What Can You Do with a Philosophy Education?
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Southern Mississippi
March 21, 2011
Philosophy involves abstract thinking, critical reasoning, and constructing and assessing rational arguments. These are skills that are useful in any occupation or area of inquiry. In today's rapidly changing world, highly specialized occupations and areas of knowledge frequently become obsolete. But, like good taste, the skills required and developed in philosophical study never go out of style. The ideas of Aristotle and Plato still serve today as models of clear and rational thinking about highly abstract and difficult questions. For these reasons, philosophy is excellent preparation for any occupation, especially those for which there is no specific college major.
Many students of philosophy go to law school, and philosophical training is generally excellent preparation for studying and practicing law. While studying philosophy students learn to develop many skills that are crucial in the study of law. These skills include the ability to develop and analyze arguments, to uncover assumptions and presuppositions, to identify fallacies in reasoning, to organize one's reasoning, and to structure complex ideas. Both formal and informal logic are especially important in the study and practice of law.
Data from the Law Schools Admissions Test (LSAT) shows that philosophy majors outperformed all of the other most popular pre-law and humanities majors. On the average, philosophy students scored 157.0. Which humanities majors were second to philosophy? Religion majors, with an average score of 156.6. After that came economics majors scoring 156.2, and history majors scoring 154.5. English majors scored 153.5, on the average, while political science majors scored 151.5. The only majors that scored higher on the LSAT were from Mathematics and Physics.
For a complete list and exact figures for average LSAT score among different majors »
It should thus be no surprise that two current U.S. Supreme Court justices majored in philosophy (Stephen Breyer and David Souter) as well as the Canadian Chief Justice Beverly McLaughlin.
Philosophy seems especially helpful for honing skills in comedy - perhaps because, as with observational comedy, philosophy involves looking at the world in different ways and challenging those things that we normally take for granted. Woody Allen, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Dennis Miller, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, and Jimmy Kimmel all majored in philosophy in college. Other prominent philosophy majors to achieve success in entertainment include filmmakers Wes Anderson and Peter Lynch, actors Harrison Ford, David Duchovny, and Susan Sarandon, as well as Gene Siskel, Alex Trebeck, and Chris Hardwick.
A philosophy major is also good preparation for a career in politics. Politics does not involve expertise in any one area but requires making judgments over a wide range of topics including economics, law, and ethics. Politicians who studied philosophy in college include Jerry Brown (former Governor of California), President Bill Clinton, Rudi Giuliani, Vaclav Havel (former President of Czechoslovakia), Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ), Pierre Trudeau (former Prime Minister of Canada). Many important political activists have also studied philosophy including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and Elie Wiesel. Philosophy is helpful for spiritual leaders as well as political leaders, as Karol Wojtyla (a.k.a. Pope John-Paul II) earned a degree in philosophy.
Graduate Studies in Many Fields
Philosophy is an excellent second major, especially for those who intend to pursue further studies in their primary area of interest. Philosophy encourages critical thinking and requires rigorous logical argumentation, skills that are useful for any serious inquiry. Furthermore, philosophers often engage in asking questions that are relevant to other fields. Psychology majors can study philosophy of mind or human nature, history majors can study ancient and classical modern philosophy, and physics and biology majors can study philosophy of science. Philosophy also fosters the kinds of skills required for success in graduate school and beyond. In fact, philosophy may be a better preparation for graduate work in certain fields than an undergraduate degree in that field.
A study conducted by the National Institute of Education and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education compared 550,000 university students taking the GRE (verbal and quantitative), the LSAT, and the GMAT. Philosophy majors scored higher than all other students on the verbal portion of the GRE (even better than English majors). Only second to mathematics majors and science majors, philosophy majors scored higher than all other humanities majors on the quantitative portions of these standardized tests, and better than all social science majors except economics.
Philosophical study is excellent training for writers. For one, because of the abstract nature of the issues and the importance of constructing and critiquing arguments, philosophy requires very clear and precise expression. Also, philosophy students are generally expected to read the original words of the philosophers they study rather than reading simplified explanations in textbooks. Thus students of philosophy tend to be excellent writers, and they score higher on average on the verbal section of the GRE than any other major.
Many great writers have developed their skills in the study of philosophy. Several philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Umberto Eco are also noted fiction writers. Other famous writers who studied philosophy are Pearl Buck, T.S. Eliot, Ken Follet, Susan Sontag, and Phillip K. Dick.
Though it might be an over-used cliché of business-speak, "thinking outside the box" is essential for success in highly competitive business markets. Thinking outside the box - questioning basic presuppositions, thinking critically, and looking for creative solutions to difficult problems - is the essence of philosophy. For this reason, many successful entrepreneurs studied philosophy in college. Among them are J. Paul Getty (founder of Getty Oil), Carly Fiorina (CEO of Hewlett- Packard), Gerald Levine (CEO of Time-Warner), and George Soros.
Thinking of going to graduate school in business to get an MBA? Well, philosophy majors scored 15% higher than business majors on the GMAT!
Win a Nobel Prize
There is no Nobel Prize in philosophy, but many philosophers have won the Nobel Prize in Literature for their work in philosophy. Here is a list:
- Herbert Spencer
- Rudolph Euken
- Henri Bergson
- Bertrand Russell
- Albert Camus
- Jean-Paul Sartre (Sartre turned it down)
Many other Nobel Prize winners have studied philosophy extensively.
- T.S. Eliot (literature)
- Albert Schweitzer (peace)
- Jean-Marie Lehn (chemistry)
- George Pire (peace)
- Pearl Buck (literature)
- Martin Luther King (peace)
- P. Michael Spence (economics)
- Aung San Suu Kyi (peace)
- Sven Soderman (literature)
- Gustav Straseman (peace)
- Anthony Leggett (physics)
- Daniel Nathans (medicine)
- Ivo Andric (literature)
- Elie Wiesel (peace)