How do employers regard a degree in Philosophy?
February 15, 2005 7:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm attending college soon, after having already been in the job market for over a decade. For quite awhile now, I've wanted to pursue a degree in Philosophy. The question of completing a degree simply for the sake of making my resume look better is actually not a major consideration in my return to education. I can't say that it doesn't factor in at all, however, so my question to the MeFi populace is: How does a major in Philosophy affect possible employment and salary ranges? Is the perception among employers that it is completely useless when applied to most fields or is there a recognition of its value in the job market?
posted by melt away to Education (25 answers total)
What field do you work in, and what formal education have you already completed?
posted by kickingtheground at 7:55 PM on February 15, 2005

Mine is poli-sci with phil minor. I really believe it has increased my income (I am in enterprise software sales). When up against a candidate with similar technical skills an arts degree has given me an edge.
posted by arse_hat at 7:59 PM on February 15, 2005

I would think a degree from any credible institution would increase your earning power, but it does really depend on what field you want to enter.

However, I have found a philosphy degree in particular to be far less useful than many other degrees ( I majored in philosophy and English). You might be surprised, but formal logic and reasoning are almost completely useless in the business world (not to mention Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein). If I were to do it all again I would consider majoring in a more practical field, like business or sociology or something.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 8:35 PM on February 15, 2005

I had the good fortune to do a philosophy degree at a fairly good private college, and while there I heard a CEO of a large company explaining his thoughts on the topic. Basically, he says, it's like this:

Let's say you major in business. That's all well and good and you'll probably do well for yourself. But you'll also probably be locking yourself in to a lifetime of middle management -- you'll get a Lexus and a nice house in the 'burbs, but that's the only thing you can ever hope to do with your business degree; business majors are basically worthless for anything else, especially upper-level positions.

If instead you major in a field which emphasizes critical thinking and analysis skills, like philosophy, you're hirable for a lot of other things. As one business person joked at a careers event, "I can hire a philosophy major and teach him everything he'd have learned in business school in six weeks. But if I hire a business major I'll never be able to teach him to think."

And my own experience with my philosophy degree has been pretty good; I'n two years out of college and spent the first year working for a Fortune 500 company. Now I'm self-employed, starting my own business (web design and development) and seeing how that goes.
posted by ubernostrum at 9:22 PM on February 15, 2005

In my own (limited) experience, good employers will recognize the value of the degree, following exactly the reasoning that ubernostrum cites. And certainly *you* will realize the value over the course of your lifetime if you're genuinely interested in philosophy, so that's a plus too.

Good luck and congratulations, that's awesome you're going back to school!
posted by josh at 9:29 PM on February 15, 2005

You could consider specializing in logic, if that's among your interests in philosophy. I know a few folks who found good career transitions with logician background. (Programming, project management, internet banking, systems, etc.) (And ubernostrum makes good points.)

From last December: 'philosophy majors made an average of $42,865 and elementary education graduates $38,746.'. Blech! (And I think that's PhDs...)

And here's what happend to history PhD's from the 70's to 2001.

Yes, in general, sure: college ups your earning power. But, once you go beyond a Masters degree, you gotta ask yourself: how interested am I in teaching?
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:30 PM on February 15, 2005

ubernostrum covered the benefits well but I just want to add that a liberal arts degree can (not will mind you) give you the ability to present ideas well. The ability to get ideas across to people and the ability to speak ideas for those people who do not want to speak them will make you valuable to a firm.
posted by arse_hat at 9:53 PM on February 15, 2005

If you're not phobic, go for math.
posted by Gyan at 9:55 PM on February 15, 2005

After 10 years of work experience, I'd have practically no interest in what somebody's degree was in or even if they had a degree. Accomplishments in past positions would weigh much more heavily in my mind.
posted by willnot at 10:59 PM on February 15, 2005

I have a double BA in philosophy and have found it extremely useful in both my personal and professional life. Mostly because of the critical thinking and logic skills. This (PDF) is a great resource from my alma mater.
posted by sadie01221975 at 11:11 PM on February 15, 2005

My bachelors was in philosophy. But then I went to grad school in science, where my career is now. It really doesn't seem to have affected my career, at least in any negative way. But I do definitely get the sense that I've been exposed because of it to a lot more intellectually than 90% of my colleagues. My grad program admissions people seemed to care far more about my GRE scores and grades than what degree I had. Btw, Harold Varmus, the former head of the NIH, Nobel prize winner, and one of the discoverers of oncogenes (cancer-causing genes), did a bachelors and masters in English before he got into science.
posted by shoos at 11:18 PM on February 15, 2005

Slightly off major but similar enough--I have a religious studies (non-theology) degree and have had zero problems with prospective employers during interviews. I always get the "Why religious studies?" question and it gives me an opportunity to explain how it sharpened my critical thinking, research, and writing skills. Philosophy should give you the opportunity to do the same.

