What can I do with a philosophy major?
Many students ask me what they can do with a philosophy B.A. (or with
our joint B.A. in philosophy and psychology -- which I will hereafter
refer to as "PP"). I would like to make five observations in reply.
1. A Degree Increases your Earnings
The first thing that you should observe is that you are better off
with a B.A. degree than without one. In this regard, having a
philosophy degree is like having an English degree or a psychology
degree. It provides a general signal that you can write, reason,
learn, and are self-motivated enough to get a degree.
2. Philosophy is a Strong General (and Business!) Degree
The dated but most recent U. S. Census Bureau data shows that median salaries for
philosophy majors is $51,000 (this is complicated by the fact that
they group philosophy majors with religion majors in their data; theology majors
have the lowest earnings, so this suggests that religion majors may also have low
earnings and be acting as a significant confound in this data).
This is below the median earnings for people with degrees in the
physical sciences, but data shows that the humanities majors eventually catch
up. (Here's a dated graph that shows the typical relative finding, courtesy of the Chronicle
of Higher Education, here.)
(PP majors note, the lowest earnings were for counseling psychology.)
People without a B.A. but with a high school diploma have a median pay
of about $36,000. Lifetime earnings
data from the U.S. Census Bureau that shows you earn at least about $1
million more if you have a B.A. degree than if you have only a high
Finally, most college degrees will have about the same perception in
the marketplace as a philosophy degree: that is, only a few highly
specialized degrees (computer science, some engineering) tend to lead
directly to major-specific jobs. Other degrees, like physics or psychology or
English or philosophy, are instead signals that you have studied, can
write and reason, and have a well-rounded education.
I believe that a philosophy degree is excellent training for a
business career. I believe it is better than, or at least as good as,
a business degree (but don't tell my business colleagues I said
that!). The reason is that the primary skill of philosophers is to
take complex and ill-defined problems and clarify them until they can
be solved. But this is exactly what most real-world business problems
are like. There is no specific science that can help you answer a
question like, "How can we improve our perception among customers?"
The question itself is vague. A philosopher naturally will ask, what
do we mean by "improve"? How might we measure that? What do we mean
by "perceive"? How might we measure changes in that? And what is a
customer? And, better yet, why do we want them? Are some better than
others? And so on. Being able to approach a problem in this way is
3. Philosophy can Help with a Post-Graduate Degree
There is significant evidence that the most important skills for
business leaders are critical thinking, clear writing, and the ability
to handle ambiguity. Being able to handle ambiguity is perhaps the
most important skill for leaders. There is no other degree that
improves critical thinking, focusses on writing for analytical
clarity, and teaches the ability to handle ambiguity as well as does
study in philosophy.
My own experience may be representative. After getting my Ph.D. in
philosophy, I was a management consultant for 3 years at the world's
leading management consulting firm, advising clients ranging from
start-ups to Fortune 100 giants. The problems we faced were always
vague, and the hardest task was to find ways to make them into
questions that could be answered. Specialized knowledge was almost
never required. My Ph.D. in philosophy was more useful than my
M.A. in computer science, in nearly every case.
Philosophy is good training for entrepreneurship also: an entrepreneur
must see the missing opportunities in everyday activities. That takes
a critical perspective of a kind that philosophy fosters.
The bad news is that employers don't know all this about philosophy. They
are not going to think that you have these skills, but rather will
assume that philosophy means you like to dream, or somesuch
stereotype. So, there is a misperception that you must confront.
Be able to articulate boldly and clearly why philosophy is useful.
Some students want to go to graduate school. Philosophy is the very
best degree to get for pre-law preparation, for many reasons. One of
these reasons is immediately practical: philosophy majors score
unusually well as a group on tests like the LSAT.
4. Push Yourself -- Learn More
(Take a look
this information provided by Brian Leiter. Similar data is available
showing outstanding performance on the GRE by philosophy majors --
there is a big file showing this here, and a nice
recent summary here.)
Some students ask about graduate school for the Ph.D. in philosophy.
You should go to graduate school in philosophy if you love philosophy,
want to teach philosophy, are good at philosophy, and recognize that
there are fewer jobs for philosophers all the time and the competition
for them is fierce. It is not something to take lightly. It is like
deciding to try to become a professional athlete. Just as I would try
to talk you out of basing all your future plans on a dream to pitch
for the Yankees, I discourage you from basing all your future plans on
a dream to be a tenure track philosophy professor.
If you are concerned about your job prospects (and, in my opinion, you
should be regardless of your major), please double major. We worked
hard to keep the philosophy major (and the PP major) small enough so
that it is easy to double major. What the world most needs are those
rare people who are interdisciplinary, technically astute, and
creative. Philosophy can be a center from which you make yourself
such a person. We very strongly encourage you to double major. Any
second major would be good, but some examples include that you could
major in philosophy (or PP) and:
5. This is the important but impractical part that we can keep
just between the two of us
That's obviously just a partial list of possibilities.
