What can I do with a philosophy degree?
Many students come to 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 four
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.
Recent U. S. Census Bureau data shows that median salaries for
philosophy majors is $48,000 (this is complicated by the fact that
they group philosophy majors with religion majors in their data).
This is close to the median earnings for people with degrees in the
physical sciences, and exceeds that for most degrees in the social
sciences. (See a nice graph of the data, 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 $25,000 to $33,000 (see this US Dept of Ed
data; and see also this lifetime earnings
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
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 like this is
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.
The bad news is that employers don't know 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 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.
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. We very strongly encourage you to do
so. Any second major would be good, but some examples include that you
could major in philosophy (or PP) and:
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)
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 this is primarily because we do not want our
colleges to be more efficient (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 punish schools where professors teach
larger classes). Rising college costs are secondarily caused by
demands 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). Some think that rising costs are also
driven by runaway growth in administration; this seems highly
plausible. In any case, full-time faculty salaries are disappearing,
and those that remain 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 are generally not the most well paid or
secure or wanted of professors.
-- Craig DeLancey