Why study philosophy?
The best reason to study philosophy is that you love reading, writing and talking about philosophy! But let's elaborate a bit on what skills and knowledge you get out of this, and what value a philosophical education has in your career after University.
What will it do for my intellectual development?
You study philosophy because you are interested in certain questions concerning our place in the world. What are our obligations to each other, or to the environment? Is there a method for gaining knowledge about the world? If so, what makes it a good one? Could a machine ever be consciously aware of its surroundings, or itself? What political arrangements are best from a moral point of view? Questions such as these can't be settled by scientific or historical inquiry, and perhaps they don't admit of conclusive answers. Nevertheless, some answers to them can be judged better than others: they are more logically consistent, or they are more fully articulated, or they accord better with what we do know from scientific or historical inquiry. Appraising answers according to such standards is doing philosophy. It improves one's ability to see relationships between different claims, and one's ability to state things clearly. Even if we can't have conclusive proof concerning these questions, by doing philosophy we can achieve useful clarification.
In addition, learning about how these foundational questions have been answered by past thinkers is an important part not only of deeply understanding the answers that philosophers give (and debate!) nowadays, but of deeply understanding our culture as a whole.
Finally there is a case to be made that by better articulating one's thoughts one sees new options:
Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. (Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy)
Our students say the same things
The University has asked its students how their studies have developed certain core intellectual skills. The numbers show that the self-reported improvements in these core skills are much greater among Philosophy students than among University of Guelph students overall.
|How many students say their studies have “very much” developed the skill|
|1st year||4th year||Change|
|"writing clearly and effectively"|
|Guelph students overall||23%||37%||+14|
|"speaking clearly and effectively"|
|Guelph students overall||17%||30%||+13|
|"thinking critically and analytically"|
|Guelph students overall||40%||54%||+14|
Source: 2011 NSSE survey of University of Guelph students; data supplied by Office of Resource Planning and Analysis
How will it help me get into graduate or professional school?
Philosophy students do extremely well on entrance tests for professional and graduate schools. (One can debate whether this shows a causal relationship. And if one can debate something, some philosopher has debated it.)
GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) Remarkably, philosophy majors do better than business majors on the GMAT—in fact they do better than all majors except Engineering, Mathematics or Physics majors. (See Table 4 of Profile of GMAT® Candidates.)
LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) Philosophy students outperform all students except those in "Physics/math." (See Table 3 of LSAT Scores of Economics Majors: The 2003-2004 Class Update.)
GRE (Graduate Record Examination) In 2012-13 philosophy students had the highest mean scores on the Verbal portion, the highest mean scores on the Analytical Writing portion, and—somewhat surprisingly—their mean scores on the Quantitative portion were the second-highest (after Economics) in the social sciences and humanities. (See Table 4 of Graduate Record Examinations: Guide to the Use of Scores, 2012-13.) The American Physical Society's blog puts it simply: “Philosophy dominates.”
How will it help me to get a job?
Employers want the skills philosophy develops. In fact, they want them more than any other skills:
|Proportion of employers who say colleges should place more emphasis than they do today on selected learning outcomes||%|
The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing
Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences
The ability to analyze and solve complex problems
The ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions
Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings
The ability to innovate and be creative
Source: “Employers' views on college learning in the wake of the economic downturn,” survey from January 2010.
Accordingly, Philosophy majors command good salaries after graduation. You can look this up yourself: click twice (to sort from highest to lowest) on “Mid-Career Median Salary” on the Wall Street Journal’s table summarizing lifetime earnings data for people with a wide range of undergraduate majors. You may be surprised by how close Philosophy is to the top of that list. (Another fact: Philosophy and Math are tied for highest “Percent change from starting to mid-career salary.” Both fields of study develop core intellectual skills, useful no matter what you do.)
Articles about Philosophy and the workplace
Business is the most popular college major, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice Washington Post (January 28, 2017)
students who major in business made significantly fewer gains in college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning than those who studied mathematics, science, and engineering, as well as the traditional liberal arts (philosophy, history, and literature).
A Harvard Medical School professor makes the case for the liberal arts and philosophy Washington Post (December 27, 2015)
…what a continuously giving gift philosophy has been… If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything… It has helped me in immeasurable ways along my trajectory from philosophy to an academic medical career.
The Earning Power of Philosophy Majors The Atlantic (September 3, 2015)
Experts say that while philosophy majors might not come out of college with the skill-set that business majors have, they have creative problem solving abilities that set them apart. And indeed, there’s a stellar roster of CEOs and executives who have degrees in philosophy…
That ‘useless’ liberal arts degree has become tech’s hottest ticket Forbes (August 17, 2015)
What kind of boss hires a thwarted actress for a business-to-business software startup? Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s 42-year-old cofounder and CEO… He’s the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.
What do philosophers do? The Atlantic (July 8, 2014)
…for the most part, the philosophers aren’t deploying their firm grasp of Kierkegaard in their private-sector work. Rather, it’s the skills that philosophers are trained in—critical thinking, clear writing, quick learning—that translate well to life outside of academia.
How your philosophy degree can be relevant to startup success Fast Company (May 2, 2014)
Dahl is now VP of technology at Brightcove, where he’s in charge of product and strategy for the Zencoder business. Though he still considers himself a software developer, Dahl’s philosophy degree proves more useful in his work than one might think.
The unexpected way philosophers are changing the world of business The Huffington Post (March 5, 2014)
…many leaders of the tech world—from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman to Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield—say that studying philosophy was the secret to their success as digital entrepreneurs.
Meet the philosopher kings of Silicon Valley The Tech Street Journal (July 5, 2013)
In startup land, getting out of the building and moving fast are prerequisites… Philosophy—oft maligned as self-indulgent and impractical—has no place in the world of startups, right? The philosopher kings of Silicon Valley may beg to differ.
The management myth The Atlantic (June, 2006)
I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise…. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates…. When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.