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.

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 school diploma.

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.
2. Philosophy is a Strong General (and Business!) Degree
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 enormously beneficial.

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.
3. Philosophy can Help with a Post-Graduate Degree
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.

(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. 1
4. Push Yourself -- Learn More
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:
  • 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 skills)
  • Math (the world needs more mathematicians all the time, and our logic classes fit well with the concerns of mathematics)
That's obviously just a partial list of possibilities.
5. This is the important but impractical part that we can keep just between the two of us
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 philosopher.

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

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. (back)

-- Craig DeLancey