), who joined us 2 years prior. He's passably good in spoken Korean, though not terific, and he didn't take the CSAT. He's doing pretty well here. I believe he used to attend a Nigerian University majoring in Biology or something, and our dean is really fond of him.
    Korean students have to learn the terminology in both English and Korean, and most of our tests are taken in English anyhow. I'd say a student who is fluent in English could actually have a easier time of it than someone who isn't and is only fluent in Korean.

    There are a lot of med schools here, not all of them necessarily strict about admission as Seoul or Yonsei University.
    Our school does have a seperate tract for international students, and 9 of the students in my year alone attended highschool in North America or New Zealand. Granted, they all are racially Korean, but like I stressed above, it doesn't mean you have to be.

    I like the Nigerian kid. He's smart, but he's not a genius. If you really want to come to Korea to be an MD, you can. I don't care what TK said. I've seen it done.
    There are actual merits to coming here for an MD. Unlike in many countries, you getting a license is almost a granted once you get accepted. You might stay back a year of two if you're not the sharpest knife in the shelf, but I notice that here, the school board really tries to help you graduate properly. In fact over ninety five percent of the students accepted will graduate with a license.

    1. Your post just gave me life as I am Nigerian too and looking to study in Korea. Would it be possible to find out how he did it? Like, the application and all? Thank you

    2. I am from India...and i just passed grade 12...will it be possible for me to enter medical college there?

    3. Hello. I am greatly encouraged by your post and I will like to know the application process as well. In addition, I am a second- year medical student. Is it possible for me to get a transfer?. I am awaiting your reply. Thanks a lot.

    4. Ur post just cherished my day thank u!!1!1!! 💕💕💕

  11. Hi.

    Are you sure most colleges in Korea do not have a separate track for international applicants ?

    On the first 12 universities' websites, I found that at least 10 out of 12 had this separate track. They don't require any CSAT result to be admitted, only languages certificates (TOEFL, TOPIK) + high school transcripts + SAT, ACT etc.

    Will the international students, admitted taking this way, follow the same programs the same number of years ? And can they be admitted in all the departments ?

    It's obvious you know more than me about the subject since I've been looking for informations about this for 1 week so it would be great knowing the answers to my questions.


  12. Hello there, I've read your words and get depressed a little bet.
    I need your help please, I will travel to live in korea for a year . I am in my internship years . What opportunities are available for me?
    I hope i could find a way in labs (clinical or academic )
    I heard about kist but not enough information
    So what you advice me ? Clinical is impoosible for language barrier

  13. It could have been a great blog, except it was improperly researched, demeaning and just unnecessarily discouraging. I think I get what you were going for, 'a dose of reality', but in actuality it might have been better off not even replying to the poor girl's question. Because realistically the only difference in her (or anyone) becoming a doctor here, there or anywhere is language requirements. I think perhaps you were too caught up in your snide fest to actually think of being helpful. Here's how you could have done it.
    1. Make sure you qualify for medical schools in your home country. If not perhaps think about doing a life science degree first. (This gives you qualification for grad school)
    2. Avanced Korean (~TOPIK level 4) depends on the university. You would have to take the test before you apply. Unless you go through the undergrad scheme, where your first year is basically just Korean language classes.
    3.Finances: tuition, accommodation, supplies, food, transport, social life you or your sponsor (parents?) have that kind of money?
    Nothings impossible, and frankly on a list of possibilities this is a lot higher than it's been portrayed here.


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