While the description of this article is somewhat facetious, the fact of the matter remains that philosophy is not the kind of academic degree that leads easily to a variety of attractive, well-paying employment prospects. Philosophy teaches you how to think, introduces you to the “important” questions of life, and motivates you to always ask questions and seek clarity in your intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, no one will write you a check for doing that once you’ve graduated, so it’s up to you to find a way to make those traits marketable. This can and has been done successfully by many people with a BA in philosophy, but it is not easy. Thankfully, you didn’t read Kant and Heidegger because it was easy, so you may well be up to the task.
Don’t Go to Graduate School
Philosophy majors are often so well acquainted with the things that “really matter” that they have a hard time imagining themselves doing anything other than thinking, writing, and maybe teaching for a living. The only job in the world that offers that possibility is university professorship, and so a great many college graduates (or soon-to-be graduates) who’ve been infected by the “love of wisdom” get the bright idea that they should go to graduate school and enter academia. Unfortunately, this is a bad idea for all kinds of students except one, to be discussed at the end of this section.
For everyone else, the fact has to be faced that the number of jobs in academia is not sufficient to support the number of new Doctors of Philosophy turned out by graduate programs every year (for a more in-depth study, see this article, and note that philosophy is not even included in the listed fields). If you get a PhD, it is unlikely that you will find a job as appealing as the ones your professors had. Large research universities and small liberal arts colleges in nice suburban towns are very hard to get into. I went the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, which certainly falls into the latter category. In my senior year, the philosophy department interviewed candidates for a single position as a tenure-track assistant professor. They had over 200 applications, and that’s for an assistant professorship at a small regional college located in an economically distressed city. Two hundred men and women with PhDs in philosophy thought that that was a better situation than the one they were already in. It’s the same at every university in the country.
This, of course, is only important if you actually get into graduate school, which is itself a painstakingly rigorous process. If you want to get in and have any chance of employment in the future, you need to be looking at top-notch schools, which means you need an outstanding GPA and fantastic GRE scores. Philosophy is the kind of discipline that has so few academic opening every year that it honestly might matter if you did or did not go to an Ivy League school for your doctorate. Even then, there are hundreds of applications from across the country for very few spots in each new cohort. Every year, even mediocre graduate programs have to turn down applications from stellar philosophy students because they found a few who were even more stellar. It’s not enough to be good. You have to be great. You have to be among the absolute best, which probably means you have to come from a highly respected and rigorous undergraduate university in the first place. Basically, the glut of doctorates out there has reduced philosophical graduate school to a bunch of kids who got their BAs at Harvard and Yale applying to Yale and Harvard (respectively) for their PhDs. There are very few people who fit the mold, and you probably aren’t one of them. (This should actually console you, since that handful of people who do get in are still going to have a terribly hard time finding tenured jobs once they’re finished.)
The last consideration is the nature of graduate school itself. The whole object is to go and become a professional academic. “Professional academic” is not the same as “philosopher.” Even the best philosophy professors I had in college, who were genuinely brilliant, dedicated people, were not philosophers. Money does not magically appear in their bank accounts in exchange for their thinking, no matter how great an idea might be. They get paid to teach and to write. That’s what graduate school will be about, too. You will have to teach and assist professors with their own research in order to “earn you keep” and get funded (more on funding in a moment). In addition to that, you will have to be at work writing a brilliant and original dissertation, as well as a journal article or two to make yourself more employable. All this will be in addition to meticulously learning the details of the entire history of philosophy, as well as the minutia of your chosen specialization. In other words, graduate “students” have a lot to do beyond studying. The fact that there is so much to do is the reason so many graduate students take more than the minimum time to complete their degrees. Writing a dissertation, which is the primary task of a PhD course of study, involves reading a bunch (maybe 100 or 150) of articles related to your topic, and then distilling those articles into something new and unique that you can be the first one to say. It takes a lot more than intelligence and philosophical ability, it takes dedication and work ethic, a quality tragically uncommon in some of the brightest minds.
