Why philosophy majors are set up for success

November 10, 2023
Elizabeth Syverson '23

What are you going to do with that? It’s the dreaded question countless humanities majors have heard far too much. But according to Professor of Philosophy, Patrick Standen, the potential is limitless. With the skills obtained through a philosophy degree, students can pursue careers in anything from tech and business to law and medicine, and everything in between.

Each year, an increasing number of college students opt for vocational majors, which are areas of study that directly correlate to a certain occupation and its skills. In the most recent data available through the National Center for Education Statistics, four of the top five most awarded bachelor’s degrees in the United States are vocational in nature. Philosophy, however, does not even fall amongst the top 20 most studied programs in the country.

In the 2020-21 academic year, 391,375 bachelor’s degrees in business were conferred, as were 268,018 degrees in health-related fields and 126,037 degrees in engineering. By comparison, between the disciplines of both philosophy and religious studies, a mere 11,988 degrees were awarded in the same year.

Measurable results

Despite the stark difference in the number of degrees conferred, Standen said that philosophy majors continue to be top performers on standardized graduate exams such as the GRE, LSAT, GMAT, and MCAT.

According to Standen, these achievements include:

  • The highest GRE verbal reasoning score of any major
  • The highest GRE analytical writing score of any major
  • The highest GRE quantitative score of any humanities or arts major
  • The second highest LSAT score of any major (after physics)
  • Higher scores than any business major on the GMAT (Graduate Business Exam)
  • Higher scores on the MCAT than biology majors

Standen also addressed the age-old stereotype that philosophy majors do not make enough money to support themselves. According to Standen, the World Economic Forum conducted a study a few years ago which revealed that with the exception of Engineers, Philosophy students earn more money. Additionally, they have a higher mid-career income than all other majors, he said.

“That just speaks to this superstition that we have about philosophy students being these sort of ‘pie in the sky’ idealists. And while this can be the case, [philosophy] can also be very realistic and practical,” he said.

The intangible difference

Beyond the more concrete, performance-based benefits of the major, students can also expect to gain skills in critical thinking and communication which will serve them in any field.

Through the study of philosophy, students will learn to think and speak logically, to communicate clearly, to write well, to interpret and understand arguments, and to debate effectively, Standen said.

“If you look at acting and directing, business, and politics, you’re going to find that a lot of the most successful people study philosophy,” he said. “In tech and business, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, Carly Fiorina. In politics, Barack and Michelle Obama. Rashida Jones and Harrison Ford in entertainment. And there are many, many more.”

According to Standen, the difference-maker for philosophy students in the professional realm is their advanced ability to learn on the job.

“Someone with a technical degree knows one area very well. But if that doesn’t exactly line up with that program, [employers] are going to have to train that person, and sometimes they have to untrain what they learned, which can be challenging,” Standen said.

For this reason, philosophy majors are highly coveted by fortune 500 companies and government agencies, including the CIA, Standen said. In the CIA, the demand for philosophy students is so high that the agency even offers scholarships for people to get philosophy degrees.

What can you expect to study?

These highly-demanded skills are obtained through reading and writing intensive courses. In the introductory level at Saint Michael’s, students often start in antiquity, reading from the ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, Chinese, and medieval traditions. From there, they branch into more contemporary thinkers, concerned with the social issues of the day. “It’s not uncommon for students to read Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius,” Standen said.

Once the introductory courses are completed, students move into the “subject areas” of philosophy. At the college, this can be anything including the philosophy of sport, the philosophy of art, the philosophy of ethics and logic, the philosophy of the mind, and many more.

While the study of philosophy may seem indistinguishable from other humanities courses due to its writing and reading-intensive nature, Standen said that it certainly has a distinctive edge.

Unlike English, for example, philosophy is not concerned with the way that something is expressed. “[In English] you look for the cadence, the musicality, the characters, the plot, but in philosophy, we don’t really pay attention to this,” he said. “In Philosophy, we study short stories, novels, and films, and focus on the ideas or concepts, rather than the vehicle by which it is delivered.”

Standen also said that a philosophy major or minor can be an excellent complement to countless other areas of study.

“I think it’s probably one of the best things to do,” he said. “Because you’ll get the most fundamental skills of [philosophy] that we talked about, and the courses in your major will be those that will allow you to succeed in the field itself.”

The benefits of philosophy extend to any major, Standen said. Whether it be history, English, business, health sciences, or environmental science, there is a “subject area” within philosophy that applies to every area of study.

The personal effect

Apart from the academic and professional benefits, philosophy is one of few majors with profound personal benefits as well.

“It changes your life,” Standen said. “I think it makes you a better person, potentially, broadens your knowledge, teaches you to be humble, challenges your assumptions. You are constantly needing to update what you think you know. And those really are important things in terms of human development.”

“Certainly, from my point of view, I think I am a better, smarter, more humane person because of philosophy,” he said. “It encourages you to think broadly, to consider other points of view,” including those of people from all different times, cultures, and identities.

“Through literature, we find out that we’re not alone, that there’s a world out there, and that this world is so rich, and varied, and important,” Standen said.

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