What Can I Do with a Philosophy Major?
Short answer: just about anything you can do with another major, and very possibly with a head start.
To give just a few examples from among our recent graduates, one has joined the diplomatic service, several are in high-tech, many practice law, one is a reporter with NPR, two have started a coffee roasting company, one works in a Washington, D.C., think tank, and several are earning, or have recently earned, graduate degrees (in philosophy, of course, but also education, history, religion, law, fine arts, physics, business, political science, and computer science). Few disciplines can boast of contributing to such diverse pursuits. It's not for nothing that The London Times called philosophy the "ultimate 'transferable work skill'."
In what sense do philosophy majors enjoy a head start? As a group, philosophy majors gain employment on graduation at higher than average rates; rank highly in median mid-career salary; consistently score at or near the top on admissions tests like the LSAT and GMAT; earn entrance to medical school at a higher rate than all other majors, including chemistry and biology; and, more generally, enjoy a well-earned reputation for clear and rigorous thinking. While the best reason to major in philosophy is because it interests you, that choice turns out to be an excellent career move, too.
To start exploring career options even before you graduate, have a look at Employability: Where next? Unlocking the potential of your philosophy degree. This comprehensive analysis, produced by the UK Higher Education Committee, includes a market-oriented review of the skills honed by philosophy, a survey of needs among employers in various sectors, strategies for optimizing your pitch to potential employers, and instructive case studies. A bit of preparation now can go a long way toward easing your transition to a career later.
"'Jobs change. But if you teach students to think clearly first, they can do whatever else they want to do,' was the argument he made. At the time I considered him biased. In retrospect, he was right." ["Be Employable, Study Philosophy", Salon]
"...the numbers are powerful: a 50 percent chance of admission means that a philosophy major can fill out a med school application, then flip a coin to determine whether or not to send it in: heads, they're accepted; tails, they're not. The rest have to take their chances with even more unreliable probabilities." ["Major Anxiety: If you think biochemistry is your ticket into medical school, think again", American Medical Student Association]
"Philosophy students reigned supreme in two of the three sections [of the GRE], however, suggesting a 'love of wisdom' will serve you well." ["Best Majors for GRE Scores in 2013: Philosophy Dominates", American Physical Society ]
"Brian Karalunas, a three-time all-American in lacrosse, graduated from Villanova with a philosophy degree in the spring - and in September was drafted by the Minnesota Swarm of the National Lacrosse League. He thinks his major has helped his playing. The ability to make logical decisions, to explore several possibilities for the best option, comes directly from philosophy, he said. 'It helps you to think slowly in fast situations,' said Karalunas, 22, expected to debut as a pro in January. He never planned to major in philosophy, but found that early courses 'cultivated critical thinking and spurred imagination. Those life skills, I thought, were the most valuable I could get.' There's not much question that philosophy students are smart. From 2001 to 2004, philosophy majors had the highest average score on the verbal reasoning and analytical writing sections of the GRE, the standardized test for graduate school." ["Study of Philosophy Makes Gains, Despite Economy", Philadelphia Inquirer]
"A recent comprehensive study of college students' scores on major tests used for admission to graduate and professional schools shows that students majoring in Philosophy received scores substantially higher than the average on each of the tests studied. Philosophy majors' scores on the verbal portion of the GRE were higher than in any other major, even English; and although several science majors showed higher averages in the quantitative portion of the test, philosophy majors scored substantially higher than all other humanities majors and were alone among humanities majors in scoring above the overall average. Philosophy majors received higher scores on the LSAT than students in all other humanities areas, higher scores than all social and natural science majors except economics and mathematics, and higher scores than all applied majors. Moreover, the differences are in most cases substantial: for example, philosophy majors scored 10% better than political science majors on the LSAT. On the GMAT philosophy majors outperformed business majors by a margin of 15%, and outperformed every other undergraduate major except mathematics." ["Philosophy Students Score High on LSAT, GMAT & GRE", Andreas Teuber]
"Every year around graduation time we hear the reports of average starting salary of college graduates by major. This data is often used to discourage people from majoring in disciplines like philosophy. Now, however, PayScale.com has released data showing average mid-career salaries of college graduates by major. This data makes the philosophy major look like a much more prudential choice. PayScale.com’s current data on 'Best Undergrad College Degrees By Salary' (www.payscale.com/2008-best-colleges/degrees.asp) lists starting median salary and mid-career (15.5 years after graduation) median salary for 50 different university majors. Of the fifty, the philosophy major ranks sixteenth in mid-career median salary. Seven of the majors ranking above philosophy are various engineering fields. Of particular interest is the comparison with Business Management. The starting median salary for Business Management majors is $43,000, while the starting median salary for Philosophy majors is $39,900. By mid-career, the median salary for Business Management majors has risen to $72,100, while the median salary for Philosophy majors has jumped to $81,200." [American Philosophical Association]
"Although I pursued my philosophical studies because I was inspired by the subject, I also reached a conclusion that led me to found LRN, a company that helps businesses develop ethical corporate cultures: Philosophy is powerful enough to tackle sprawling issues. The discipline remains amazingly practical after existing for more than 2,000 years. When LRN posted the job listing for the New York office administrator position that Emily recently stepped into, we included a specification designed to let candidates know that we valued what they might contribute to our company, beyond their administrative skills: 'Philosophy major preferred.' We hoped to find someone like Emily, who could truly connect with our mission and not just 'do the job.' That qualification seemed a bright idea. It turned out to be a practical idea." ["Philosophy is Back in Business", BusinessWeek]
"Philosophers have always come in handy in the workplace with their grounding in analytical thinking. Why, only now, are they so prized by employers?...Lucy Adams, human resources director of Serco, a services business and a consultancy firm, says: 'Philosophy lies at the heart of our approach to recruiting and developing our leadership, and our leaders. We need people who have the ability to look for different approaches and take an open mind to issues. These skills are promoted by philosophical approaches.'" ["I Think, Therefore I Earn", Guardian UK]
"When a fellow student at Rutgers University urged Didi Onejeme to try Philosophy 101 two years ago, Ms. Onejeme, who was a pre-med sophomore, dismissed it as 'frou-frou'. 'People sitting under trees and talking about stupid stuff - I mean, who cares?' Ms. Onejeme recalled thinking at the time. But Ms. Onejeme, now a senior applying to law school, ended up changing her major to philosophy, which she thinks has armed her with the skills to be successful....Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers....'If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy', said Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, who majored in mathematics and statistics. 'I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow'." ["In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined", New York Times]
"In the US, where the number of philosophy graduates has increased by 5 per cent a year during the 1990's, only a very few go on to become philosophers. Their employability, at 98.9 per cent, is impressive by any standard....Philosophy is, in commercial jargon, the ultimate 'transferable work skill'." ["Philosophy: A Quintessentially Modern Discipline", London Times]
"'So many people think philosophy isn't practical,' says Shoener, who also is studying biomathematics for a double major and plans to be a women's health advocate. 'It's the most practical thing I've ever done'." ["Top Students Commit to Using Their Knowledge", USA TODAY]
"'Most people don't want to figure out what a company is worth,' Miller said. 'They want to know where the stock is going. We're always trying a Rubik's Cube approach, looking at something from all different directions. We want to know, 'What's the best description of what's going on?'." ["To Beat the Market, Hire a Philosopher", New York Times]
"Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good." ["The Problems of Philosophy", Bertrand Russell]