Can I Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree?

by Brendan Lalor

If you want to “be all you can be” as a human being, it’s hard to imagine a more practical course of training than the study of philosophy. As Aristotle argued, philosophical activity — reflective, appreciative understanding of and speculation about the world — is conducive to the most fulfilling life. Hence, philosophy is a perfectly practical area of study for people who care to live good lives. But even we philosophers have to consider the other sort of “practical” use of philosophy more closely tied to employment and economic considerations.

Not an MBA, a Philosophy degree
Here’s the beginning of, “The Management Myth,” which appeared in the June, 2006 Atlantic Monthly:

Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead 

by Matthew Stewart

During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy – nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.

The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. 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, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” 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.

For the rest of the article, visit the Atlantic site.

Philosophers Score Better
As the University of St. Thomas Philosophy Department reports:

The University of Virginia’s Office of Career Planning and Placement reports in “A Comparative Study by Major of Law School Admission Test Performance,” that the average LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) score for a philosophy major at that school was approximately 15 points higher than the average for any other major. In addition, the American Medical Association conducted a study in which they found philosophy majors had the third highest acceptance rate into American medical schools. York University investigated philosophy major’s performance on the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and also found philosophy majors performed an average of 5% better than the average. In the verbal portion of the exam, philosophy majors scored higher than all other fields, including English. The quantitative portion of the GRE is historically where humanities majors do poorly, however philosophy majors still performed higher than social science majors with the exception of economics. 


Test Performance by Undergraduate Major






GRE Verbal

GRE Quant.

1 Mathematics Mathematics Philosophy Physics
2 Economics Philosophy English Mathematics
3 Philosophy Engineering Anthropology Engineering
4 Engineering Chemistry History Computer Science
5 Chemistry Economics Foreign Languages Chemistry
6 Other Humanities English Physics Other Science
7 Foreign Languages Computer Science Other Humanities Economics
8 English Foreign Languages Journalism Biology
9 Anthropology History Political Science Philosophy
10 Biology Other Humanities Biology Anthropology

(These data were reported in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 66:1, 1992. The rankings are by average mean differential.)


Philosophers Get Jobs
However amusing the stereotype of the unemployed philosopher is, it could hardly reflect employment statistics less well. As the American Philosophical Association reports, only 2.3% of philosophy majors were unemployed, based on National Research Council data for 1995. That’s less than half the national unemployment rate at the time. So philosophers are employed at a rate that easily bests average. While not all employed philosophers work in educational institutions, 79.7% were. As for the rest: 6.9% worked for a private company, 4.4% were self-employed, 4.6% worked for a non-profit, and 4.1% worked for government.

Why are philosophers so overwhelmingly employed? They have learned to think critically and creatively, to articulate, and to find outside-the-box solutions. Take, for instance, this snip from a Chronicle of Higher Education piece from 1982 reported on the St. Mary’s Philosophy Department website:

My company took a contract to extract beryllium from a mine in Arizona. I called in several consulting engineers and asked, ‘Can you furnish a chemical or electrolytic process that can be used at the mine site to refine directly from ore?’ Back came a report saying that I was asking for the impossible — a search of the computer tapes had indicated that no such process existed. I paid the engineers for their work. Then I hired a student from Stanford University who was home for the summer. He was majoring in Latin American history with a minor in philosophy. I gave him an airplane and a credit card and told him, ‘Go to Denver and research the Bureau of Mines archives and locate a process for the recovery of beryllium.’ He left on Monday. I forgot to tell him that I was sending him for the impossible. He came back on Friday. He handed me a pack of notes and booklets and said, ‘Here is the process. It was developed 33 years ago at a government research station at Rolla, Mo.’ He then continued, ‘And here also are other processes for the recovery of mica, strontium, columbium, and yttrium, which also exist as residual ores that contain beryllium.’ After one week of research, he was making sounds like a metallurgical expert. He is now back in school, but I am keeping track of him. When other companies are interviewing the engineering and the business-administration mechanics, I’ll be there looking for that history-and-philosophy major. 

As the Times of London opines:

In this country [England], the Higher Education Statistics Survey puts philosophy of science right up with medicine in its employment record for graduates. 

Philosophy is, in commercial jargon, the ultimate “transferable work skill.” That is not the only argument for expanding philosophy departments, and encouraging sixth-formers to read Plato, or John Stuart Mill on liberty. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, has cautioned against an obsession with the narrowly vocational. Lecturing the Confederation of British Industry on the “sly utilitarianism” of employers, he defends a liberal education as needing “no justification beyond the satisfaction and enjoyment that it brings.” Teenagers waiting for their A level results and pondering degree courses should consider philosophy. It is rewarding in itself; and it could nowadays be the passport to a successful, varied career. (15 August 1998)

Philosophers’ Monetary Compensation is Adequate
According to the Princeton Review, philosophers’ starting salary averages $27,000, but after 5 years averages $40,000, and hits $60,000 after 10 to 15 years. Philosophers typically work 50 hours per week.

Other Articles on the Topic
Following are some articles for those interested in the employment value of a philosophy degree.

Email me with additions to this list.