Why Major (or Double/Dual Major) in Philosophy?
What skills will I acquire?
The practical value of studying philosophy lies not in any vocation-specific information that it imparts but rather in the intellectual training that it provides. Successful study of philosophy requires, and helps develop, several intellectual abilities:
- the ability to grasp the big picture as well as fine details
- the ability to think, speak, and write about highly abstract and conceptually demanding questions
- the ability to identify key assumptions made in arguments
- the ability to make relevant conceptual distinctions
- the ability to assess the pros and cons of proposed solutions.
Philosophy majors do extremely well, on average, on the main standardized tests:
- On the GRE (for graduate school), philosophy majors have (out of 50 majors) the highest verbal scores, the highest analytic writing scores, and the fifteenth highest quantitative scores (higher than all other humanities and all social sciences other than economics). For older data, see here; for 2013 data, see here.
- On the GMAT (for business school), philosophy has the fourth highest scores (below mathematics, physics, and engineering). For data, see here.
Of course, the test scores for philosophy majors are probably high in large part because students who major in philosophy tend to be highly talented at the skills tested. Still, philosophy courses place a heavy emphasis on critical thinking, reading, and writing. Moreover, one learns a lot from being in the same class as a group of highly talented people.
To find out more about the benefits of an undergraduate major in philosophy, check out the American Philosophical Association's Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates.
What kind of job can I get?
A very small percentage (e.g., less than 5%) of philosophy majors go to graduate school in philosophy, earn PhD's, and become philosophy professors. Some go on to do PhD’s in other disciplines (such as psychology or economics). Many go on to law school, medical school, or other professional programs. On average, philosophy majors do extremely well in such programs. Others find jobs of various sorts (web design, technical writers, copyeditor, programmers, etc.).
The crucial point about the skills that Philosophy develops is that they are general and transferable. Although a philosophy major does not prepare you for any particular job, it does prepare you well for a wide range of jobs that involve critical thinking. Moreover, although Philosophy majors without graduate degrees tend to have relatively low initial salaries, their salaries tend to increase faster than most other majors. For example, a recent study of fifty majors shows that the percentage increase from the starting median salary to the mid-career median salary was 103.5% for philosophy majors, which was tied with math for the being the highest of all majors (Wall Street Journal article). This same study shows that the mid-career median salary of someone whose only degree is a BA in Philosophy is $81,200, which is higher than the figures for many majors, including Chemistry, Accounting, Informational Technology, Communications, Business Management, Nursing, Psychology, Interior Design, and Education.
Some prominent people with philosophy degrees:
Aung San Suu Kyi -- Nobel Peace Prize winner
David Souter, Stephen Breyer -- U.S. Supreme Court Justices
Beverly McLachlin -- Chief Justice of Canada
Ricky Gervais, Steve Allen, Steve Martin -- comedians
Stacy London -- host/producer of What Not To Wear
Sheila Colleen Bair -- 19th Chairperson of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)
Herbert Simon, Maurice Allais, John Harsanyi, Amartya Sen -- Economics Nobel Prize winners
Carly Fiorina, George Soros, Eva Chen, Peter Lynch -- business people
Rebecca Goldstein -- novelist and philosopher
Terrence Malik, Deepa Mehta, Ethan Coen, Wes Anderson -- filmmakers
Susan Sarandon -- actor
Steve Reich, Philip Glass -- composers
Amy Ellis Nutt -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
Tamara Keith -- NPR White House Correspondent
For many more examples, plus much other interesting information about the employability of philosophers, visit Philosophy degrees and famous people.
More links on job possibilities for philosophy majors