With regard to funding, the monetary question is an important one. If most people go to college at age 18, they graduate at age 22. If you go to graduate school, you can expect to stay in school for at least another six years, even if the required minimum is four or five. It would not be terribly uncommon to stay even longer. During that time, there will technically be a tuition fee for your study. However, the most common situation is to get institutional aid, which comes in a few forms:
Fellowships. These are the best kind of aid to receive, and thus are usually the most limited. You don’t owe anything on a fellowship. The university simply waives your tuition and gives you some money to live on (roughly $20,000 for the entire year). It’s rare to get more than a year or two of fellowship money, if you get any at all.
Teaching Assistantship. The same benefits as a fellowship, but with a few strings attached. In exchange for the tuition waiver and the living stipend, you owe the university the service of teaching (or helping a full-fledged professor teach) an undergraduate class or two per semester on this kind of aid. While this would be good experience for a career as a professor if that were a real possibility, it is also a significant drain on your time and energy. Hours will be whittled away grading papers and preparing lectures that should have gone into writing that dissertation.
Research Assistantship. Again, this entails the same benefits as the fellowship, but you owe the university the service of assisting one of its professors with his or her research. This will once again result in a waste of your time and energy, although it will have what would have been a payoff if a teaching career were a realistic possibility–your name might well appear on a journal article.
Usually, no combination of the above forms of aid is available indefinitely. It’s not uncommon for five or six years to be the cutoff, in which case you have to look for a job for every year thereafter while you work on your dissertation. This could be an adjunct professorship somewhere (gaining teaching experience, again), but it would not be uncommon to wait tables, often making more money.
So, the financial question boils down to this: Can you afford, in the long run, to spend six to eight years of your life (specifically, of your 20s) living on $20,000 per year in order to earn a doctorate, and then not be able to get a job using the degree in which you invested so much time, energy, and opportunity cost?
There is one kind of student who can afford this gamble, and that is the independently self-sufficient student. That is the same kind of student who could have taken those same years and backpacked through Europe without a care in the world, not needing to worry about the future, marriage, a family, etc. This person need not be independently “wealthy,” per se, but will have to have some sort of guaranteed access to so much money that it doesn’t matter how he or she spends his or her time. In that case, it is not possible to have “wasted” the time. For this kind of student, who is rare but does exist, these seven or eight years of doctoral study were a wonderful opportunity to learn about philosophy in depth and engage in some writing. This student can afford to take nine or ten years to finish (if the university allows it), and may even regard this time as “fun.” You are not this guy.
Your Other Options
Now that we agree on how dismally bleak the graduate school situation is, it’s time to consider what to do with a BA in philosophy, and kiss the dream of a PhD goodbye. Believe it or not, there are options, although none of them is specific and tailor-made to the philosophy degree, a problem unique to the humanities. Chemistry majors can at least imagine finding non-academic work in chemistry, as can engineering majors, business majors, and math majors. Philosophy majors, on the other hand, need to be aware that they have spent the four years of their undergraduate studies not acquainting themselves with a body of knowledge that the world finds valuable (as it does chemistry, engineering, and mathematics). Rather, they have spent those years acquiring a set of intellectual skills. The skills are what need to be capitalized upon, not the body of knowledge.
So, what are the skills? This might well vary from one philosophy program to the next, depending on its individual strengths and foci, but there are a few general commonalities:
Philosophy majors should be aware of themselves as logical people, especially if they have taken courses in logic and symbolic logic. Most people graduate college without these courses, and so their ability to parse an argument, state propositions precisely, and spot fallacies is far behind that of the philosophy major.
Philosophy majors are often also familiar with the realm of rhetoric in a way that most people are not (although communications, marketing, journalism, and English majors will likely also have exposure). This means that philosophers are able not only to assess the meaning of a proposition or an argument, but they are also able to decipher the manner in which it is phrased. By the same token, we often have a gift for burying the right meaning beneath layers of rhetoric, a skill that can come in handy when you have to communicate undesirable information in the most desirable way possible.
