Why Study Philosophy?

Philosophy can provide a course of study that is rewarding and enjoyable in itself [pdf], but almost every student of philosophy will be asked a question along the lines of "what is that good for?" or "what can you do with that?"

Here's some data to help you answer the inevitable question.

Philosophy majors do well in the workforce

Although few students who graduate in philosophy with a B.A. go on to make a living as philosophers, they do remarkably well in the workforce.

An undergraduate philosophy major can help you earn a good living

when it comes to earnings for people who only have undergraduate degrees, philosophy majors have the fourth-highest median earnings, $81,200 per year, out-ranking business and chemistry majors, according to the ETS. Bar none, philosophy majors have the highest salary growth trajectory from entry to mid-career.

Source: FiveThirtyEight

A philosophy major prepares you for success in many fields

The philosophy major is an excellent preparation for law school, for business, for government and civil service, and for advanced academic work in the humanities and social sciences. Philosophy majors can and do pursue a variety of courses upon graduation. Both public and private employers have good reason to seek graduates who major in philosophy. This is because philosophy majors have the skills that employers say they want. A Wall Street Journal article (reprinted in the Mercury News 11/15/95) states that philosophy majors have these writing and verbal skills. The article's evidence is that philosophy majors who took the Graduate Record Exam between 1990 and 1993 finished first among all fields in verbal skills and third in analytical skills. More recent data sets show the same trend, leading some to observe that "philosophers are the smartest humanists."

The article "Philosophers find the degree pays off in life and in work" (The New York Times, Dec. 26, 1997 C-1/4) gives a clear idea of societal need for philosophically trained people. Although few students who graduate in philosophy with a B.A. go on to make a living as philosophers, they do remarkably well in the workforce. This is probably because they are more likely than those with other degrees to attend graduate or professional school, although often outside the field of philosophy.

Many computer scientists have B.A.s in philosophy. This is not surprising since there is a close connection between philosophical logic and computers. Philosophy B.A.s also often go on to law school.

Some Philosophy B.A.s and M.A.s go on to Ph.D. programs. Of 7,500 holders of Philosophy Ph.D.s in 1995, 64.5% were college teachers. Becoming a philosophy college teacher is not easy. More than 1,000 people with Ph.D.s applied for 448 openings nation-wide last year, and many of these jobs were only temporary. 9.7% were managers or executives, 3.3% had management-related jobs, 3.0% were lawyers or judges, 2.6% had computer related occupations, 2.3% were artists or writers, 1.5% were clergy or religious workers, 1.5% were librarians or archivists, 1.2% were social scientists, and 10.4% were other.

A fair number of B.A.s and Ph.D's in philosophy also go into medicine.

The New York Times reports that many philosophy majors who go on to other fields strongly believe that their training in philosophy, especially in logic, ethics, creative thinking, and writing, was valuable in their careers. (National Research Council Data Provided by the American Philosophical Association) This data states that 84.1% of 8300 Philosophy Ph.D.s surveyed were employed full-time, 7.1% were retired, 6.5% were employed part-time, and 2.3% were unemployed. Of the 7500 with full-time employment 79.7% worked in an educational institution, 69.7% of these in a four-year college or university, 4.4% in a two-year college, 3.9% in a university affiliated research institute, 1.4% in elementary or secondary school, and .3% in another sort of educational institution. 6.9% worked for a private company, 4.4% were self-employed, 4.6% worked for a non-profit, and 4.1% for government. In 1995, of 298 Ph.D.s received were 226 males, 72 females, 2 Native Americans, 11 Asians, 3 Blacks, 221 Whites, and 9 Hispanics. (Data found in the Digest of Educational Statistics provided by the American Philosophical Association)

Bachelor's Degrees in Philosophy have an interesting history. In 1949-50 there were 2831 awarded (2245 male, 386 female). After a brief downward trend the numbers went up consistently from 1955-56 (2662) to 1967-68 (5751) at which time the numbers vacillated, reaching a high of 5939 in 1971-72. There followed a steady decline to 3300 in 1983-84, and the low point of 3265 in 1985-1986. Numbers then started rising again steadily until 1991-2 at 4846. They declined to 4691 in 1993-94, the last date available for study.

For more information about possible career paths, see our Career Planning page.

Philosophy majors do well in school and in life

Philosophy offers the tools to think well and deeply about questions of enduring importance. Studying philosophy can help you:

  • Understand things you take for granted (art, science and technology, time and space, law, culture, friendship) at a deeper level.
  • Examine the assumptions that shape how you see the world, as well as learning where these assumptions came from historically and culturally.
  • Understand reason and passions, logic and empathy.
  • Understand and appreciate the views of others.
  • Be able to defend — and to challenge — your own point of view.
  • Understand your responsibilities as a citizen of the world.

The Department of Philosophy at San José State University offers courses that focus on philosophical problems — How should one live? How do we know what is right or wrong? Do we have free will? Is human nature basically good or selfish? What makes a society just? Is knowledge possible? What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? — and courses in the history of philosophy focused on particular thinkers or traditions.

Through the history of philosophy one encounters thinkers and ideas that shaped civilizations. For instance, in learning about Confucius or the Buddha one gains insight into Eastern philosophy and culture. Reading Greek philosophy provides an understanding of the roots of Western philosophy and culture. In studying philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau, one learns more about contemporary issues, such as how social contract theory shaped social and political institutions in Western democratic states. Other examples from the history of philosophy include Adam Smith, who provided the intellectual rationale for capitalism, and Karl Marx, who redrew the map of modern political thought.

The discipline of philosophy is not so much about acquiring information as it is about honing a method of critical thinking. One learns to raise questions, engage in in-depth analyses, and develop well-thought-out arguments. Philosophy provides rigorous training in formulating one's ideas. It dramatically improves one's writing and presentation skills, and it opens the door to life-long learning.