Why Study Philosophy?

Why Study Philosophy?

As the American Philosophical Association explains in their Brief Guide for Undergraduates, those who study Philosophy generally do so because they find it both academically and personally rewarding.

Academically, you learn how to

  • Think clearly and carefully about abstract and often troubling issues.
  • Compare and assess all sides of a disputed issue fairly.
  • Solve problems and provide clear justification for solutions.
  • Write clearly and effectively.

Personally, discussing with care and rigor the most perplexing questions humanity has ever asked can be immensely satisfying:

  • Does God exist?
  • What is real?
  • Do we have free will?
  • What is the ultimate nature of the Universe?
  • How can we know anything?
  • What is the mind?
  • What makes an action right or wrong?
  • What is truth?
  • Are we immortal?
  • What is a good life?
  • What is beauty?
  • What is our place in the Universe?
Rene Descartes

To be sure, these are all very abstract questions.  One may wonder, what is the use in studying them, really?

It turns out that students who are drawn to questions like these and learn how to examine them responsibly develop a number of valuable skills.  In confronting foundational questions, one builds analytical and expressive skills that are fundamental to any field of study. 

It is a common but mistaken inference that because an undergraduate degree in philosophy lacks a specific career path like nursing or engineering, it is useless in seeking a career.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The facts are these: 

  • Philosophy graduates enjoy a higher median mid-career salary than History, English, Psychology, Communications, Biology, Criminal Justice, Business Administration, Business Management, Education, Sociology, Nursing, or even Information Technology degree holders.

  • Given the remarkable versatility of philosophy graduates, finding a job turns out to be less challenging than one might think. As Carol Marie Cooper reports in the NY Times,

Jorge Secada, director of undergraduate studies in philosophy at Virginia, said his students almost always found jobs -- though not in philosophy. "We are doing better in finding employment for graduates than most majors in the arts and sciences area," he said. "Apparently people in the real world think philosophy majors are well trained. They are trained to think, to analyze. They express themselves well. They write."

...philosophers are now more employable than ever - the number of philosophy graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation rose by 13 per cent over the same period (although the overall number of students in higher education has also increased in that time).

Academics say their graduates are finding it easier to get work after university as employers begin to understand more about the critical skills the degree offers. "My information is only anecdotal, but my experience suggests that unemployment rates are very low indeed, at least if one looks past the first year or two out of university," says Wayne Martin, director of graduate studies in the department of philosophy at the University of Essex.

"This will surprise those who think of philosophy as foggy speculation about deep and dark matters. But anyone who has been trained in academic philosophy will know the astonishing discipline of mind that it requires and cultivates."

  •  In another report, the Guardian (UK) quotes Simon Blackburn on changing public perceptions of philosophy:

The popular philosopher Simon Blackburn, a professor at Cambridge University, sees the improving career prospects of philosophy graduates as part of a wider change of public perception. "I guess the public image of a philosopher has tended to concentrate on an ancient Greek in a toga, or some unwashed hippy lying around not doing very much," he says. "I do detect a change in the way the public sees philosophers. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who come to philosophy events nowadays."

  •  Philosopher Eric Steinhart describes how the skills philosophy graduates developed underwrite valuable career skills and concludes that philosophy is excellent preparation for jobs in the information economy.

The fact that a degree in philosophy has no particular career path is actually an advantage for the philosophy graduate since their fundamental and, apparently, rare skills make them as versatile as they are valuable.   Yet where the study of philosophy really shines is in preparation for professional and graduate school.

Law School

The analytical skills developed by studying philosophy provide one of the best preparations for Law School and the practice of law, as J.D./Ph.D. Keith Burgess-Jackson explains in this short essay.

The results from the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) illustrate Burgess-Jackson's point.  While students are often directed to pursuing Political Science or Criminal Justice as preparation for law school, actual results tell a very different story.

Graduate School

Increasingly, students recognize that the undergraduate degree is no longer a sure road to a good career and plan to go on to graduate school to pursue a masters degree or even the doctorate.  Graduate schools typically require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and here again philosophy graduates do outstandingly well.

Business School

An especially popular graduate program is the Masters in Business Administration (MBA), which usually requires taking the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) for admission.  As results on the GMAT show, students who believe majoring in business is the best preparation are clearly mistaken.

Medical School

Although the American Association of Medical Colleges--the organization that administers the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)--does not publish data on how specific majors do on the examination, those who have seen the data say that philosophy graduates do better than all but one or two disciplines.  This is born out by admissions rates: Philosophy graduates have higher admissions rates to Medical School (60.2%) than any other discipline except biomedical engineering.

To be sure, it is not clear whether students who are drawn to philosophy do so well because they've studied philosophy or students who would do so well tend also to be drawn to philosophy.  There's no way to tease out an answer to this question short of conducting a highly unethical experiment.  In light of all this evidence, though, it is difficult to see how studying the greatest thinkers the world has ever known with the greatest rigor logic provides would have nothing to do with ensuring these remarkable results.

Perhaps as a result of all this, philosophy is an increasingly popular field of study.  The NY Times has explored this phenomenon in two articles: One from the standpoint of students, another from the standpoint of a philosophy professor at a program remarkably similar to ours.

Finally, since so many of our students go on for graduate study, it is worth mentioning that the university's division of community outreach sponsors test preparation courses for the various graduate admissions examinations listed above. See this page for more information on the test prep program.