Philosophy majors will often have a higher ethical awareness than many of their colleagues, especially if they have taken advanced courses in ethics. While many people operate on a “gut feeling” of what should be done in a given circumstance, the philosophy major can articulate a rational argument to support a given course of action.
Philosophy majors, because of the breadth of philosophy, are sometimes more conversant across disciplines than graduates of other fields. It might be the case that a chemistry major can’t say anything helpful or intelligent about history, politics, literature, art, etc. The philosophy major, on the other hand, might well have some acquaintance with these other fields, and be able to converse intelligently about them. While you are still a layman (unless you took a double-major), you are probably less of a layman than many others.
Philosophy majors are often able to synthesize different kinds of information into coherent systems in a way that others are not. While critical thinking skills might give you the capacity to examine minute details (which is good), philosophy has also trained you to see the “big picture,” and this can make you a valuable asset to people for whom that is more difficult.
Lastly, philosophy majors have spent a lot of time reading and writing in their undergraduate careers, and so their verbal reasoning skills are often above-average, to say the least. Good philosophy majors are often good writers, and written communication skills are becoming less and less common, which makes them more and more valuable.
Now that you have a handy list of skills you probably acquires in your time as an undergraduate, the question still remains, What can I do with those skills? As I said before, no one will pay you to be a philosopher and wander the streets of your city asking people questions. So, if eating food and living in a building are important to you, you will need to find a job, as worldly and menial as that might seem. Here are a few options:
Writing. There are a few different options open to the philosophy graduate, here, and all of them entail a certain degree of risk, though not as much as philosophy graduate school. Finding a job working for a newspaper, magazine, or an online outlet (like Yahoo!) might be difficult. The possibility of freelancing is riskier still, but, if you’re a good enough writer and have enough persistence, it is possible to ease your way into a comfortable middle-class life as a writer. Creativity will be a requirement.
Teaching. You won’t be able to teach philosophy, but high school English is pretty close. Your degree in philosophy does not automatically qualify you, although some states may have sufficiently relaxed licensure requirements that you could get hired and earn your teaching certification while working. Another option would be to work as a substitute teacher while studying for teacher certification. Yet another option is to work with a program like Teach for America or the New York City Teaching Fellows. If you want this bad enough, there’s a way to do it.
Management. Depending on the company, and perhaps more on your interview abilities, it might not be too hard to sell your skill set as a good one for entry-level management opportunities, if you have a desire to work in the private sector. Your critical thinking and communications skills will come in handy.
Government. The public sector can almost certainly make use of your skill set somehow. (Incidentally, note that Bill Clinton was a philosophy major at Georgetown.) The formation of public policy, the communication of that policy in speeches and briefs, public relations, campaign staffing, etc., all require the skills that you have. After you’ve been in that world for a while, you might even want to run for office.
Law. Law schools generally have no prerequisite undergraduate major or even prerequisite courses. All you need is a good head on your shoulders, great critical thinking abilities, a good LSAT score, and the willingness to pay the sometimes ridiculous tuition of law school. While it will be costly, it is more likely that you’ll find a good job as a lawyer than that you will as a philosophy major. It would really be a good idea to talk to some lawyers, though, before you decide if that is the life you want to lead. My reading indicates that too many lawyers enter their field because they don’t know what else to do with their lives. A healthy number of these are probably philosophy majors.
Medicine. While there are certain prerequisite science courses needed to get into medical school (which you should take if you’re seriously considering it), there is no required major. As with law school, the critical thinking skills needed to be a good philosophy student will also help get you into medical school. If it’s something you really want, some clinical work and volunteering experience will also be important. If you’ve already graduated and did not take the necessary science courses, look into post-baccalaureate pre-medical programs, which allow to take those courses before entering medical school. The program at Columbia University, if you get in, allows the option to take a third year to get a Master’s degree in Bioethics, a likely point of interest for the philosophy major.
While many options exist, professional thinking is not really one of them. That’s simply the world in which we live. The philosophy major need not lose heart, however. There are options. It is possible to live a happy life with a BA in philosophy!