- Computer science or information science or cognitive
science (our logic classes will provide a very strong
foundation for programming)
- Biology (we have a strong philosophy of science component
in our department that you can utilize -- combine with
philosophy of science, logic, philosophy of biology....)
- A language (mastering a foreign language is a great skill,
useful not only to scholarship but to many businesses)
- Business (you could focus on ethics and social philosophy,
if you wanted to find interesting interrelations between your
studies -- specialize in finance and you could use your logic
- Math (the world needs more mathematicians all the time, and
our logic classes fit well with the concerns of mathematics)
I have argued that philosophy is a practical study. Philosophy
teaches deep thinking, critical ability, and encourages profound
creativity. In the new economy, it seems that these are the only
skills that cannot be commodified and outsourced. You can be confident
that in our lifetime, no robot is going to master the skills of the
But there is another point that must be said. We live in a time when
everything is to be measured against some preconception of immediate
economic return. I do not disparage economic return, but there are
many ways in which things are useful, and these include not just
immediate monetary earnings. To become a philosopher is to become a
member of an ancient tradition that asks the most important questions
that we can ask: What is the good? What should I do with my life?
What is justice? How can we strive for justice? Civilization would
collapse into something that lacked virtue, were we to stop caring
about these questions, and were we to stop striving for their answers.
If you won't ask those questions, if you won't strive to answer them,
who will? When you become a philosopher, you become a guardian and
purveyor of what is best in us.
Some other references
- BBC finds philosophers do well in their careers.
- Former Treasury Secretary Richard Rubin says Philosophy Prepared Me for a Career
in Finance and Government.
- A great collection
of resources on the benefits of a philosophy degree.
- Data on
philosophers salaries in mid-career.
Many other majors (not all are considered in this paper) catch up with STEM majors over time.
- The Daily Nous
Page on the value of a philosophy degree.
- A survey of employers reveals that what they want from
employees is critical thinking and the ability to write and
innovate. These are skills that philosophers learn. Here is a
summary, and here
is the complete report.
- Former CEO Edgar Bronfman's essay on the liberal arts.
- Entrepreneur magazine tells us why 5 Reasons Why Philosophy Majors make great entrepreneurs
- The Unexpected Way Philosophy Majors Are Changing The World Of Business.
- Mellon study showing liberal arts majors do well economically.
- Three valuable charts put together by NMU:
- Physics Central finds that in 2013 GREs, Philosophy Dominates.
- Payscale has a chart
that shows median earnings for various degrees, including
- The Wall Street Journal uses Payscale's data (it's not clear
from what years) and makes a sortable
Click on "Mid-Career Median Salary" and you can see that
philosophy is the humanities degree with the highest median
- AAUP's overview of
liberal arts degrees and long term earnings.
- Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps explains that what America needs
literature, philosophy, and history.
- The Higher Education Academy (UK), Where Next? Unlocking the potential of your philosophy degree.
- American Bar Association
recommends philosophy as a valuable major for Pre-Law, and
for learning critical reading.
- There is
not a shortage or scarcity of majors in science, technology,
engineering, and math degrees, but rather a false
provides an excuse to hire foreign workers.
1. To say something about academic jobs in general: one
oft-quoted datum, of which I don't know the actual source, is that "75
percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track
professors in 1960, but only 27 percent are today" (from the
New York Times). This datum is consistent with every study I've
seen by education organizations. What this means is that there are
ever fewer jobs for full-time faculty. "But college costs keep
rising," you're thinking, "and surely that goes to professors!" Costs
do keep rising, yes, but in state schools this is primarily driven by
the fact that the states continually cut funding, so that state
schools have simply maintained the status quo, spending just as much
per student in real dollars as they did decades ago, but they have to
make this up by charging higher tuition. So blame your government.
For private schools, we can observe that likely a primary driver of
costs is that we do not want our colleges to be more efficient in
every way (no one wants to send their kids to the school where each
class has 500 or 1000 students -- in other words, we all prefer that
professors not become more "efficient" by this measure, and in fact
influential guides like the U.S. News and World Report rankings of
colleges give a lower ranking to schools where professors teach larger
classes). Rising college costs are secondarily caused by a
metastasizing administration and staff. According to the The New
England Center for Investigative Reporting, SUNY Oswego, to pick one
example, has since 1987 seen a 95% increase in the number of
non-teaching staff, and a 84% increase in the number of non-teaching
administrators; during that same period the number of full time
philosophers went from 10 to 4.
Third, there is a continual demand that colleges provide more and more
services and look nicer and nicer (many, perhaps most, people choose a
college, for example, because its facilities are very impressive,
which forces colleges to compete on their facilities). Put it all
together, and you find that the number of full-time faculty positions
are disappearing, and those that remain have salaries that are
stagnating or plummeting for all but a few stars at highly-endowed
schools. Thus, being a professor is a profession with very uncertain
prospects, and this goes doubly for philosophy professors, who -- since
Socrates -- are
generally not the most well paid or secure or wanted of professors.
-- Craig DeLancey