The only issue is with HR departments using a computer scanned resume program. If it doesn't see BA - Business, it might kick you out but a good cover letter and a proper keywords in your resume should cover it.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 11:37 PM on February 15, 2005

I got a BA in philosophy from a small liberal arts school here in Portland. I think the education was great, and figure that it helped my working career, but I'm not sure how much the fact that a BA in philosophy was listed on my resume helped me. I should tell you that I've come across quite a few hiring managers and decision makers in my time who also majored / minored in philosophy and I always got the feeling that they would have liked to hire me even if they didn't, just for the fact that I had a philosophy BA.

In short, it's a great education. It is useful, but not as useful as you might hope. Do it!
posted by pwb503 at 12:37 AM on February 16, 2005

Thanks for the answers, although I suppose I already knew the "right" answer - which is to charge ahead with what I want. The degree is more for self-edification and that's perfectly fine. I have been telling friends and family what I'm planning on doing and always get the "is that going to get you a better job" question. I try to answer, based on my own research, but always feel as if I'm coming across fairly weak.

As far as my own professional background, I've worked in television (technical and logistic) for a brief stint, video games, *nix administration and programming. While my current profession is that of a programmer I have no desire to spend my thirties going for a CS degree.
posted by melt away at 4:39 AM on February 16, 2005

Meh. I majored in English and Philosophy, and while I'm no worse for the wear, I wish I had majored in Math. It would have made my life much easier.

Many philosophy majors wind up as salespeople, since they're not directly qualified for other work.
posted by trharlan at 5:25 AM on February 16, 2005

Degrees are good. Degrees in a specific field are ok. But it's been my experience that work experience is more marketable than anything. I have more education than a lot of the people in my office who make a lot more money than I do.

I have a B.S. in philosophy. It's nigh impossible to explain to someone who doesn't already know why studying philosophy is useful, both professionally and personally. Be prepared for people to think it's not. It's all so intangible: critical thinking, symbolic logic, as well as a history of the thought that influenced art, culture, science, language, etc.

Like ubernostrum mentioned, if people knew better they'd know that those with a mind for philosophy can pretty much pick up on anything.

That being said, I never regret studying philosophy. Aside from maybe the Queen of Sciences, it was the most enriching thing I could have studied. Good luck.
posted by mealy-mouthed at 5:42 AM on February 16, 2005

[Dear God - I seem to have met my nemesis! Begone, ubernostrum!]

I'd have to agree with shoos - having a philosophy degree specifically will be of somewhat limited use, but having a college degree and experience with the liberal arts will serve you well. Liberal arts degrees can be very useful in the business world, although sometimes in unexpected ways - I've seen theater folk, for example, end up putting on plays and events on various topics [often diversity and similar HR-type things] for businesses. Having a degree - any degree - and good grades/GRE scores can be important in getting grad schools to look at you [if that's what you're going for] or in getting businesses to consider you. However, what they're looking for is the ability to think, not the philosophical precepts you're familiar with.
posted by ubersturm at 6:06 AM on February 16, 2005

I have a B.A., an M.A., and several years teaching experience in philosophy. I now work in marketing, and didn't meet any resistance on account of my degree in making the transition. I don't think you should encounter any adverse effects on employability or salary as a result of choosing to major in philosophy: a liberal arts degree, in combination with your decade of work experience, would, all else being equal, be very appealing to many employers.

Philosophy can appear "useless" because of the lack of immediately or obviously transferable skills or content, but some habits of thought and modes of questioning characteristic of some strands of philosophy have acute applicability to business situations (as indeed to many other life situations, such is the generality of the subject).

I would strongly encourage anyone to follow their inclination to read the works of great philosophers. If I were to discourage anyone from majoring in it, it would not be due to any future financial disadvantage that might accrue, but because it is (and has been for at least 10 years) the most moribund of the major academic disciplines, which affects the way (with some exceptions obviously) it's taught in colleges and universities.
posted by muhonnin at 7:08 AM on February 16, 2005

a nearly irrelevant anecdote: a guy I knew in college once asked me why I was studying philosophy, since science had made so much more progress. That was pretty funny and sad.
posted by shoos at 7:37 AM on February 16, 2005

shoos: you should've said, "Science has made progress? Yeah, like building nuclear weapons." That usually shuts 'em up.

I know you didn't ask, but I went to St. John's College, and it pretty much changed my life. It's one of the more general liberal arts degrees available (music, French, Greek, mathematics, science, philosophy, et cetera...) and, I believe, the best undergraduate education available today. It's reading- and discussion-based; no lectures are required, and the school is very small, 450 people.

Ethereal Bligh went there too; I think there are a couple more of us here, as well...
posted by koeselitz at 9:25 AM on February 16, 2005

Ha -- look at all the philosophers coming out of the woodwork.

I don't think my Philosophy B.S. has made a whit of difference in my career opportunities or salary, but I'm a programmer. We've gone through such big busts and one big boom over the past 15 years that they trumped everything else.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:26 AM on February 16, 2005

I almost went to St. John's - I didn't, but I really liked the idea.

As a philos grad student, I can tell you that people will sometimes be seemingly quite embarrassed for me, as they can't quite figure what the point of it is... but as others have said, a liberal arts education in general will be considered the same regardless of the specific major (english, history, french, anthropology, etc will be thrown in the same boat), and although people focused on more immediate causal relations will perhaps consider the degree a waste of time, those who appreciate the strength of a mind as a unity will see that your education is worth quite a bit more than one which merely required the memorization of facts or the unquestioned adoption of certain prescribed techniques etc.

In other words, go for it. Unless you are pursuing a specialized career, getting a job won't have that much to do with what you studied in college, but having a BA will very generally get your foot through more doors.
posted by mdn at 1:25 PM on February 16, 2005

I have degrees in philosophy (BA - cum laude), and anthropology (BA already, MA this spring) and a minor in geology (for what it's worth - not much, unfortunately).

First, let me share some opinions I have about philosophy in general. Many philosophers have told me that philosophy is about the quest for "the Truth." The greeks said that philosophy was about the quest for "the good life." Personally, I have found that philosophy can lead partially to each but more so in other directions. Philosophy has led me to believe that the "Truth" is that there is no "Truth" but only (maybe) some "truths" out there, most, if not all, of which are either interpreted from nature by man if not just made up entirely out of whole cloth. Philosophy has not led me to the secret of living "the good life," but I think that (mostly) reflection upon one's life makes it more worthwhile (while I am not sure it's true that the "unexamined life is not worth living," I do think that examining one's life can be very fulfilling).

Those things were worthwhile to learn, but let me tell you the real value of philosophy (because, as I will explain later, it most likely is not monetary.

Philosophy is the calisthenics of the mind. I will make an analogy to explain myself. Calisthenics or other bodily exercise do not, in themselves, typically lead you anywhere that you are going. That is, one seldom does them toward some other ends than simply making oneself fit. You will not get rich doing them (probably) and you will not build a house doing them. They are simply exercise. However, they do have the effect of making one's body stronger and, possibly, more agile. This strength and agility make many other tasks that one uses one's body for easier. While calisthenics themselves won't be useful in building a house, the result of calisthenics - a stronger body - will be very useful in that task.

Philosophy makes the mind stronger and better able to handle tasks of the mind in much the same way that exercise makes the tasks of the body easier for the body that practices them. For this reason, I have oft said that I wished that every degree seeker in college should first not just be required to take a class in it, but to take a whole degree in it before taking any other major. Most would disagree with me, but I bet many philosophy majors would see at least some sense in the idea. Along the same lines, philosophy serves as an incredibly good base for some other advanced degrees that can make you a lot of money, if that's what you're after. I am thinking particularly of a Juris Doctorate (Law Degree), here, but I am sure there are others. Don't forget that a Ph.D. is a doctorate of philosophy.

There is a major downside to a philosophy degree that I have experienced, but it is mostly one of frustration only. When an engineer is involved in a conversation about bridge building and he says "well, a bridge design that you propose would not work because the tensional forces are too high for the span you are proposing," people tend to say, "well, he has an engineering degree, so he probably knows something about this." When a doctor says that a patient has recently had a heart attack, most people believe him, because he has specialized training in medicine. However, I don't care if you have your Ph.D from Harvard and did post doc at Oxford, if a philosopher says something about his/her speciality, the response is almost always "well, that's just his/her opinion - mine's just as good or better."

The thing is, philosophers very often delve deeply into subjects (like ethics or metaphysics) about which most people have already made up their minds. In fact, they probably haven't given the subjects any serious thought at all, because the "answers" to those "questions" have long been ingrained in them. This is the most dangerous kind of ignorance, and it is the most irritating to someone who has spent a lot of time studying it. Be prepared to have many people tell you, "well, that's just your opinion" about subjects that you have spent years studying and months wading through obscure literature researching. It doesn't matter what you say, they will still be convinced that you don't know any better than they do about the subject. For me, this is very frustrating - not because I want to go around saying that I am right (well, sometimes I do...;) but because, while it is my opinion (just as matters of bridge design are really an engineer's opinion), it's my very considered after a decade's worth of study and dedication opinion. Most people don't give you any credit for that.

A sharp mind is, I think, one of the most valuable things you can poses. Think of philosophy of a whetstone on which you can hone it.

You probably won't make a lot of money with the degree itself, but, especially if you take the degree, you will learn that "value" means a whole lot more than just what something is worth in terms of money.

- Just my opinion...
posted by Yellowbeard at 7:33 AM on February 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

"A sharp mind is, I think, one of the most valuable things you can poses."

- even if you can't spell.
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:54 PM on February 17, 2005

I work in non-profit admin, and most of my colleagues have liberal arts degrees. We all went through school answering some variation of "heh heh, what're gonna do with a useless degree like THAT."

[rolls eyes] Tell anyone with that line to piss off. (Or politely ignore them, if that's more your style.) The subject of your undergraduate degree isn't nearly as important as people like to think, as nicely confirmed by several people above. The education and critical thinking will serve you well in any field. I'm friends with a physican with an undergrad in geology, a theater major who now develops exhibits for a science museum, a lawyer who majored in English, and a research scientist who first earned an Associate's degree in business administration!

(Also, a philosophy degree would distinguish your resume from the sea of Business degrees out there. And if you're being hired by "one of us" with liberal arts degrees, it may even give you a leg up on the competition.)
posted by desuetude at 10:55 AM on February 18, 2005

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