Why Study Philosophy?

A good reason to study philosophy is that traditional philosophical questions interest one. Even if they do not, though, there are very good reasons to undertake study in this discipline. Philosophy is a skill, not just a subject matter; the skill informs the traditional subject matter. In this respect, philosophy is more like riding a bike than geology or American history (although the discipline itself does have a venerable history). Philosophy is the skill of critical thinking, of questioning in such a way as to reveal the presuppositions of an issue, the connections among those things relevant to that issue, and the consequences of these connections in light of further considerations. Philosophy is, then, a most valuable and transferable skill.

Learning how to think critically, and the improvement in one’s speaking and writing skills that come with this effort, will be of benefit to one regardless of one’s academic interests or career pursuits. Actually, knowing how to think incisively and carefully can be beneficial to every aspect of one’s life, from helping one figure out what one wants to do with one’s life, to what is worthwhile more generally. Studying philosophy, then, has great practical and personal value. It is also of great societal significance, as both the impetus to change and the guide to improvement.

Nevertheless, many students (or their parents) assume that undergraduate study in philosophy will not contribute to their success after graduation. This assumption is mistaken. While one will not learn how to, say, do legal research, start a company, or diagnose an illness, one will acquire critical thinking skills crucial for success in many different areas, including law, business, and medicine. Recent available statistics support this. With respect to:
  • Law school. Philosophy majors performed better on the Law School Admission Test than majors in political science, history, English, psychology, or criminal justice.
  • Business school. Here, as well, philosophy majors scored better on the Graduate Management Admission Test than majors in all other areas except physics, mathematics, and engineering.
  • Medical school. Statistics for the Medical College Admission Test are not available for philosophy majors specifically, but humanities majors as a group equaled majors in biological sciences on the biological science section of the exam and scored better on all other sections. The fact that one must take pre-med courses as preparation for medical school does not mean that one must major in the sciences. In fact, the Association of American Medical Colleges recommends a broad education in the humanities and the sciences as the best preparation.
  • Graduate school. On the Graduate Record Exam, philosophy majors outperformed majors in every other field of the humanities, all majors in the social sciences, and almost all majors in other areas. Only majors in physics/astronomy and mathematics did better.
Thus, if one enjoys traditional philosophical questions, one can study philosophy without concern that one is compromising one’s future. However, even if one has no idea what these traditional questions are—or even has no interest in them—the skills one acquires in studying philosophy will serve one well after college.

Reports of average starting salary of college graduates by major are often used to discourage people from studying disciplines like philosophy. Now, however, PayScale.com has released data showing average mid-career salaries of college graduates by major. This data makes philosophy look like a much more prudent choice. PayScale.com's current data on 'Majors that Pay You Back' lists starting median salary and mid-career (15.5 years after graduation) median salary for hundreds of majors. The philosophy major consistently ranks higher than others usually thought to lead to more lucrative careers. For example, recent data shows that the starting median salary for Business Management majors is $46,100, while the starting median salary for Philosophy majors is $44,800. By mid-career, however, the median salary for Business Management majors rises to $76,200, while the median salary for Philosophy majors rises even higher to $85,100.

Here are some further thoughts on philosophy majors, their motivations and general prospects:

"In the US, where the number of philosophy graduates has increased by 5 per cent a year during the 1990's, only a very few go on to become philosophers. Their employability, at 98.9 per cent, is impressive by any standard....Philosophy is, in commercial jargon, the ultimate 'transferable work skill'." ["Philosophy: A Quintessentially Modern Discipline", London Times]

"A recent comprehensive study of college students' scores on major tests used for admission to graduate and professional schools shows that students majoring in Philosophy received scores substantially higher than the average on each of the tests studied. Philosophy majors' scores on the verbal portion of the GRE were higher than in any other major, even English; and although several science majors showed higher averages in the quantitative portion of the test, philosophy majors scored substantially higher than all other humanities majors and were alone among humanities majors in scoring above the overall average. Philosophy majors received higher scores on the LSAT than students in all other humanities areas, higher scores than all social and natural science majors except economics and mathematics, and higher scores than all applied majors. Moreover, the differences are in most cases substantial: for example, philosophy majors scored 10% better than political science majors on the LSAT. On the GMAT philosophy majors outperformed business majors by a margin of 15%, and outperformed every other undergraduate major except mathematics." ["Philosophy Students Score High on LSAT, GMAT & GRE", Andreas Teuber]

"When a fellow student at Rutgers University urged Didi Onejeme to try Philosophy 101 two years ago, Ms. Onejeme, who was a pre-med sophomore, dismissed it as 'frou-frou'. 'People sitting under trees and talking about stupid stuff - I mean, who cares?' Ms. Onejeme recalled thinking at the time. But Ms. Onejeme, now a senior applying to law school, ended up changing her major to philosophy, which she thinks has armed her with the skills to be successful....Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers....'If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy,' said Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, who majored in mathematics and statistics. 'I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow'." ["In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined", New York Times]

"'So many people think philosophy isn't practical,' says Shoener, who also is studying biomathematics for a double major and plans to be a women's health advocate. 'It's the most practical thing I've ever done'." ["Top Students Commit to Using Their Knowledge", USA TODAY]

"'Most people don't want to figure out what a company is worth,' Miller said. 'They want to know where the stock is going. We're always trying a Rubik's Cube approach, looking at something from all different directions. We want to know, 'What's the best description of what's going on?'." ["To Beat the Market, Hire a Philosopher", New York Times]

"Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good." ["The Problems of Philosophy", Bertrand Russell]

For more reasons to study philosophy and for thinking it is actually quite a practical major - check out these recent articles: