According to Forbes, total student loan debt will exceed $1.5 trillion for the 44 million borrowers with student loans. This has created one inescapable fact: College graduates must be able to service their student loan debt along with every other necessity in their lives. So, for many students and especially their parents a philosophy degree may not seem cost effective or provide a realistic opportunity for an acceptable return on investment.
The situation, however, is not that clear cut.
Yes, there are significantly fewer philosophy degrees awarded each year compared to business degrees but graduating with a degree in philosophy can lead to a variety of rewarding and even potentially lucrative careers.
The Philosophy Major
Most people, including parents who pay college tuition, view philosophy as esoteric and composed of such high-level abstract ideas that it’s of limited use in day-to-day life (or employment). This could not be further from the truth. After all, philosophy rigorously uses reason and logic to understand how language not only describes but also defines the world we live in.
Each area of philosophy proposes different ways to answer fundamental questions. What makes an action right or wrong? Is the individual or group more important? Can we know reality based on our senses? How do we live an examined life? Answers to all these questions require critical thinking, close reading and methodical analysis.
More specifically, there are four foundational areas within philosophy you’ll study:
- history of philosophy
- practical philosophy (aesthetics, ethics, and political and social philosophy)
- theoretical philosophy (epistemology and metaphysics)
Employment Outlook for Philosophy Majors
An undergraduate degree in philosophy is not likely to lead to thinking “big thoughts” about being and nothingness for a living. Then again, the skills learned while studying philosophy are applicable to a variety of endeavors and careers ranging from law to the tech sector to business and more.
Within the humanities, philosophy graduates with a bachelor’s degree and 10-20 years of experience have the highest earning potential with a median salary of over $80,000. More specifically, these fields are where philosophy majors on average earn the most money:
- Elementary and middle school teachers (around $45,000)
- Postsecondary teachers (around $65,000)
- Managers (around $108,000K)
- Lawyers, judges and other judicial workers (around $171,000)
As you’ll see below, philosophy graduates have the potential to have a significant impact beyond wages alone in a variety of areas.
While there are pre-law tracks at most universities, there is not an actual pre-law “degree.” That’s because law schools do not define a specific area of study or major for admission. In fact, the American Bar Association (ABA) only requires students to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university to be admitted to law school.
Instead of any particular field of study, the ABA is more concerned with the overall skill set, no matter how it was developed, applicants have that should include:
- problem solving
- critical reading
- writing and editing
- oral and interpersonal communication
All these skills are learned through studying philosophy. Plus, philosophy majors are accepted into law school at a higher rate (75 percent) than any other field of study.
There is a long tradition of philosophy and the law working hand in hand. For example, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer earned a degree in philosophy from Stanford University. His training there directly impacted his judicial approach to the law, especially regarding the concept of “consequences.” He is critical of any view of the law that, as he says, “places too much weight upon language, history, tradition, and precedent alone while understating the importance of consequences.”
Philosophy Majors as Entrepreneurs
While the public may not see a link between philosophy and entrepreneurship, that is not the case for those in the trenches building new businesses out of nothing but an idea and determination. Common key attributes for successful entrepreneurs have (in addition to determination) include being open-minded, creative and disciplined.
These same qualities are developed through the study of philosophy and can be effectively combined with additional skills philosophy students learn. Nicholas Miller, founder and CEO of Gather as well as a philosophy major, says trained philosophers are effective entrepreneurs because they:
- encourage productive debate
- embrace ambiguity
- think holistically
- solve open-ended problems
- keep their emotions in check
The study of philosophy has been integral to the success of billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and the first external investor in Facebook. His approach to business is based on French philosopher René Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.
Theil finds Girard’s theory of mimetic imitation most productive for his business ventures. He says, “According to Girard, imitation is inescapable. As a rule, we do what we do just because other people are doing it, too. … People will compete fiercely for things that don’t matter, and once they’re fighting they’ll fight harder and harder. You might not be able to escape imitation entirely, but if you’re sensitive to the way it drives us then you’re already ahead of most.”
Or, as the English essayist Jonathan Swift wrote, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
Business and Philosophy
Of course, the impact philosophy graduates can have in the business world isn’t limited to entrepreneurial ventures. One example is Dr. Damon Horowitz who earned a PhD. in philosophy after first serving in the dual role as in-house philosopher and director of engineering for Google.
Horowitz notes, “The thought leaders of our industry are not the ones who plodded dully, step by step, up the career ladder. They’re the ones who took chances and developed unique perspectives.” He identifies additional benefits philosophy graduates bring to the business world: they engage with the biggest issues facing their generation and are students of the world.
For some business leaders, it was a difficult choice between the academic and business worlds. This includes Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn. As he told Wired, “I won a Marshall scholarship to read philosophy at Oxford, and what I most wanted to do was strengthen public intellectual culture – I’d write books and essays to help us figure out who we wanted to be.”
Why the switch to business? He saw it as the best means to the end he desired, which was to have the greatest potential impact on the world.
Tech Leaders with Philosophy Degrees
Related to both entrepreneurship and business are those careers in the tech industry, which are informed by the study of philosophy. Take Stewart Butterfield, for example, who is the founder and CEO of Slack as well as co-founder of Flickr. Not only does Butterfield have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy but also a master’s degree.
How do his degrees inform his work?
“Studying philosophy taught me,” says Butterfield, “… to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings.”
Although he opted to pursue technology instead of realizing his dream as a philosophy professor, Butterfield sees the value in helping others achieve their dreams. Butterfield supports universal basic income (UBI), along with other CEOs from major companies. He explains, “… giving people even a very small safety net would unlock a huge amount of entrepreneurialism.”
As a boy who was raised by parents who embraced the hippie life and named him Dharma, Butterfield believes, “If you can’t afford to take any risks, you generally won’t take any risks.”
Scientific Research and Philosophy Majors
The impact of philosophy goes beyond law, business and the tech sector. It also contributes to health sciences research. Consider the career of Yvonne du Buy, an associate director of management at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As she says, “It was the degree in philosophy that got me in the door and eventually enabled me to achieve a position [at] the highest level of service in the federal government.”
Her first job there was managing the lab of a Nobel Prize recipient before working on research projects ranging from cancer to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to AIDS and more. Based on her own success, du Buy has these words of encouragement: “Philosophy Majors, the world is at your feet! You can feel confident that your degree in this field will prepare you supremely well for whatever profession you choose. You are not ‘home free,’ but you have a considerable edge on the competition!”
In the end, beyond clearly defined, or not, career paths and student loan debt, the study of philosophy is not only about acquiring an employable skill set in quite the same way as writing a piece of software or producing a profit and loss statement. It’s also a means of defining the world and ourselves for the better.