A Word from an Alumni: What can I do with a philosophy degree?

3eb4b70(The writer of the following is Lester Lim, who graduated with a degree in philosophy from NUS in 2010. His honors thesis revolved around the treatment of language by French deconstructionist thinker Jacques Derrida, and the Madhyamika works of Nagarjuna. He currently works as an investment associate for a UK private equity firm.)

THE MOST COMMON questions undergraduates have when considering in taking up a degree in philosophy is “What can I do with such a degree?” or “What are my career prospects, other than being an academic?” Unfortunately these are also the most practical questions that put off otherwise what would be a very rewarding four-year undergraduate period reading philosophy. It is not too far off to say that philosophy is perhaps the most misunderstood degree in the today’s world.

I stood at that path some five to six years ago at the second year of my university when I had to decide on my major. Researching on what some philosophy graduates did after obtaining a degree painted a rather bleak picture – some ended up in teaching, others in generalist positions in the civil service or private sector – nothing that I was too excited about. I was convinced however that philosophy – being such a crucial study of human thought, and thinking – was critically needed in today’s world, where an overload of information oftentimes obscures clarity of thought, and innovation is strikingly absent.

While a good number of my peers took on degrees in finance, business or law, I took the leap of faith and jumped into a major of philosophy without really knowing what was in store for me after that four years. Eastern philosophy classes that taught me the past and future were mental conjectures and nothing existed beyond the “now” provided some assurances. Throughout the four years of reading philosophy, I was however surrounded by a very close knitted community of extremely intelligent and passionate individuals who were constantly pushing each other on at the edges of human thought. These individuals have and continue to leave an indelible mark on my life, in a way that I never believe a class in statistics or accounting could ever do. Beyond the rote memorization of some mathematical or statistical concepts, reading philosophy challenged me to revalue not only the ways I viewed the world, but also the manner in which I lived and was a part of it.

Those four years flew by before I was left clutching nothing but my resume, staring into the dark abyss of the corporate world. Nietzsche’s line that if I gazed long enough into the abyss, it would also start gazing back at me made perfect sense. I had to sell the story of philosophy, without relegating it, as I believed most corporate echelons would, as a generalist, meaningless degree without any domain specific knowledge.

IF I COULD SAY, the biggest mistaken belief about the corporate world is that to be suited to (and be successful in) some of the best and most rewarding jobs, you need to have a paper certification in certain disciplines. This cannot be further from the truth. Yes, you may obtain a license to drive a car (a technical, domain specific skill), but to be a good driver you not only need to know how to drive a car, but you also need to understand the behavior of other drivers around you (Will they skip the red light? Do they overtake without signaling?) And more often than not, these are the more critical knowledge to have than the act of knowing how to drive itself. This is the reason why even some experienced drivers feel extremely uncomfortable in driving in another country or even a neighboring city.

Employers today are increasingly recognizing this fact. The key skills an education could and should impart must involve something more than the mere ability to impose a standard set of formulas on a given problem — which is very much like the proverbial putting of the cart before the horse. When we approach today’s problems with a given set of attitude or formula, we shave off what otherwise could be very important edges of an issue with a cookie-cutter.

Some of the most common questions that have surfaced in job interviews with firms like McKinsey, Boston Consulting, or Google test precisely a person’s ability to think about questions not only in a critically sound, but also innovative way. These questions are in the nature of “How many ping-pong balls can fill a Boeing 747?” or “What is the weight of the Empire State Building?” The most myopic answers provide an answer immediately to a question that, rightfully, should have no answers.

The biggest assets you could bring into a job are precisely the skills that training in philosophy would impart. These are characteristics including but not limited to a perpetual thirst for knowledge, a logical mindset/analytical capacity, clarity of thought, questioning of basic yet fundamental assumptions, and the generation of highly original solutions to a complex problem. Because philosophy generally is a study of all fundamental matters, it is an extremely malleable discipline that is translatable to whatever fields you choose to work in. This can be as disparate as say, shipping, to finance, to human resources, policy-making, journalism, or even entrepreneurship. Philosophy should be regarded as the most fundamental discipline of all disciplines simply because it is the only subject of which the study of its fundamental nature is a question for itself. The question of what is the fundamental nature of physics is not a question for physics to answer, and neither is a study of the fundamental nature of literature, a question for literature to answer.

The biggest danger about having a purely specialized training in a subject, say, economics, is to expect that the skills you learn in university to be the biggest asset you have going into a job. If, for instance, your biggest assets are your abilities to calculate the cost of a project accurately, then be prepared to be replaced in five years by the next bright fresh graduate who is able to carry out the same analysis with greater precision, and of course, markedly less pay. And if that does not happen, a new technology will soon replace you (it has already happened with algorithm trading companies that execute split-second deals beyond the precipices of human ability). Promotion at a job also certainly does not happen because you happen to cross that mythical barrier of a thousand correct calculations, or submission of a hundred accurate reports.

THE “REAL WORLD” and consequently the ability to not only have applicable skills but to derive meaning from whatever work one pursues after university can be intimidating for some, because one understands so little of it. But there is no mythical “real world” out there that is any different from the one that you are living right now. You will realize that the greatest skills that will prepare you for life after university already exist within the confines of the university halls. The key to this is to realize that the kind of degree you will be obtaining will be less important than the kind of experiences you will have, and the human relationships you will build during your years in university. And even less so when compared to the person you have transformed to be as a result of your time. Studying philosophy does not run counter to these but will have the deepest relevance across all conceivable disciplines to your attitude, values, and thinking about these matters.

Successful organizations and corporations today look to avoid groupthink and hire highly intelligent and passionate people across all disciplines. The Monetary Authority of Singapore, for example, accepts graduates from all academic backgrounds from history to computer science into its management associate program. And so do the world’s leading consultancy firms – McKinsey, Bain & Co, and Boston Consulting, just to name a few. If these institutions have already jettisoned the old models of building up a bank with only bankers, or a business with only businessmen – why haven’t you?

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