Q: What’s the difference between a philosophy graduate and a bench?
A: A bench can support a family.
The joke, like most jokes, rests on false stereotype: the notion that should you pursue a degree in philosophy, you will find yourself unable to find meaningful employment. But that premise is wrong.
Let us ask what assumptions this thought might be founded on. It is not often spelt out, but I think the rationale typically goes something like this:
In pursuing a philosophy degree, you pursue questions that have no real-life application. When you study the nature of knowledge, or the fundamental structure of reality, or what constitutes right and wrong, you are studying things that are irrelevant to employers, who will consequently be reluctant to employ you.
The argument fails in a number of ways.
First, the claim that philosophical questions have no real-life application is far too broad. Knowledge in applied and medical ethics is becoming more and more crucial (and hence more and more employable), given the boundaries (physical and ethical) that science and medicine are pushing in our age of wonders. (At the time of writing this, I have just read that they are growing brains in laboratories. That alone could form the basis of a thesis in applied ethics.) Universities, hospitals and labs often involve ethics committees these days. There are other cases (logic, political philosophy, etc.), but I will not pursue this point further.
Rather, let us say for the sake of argument that in your philosophical studies, you really will pursue questions that have no real-life relevance whatsoever. Even so, I maintain that the argument above fails: your philosophy degree will nevertheless render you eminently employable.
The reason is that even if the content of what you study has no real-life application does not entail that your studies will not grant you abilities that are relevant in real-life. Lifting weights on a dumbbell has extremely limited real-life applications in and of itself (how many dumbbells are you required to lift in your daily life?), but it develops muscles that will prove useful in other endeavours.
Similarly, even if philosophical studies involve content that does not see play in the job market, engaging in philosophical studies will nevertheless help you develop cognitive skills that will prove very relevant in employment.
Indeed, modern life is evolving in such a way that information (or ‘content’) is becoming less and less important, and abilities are becoming more and more crucial. In our age of internet, information has become plentiful and easy to find, and hence it has correspondingly devalued. Information has never been cheaper than it is today. Millions and millions share their knowledge of information freely on Wikipedia, and many other free online encyclopaedias. Google has enabled us to quickly and efficiently find whatever specific information we need. Spend a few hours with an internet connection, and you could impress a dinner date with your knowledge of Tanzanian culture. However, despite information being cheap, abilities are not. You could learn all about hearts in a few hours on the internet, but you will not be qualified to perform open-heart surgery (I urge you not to put this claim to the test).
Indeed, as information becomes more and more plentiful, cognitive abilities become more and more important. Abilities to sort and classify information, to analyse, to spot holes or inadequacies, to formulate strategies on the basis of this information – all these abilities have more value the more information we have. This is all simple economics. If cloth becomes plentiful, then people who can sew clothes and work with textiles are highly sought.
So, if you are asking yourself ‘what can I do with a philosophy degree?’, the answer is anything that requires clear and concise thinking (which is to say nearly anything. Except open-heart surgery. Please don’t try that with a philosophy degree). I’ve seen philosophy students excel in an incredible variety of areas, from finance, consultancy, politics, civil service, law, startups, filmmaking, and so forth. Given the breadth and applicability of skills that philosophy cultivates, it doesn’t really make sense to put down a standard ‘career path’ for philosophy graduates.
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Down to brass tacks. What skills (relevant to employers) exactly does philosophy equip you with? There are too many to list, but I will identify three main categories below:
Philosophy trains you to understand things with clarity. It allows you to comprehend the logical space quickly and well, to see problems and argumentative gaps. It trains you to quickly discern the key conclusions of a text, and reconstruct the arguments that intend to establish the conclusion. It instructs you to identify problems quickly and clearly. All this are fundamental skills that one needs to be able to do philosophy. I can assure you that reading a chapter of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason can take you longer than reading an entire book. Philosophical texts are some of the hardest things you will read. Having read read numerous philosophy texts over the course of your degree, you will find it much easier to read and understand just about anything else.
The analytical skills above allow you to identify problems with conceptual clarity. This in itself puts you well on the path to solving them. But philosophy also gives you an additional edge in solving these problems. What is somewhat unique to philosophy is that it encourages two key mental traits that are rare to find together:
- It encourages rigorous and logical thought: In order to do philosophy, you will have to think in a systematic and ordered manner. There is, simply put, no other way to succeed at philosophical endeavours.
- It cultivating outside-the-box thinking: Philosophy exhorts us to challenge assumptions we typically take for granted. This forces us to think about matters in new ways, which encourages creativity, lateral thinking, and independency of thought. A philosophy graduate is less likely to follow group-think, and more likely to forge his or her own intellectual path. Philosophy trains you not to take what you are told for granted, but to constantly question, which in turn encourages novel thinking.
Put together, these two skills are a potent mix, ensuring that one is well-equipped to solve problems of almost any kind.
Not only does philosophy help you analyse and solve problems, but it helps you present these accomplishments to others clearly and concisely. A philosophy degree demands a tremendous degree of clarity, whether written (e.g. essays) or spoken (e.g. presentations). Writing a confusing or unclear essay is a fast and easy way to do badly in your philosophy courses. Philosophy forces you to state extremely complex ideas with a multiplicity of moving parts in clear prose.
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All this is well and good, but where’s the evidence, I hear you ask? Quantifying the above skills is a difficult task, but what I can say is that philosophy graduates consistently outperform other degrees when it comes to assessments such as the Graduate Record Examinations (or GRE) and the Law School Admissions Test (or LSAT). With respect to the GRE, philosophy majors top verbal and analytical writing sections. (Unsurprisingly, math majors top the math section). Overall, philosophers did best in the GRE of all subject majors. This is consistent throughout the various years, and not a one-off statistical anomaly. See the following:
Philosophy graduates also do amazingly on the LSAT, and have the highest admissions rate of all disciplines to law schools in the US:
And this is something employers recognise and reward, as seen from the fact that philosophy graduates tie with mathematics graduates for having the highest percentage increase in salary from starting to midcareer salary:
All in all, the stereotype that philosophy graduates find it difficult to gain meaningful employment is, like all stereotypes, a lazy and misguided one. If you are interested in philosophy, please pursue it – not in spite of your employment prospects, but because of them. For more write-ups on the employability of philosophy graduates in the news, see the following:
Dr. Qu Hsueh Ming