People ask me about majoring
in philosophy. It's one of those things a person can't believe that he or she
might actually do. What might their friends (their parents!) think were they to
major in philosophy?
It is true that people who
major in philosophy characteristically are bright and have an interest in
issues and analyses which requires the skills for which philosophy is
known--attitudes founded in careful analysis.
tends to attract better than average students. But there is no way around the
practical concerns of life, either. Friends and family will ask: "What
could you do with a philosophy major?" However, this question can begin a
conversation. Here is an answer to that question.
No matter what you major in,
there is risk. People get laid off from, lose interest in, become alienated
from, the careers which at an earlier stage in life they thought themselves
For instance, I am told that
the majority of people entering religious seminaries today are people past
their twenties who were launched into successful careers--engineering, business
management, teaching--but wanted to start a new one.
They would have been
well-advised in college to have paid close attention to their general study
courses and placed their training in technical courses against the background
of life's long run.
Courses taken in college as
part of an educational background may be thought to have no direct bearing
careers and jobs, and in a way they don't.
The technical competencies
required in various jobs require training. You can't be an engineer without
training in engineering, a translator without training in a language, an
accountant without training in accountancy--but people change their minds as
they grow in experience.
What they thought was
important at one moment in life looks quite different at another, and it is the
breadth of education which provides for adaptation.
To be sure, there is
psychological security in finding a major that you know will have people lined
up to hire you. Parents and friends are correct at that point. Engineering is
popular in today's world; accounting majors can always find a job somewhere;
the hotel and restaurant school administrators tell us that their graduates
always have several job offers from which to choose.
People who major in the
sciences have it a bit harder. Unless they want to be sales people, if they are
to use their major, they anticipate going on to graduate school.
At the unpopular end of the
scale of "career opportunities" stand the liberal arts. Nobody lines
up at the door of the English, history, or philosophy departments to hire their
majors. Is this cause for alarm? What can a philosophy major do?
Not unexpectedly, students in
philosophy enter the traditional professions: medicine, law, the clergy,
teaching. There is no better preparation for these professions than philosophy.
I'll say something about those few students who may go into one of the
professions but then turn attention to the majority of what our students do
with a philosophy degree.
A few of our students have
prepared for medical college. Medicine? You ask. Of course. But you'd better do
well in the first two years of the fundamental sciences, too. Medical colleges
teach the necessities of medicine but do not teach the breadth of perspective that
stabilizes a doctor's life.
We advise our pre-med
philosophy majors to take the beginning two years of biology, chemistry, and
physics as well as calculus. This is the standard expectation of all pre-med
Philosophy students scored
the highest of all liberal arts students on the entry examinations into medical
college; they are bested by very few subject areas, subjects like biochemistry
A significant number of
students in philosophy are interested in law school. This career choice is a
natural. In fact, philosophy is one of the preferred majors in preparation for
law school. Philosophy trains a person in the art of critical reasoning and
Studies confirm that the
highest scoring students on Law School Admissions Test, the standard
examination for entry into law school, were students who majored in one of the
following: philosophy, economics, physics, or mathematics.
The clergy, likewise, can
anticipate being well-served by philosophy. There is nothing in western
religious thinking which is unaffected by philosophy. The basis of all
theological thinking lies in an outlook given in the thinking of some
For the early Christian
church, it was the thinking of Plato. St. Augustine was a neo-Platonist. In
contemporary times, religious thinkers pay attention to the work of Martin
Heidegger or Alfred North Whitehead.
Of course, teaching
philosophy is a possibility. Finding a job to teach philosophy at the college
level will be difficult but not impossible. If a person obtains the necessary
advanced degree (the doctoral degree), there are two chances in three of
finding a full-time college teaching career (the percentage varies with the
We discourage our students
from rushing in this direction unless they are dedicated to the task. Right now
we have a few majors in graduate schools pursuing an advanced degree. They love
philosophy and can't leave it alone.
We have gotten our better
students into some very fine graduate schools where they have done well.
However, our students have
also gone into elementary and high school teaching as well as into college
teaching. David Bartrug teaches elementary school in L.A. and Kathy Lash
teaches high school English in the Verde Valley.
In most states philosophy is
not taught in high school, but something called "humanities" is.
Philosophy students typically obtain this certification to teach in the public
However, most of our students
don't go into the professions and don't intend to go to graduate school. For
example, here is what some of our students have done: one became a movie
theater manager, another a librarian, a third a fiction writer, and a fourth
installs irrigation systems!
Each one of these could have
had been successful in a philosophy graduate program but chose something else
to do with their lives. We currently have between 55 and 60 majors (the average
philosophy department has about 20 majors—UofA and ASU, much larger schools
than we, also have around 60 majors.
Most of our graduates find
jobs in the world of business. Why? Usually, philosophy students can think
analytically and write well. It is this training which prepares them well for
of life's eventualities.
Some of our philosophy
students may go to graduate school in business. The same high scores achieved
by philosophy students entering the professions will be found in the standard
examinations for admission into business college.
What is the practical truth,
then? The student who graduates in philosophy has to toot his or her own horn
to those who do the hiring. The person in philosophy applying for a job must be
able to put his or her best foot forward in the hiring process. How does this
I recall Tony Picarello who
upon graduation was hired by Ford Motor Company's Motorcraft division to sell
Ford auto parts. He went to an NAU Job Fair and interviewed with a Ford Motor
After some negotiation, he was
hired to sell Motorcraft parts out of Dallas. Quite soon he was assigned to
Dallas itself, then he was made regional manager. He quickly rose through the
ranks of Ford and became a consulting management team member for Ford's Premier
Auto Division, stationed in Irvine, California.
There are many opportunities
for liberal arts graduates in business. I once wrote Consolidated Freight, a
trucking company with headquarters located in Menlo Park, California, asking
about their hiring policies.
Their personnel officer wrote
back saying that people in the liberal arts (that includes philosophy) rise
higher, faster in management than other majors.
No one knows where life will
take a person. Some famous journalists were trained in philosophy, people like
Eric Severeid (whose name your parents might recognize) or George Will. Alex
Trebek of Jeopardy fame was a philosophy major.
Do your parents remember
"Hoss" of Bonanza fame? He was a UCLA philosophy major. Our
department has a couple of actors who act in semi-professional theater. Here
are some of the jobs in which our students have found employment, otherwise
unrelated to philosophy.
One owns a florist company
another an upscale restaurant in Chicago. Several are technicians in the
computer field, one works at a highly classified defense industry job with
Sandia in New Mexico, another for the XS Corporation. One plays in a rock
group, the last I knew which was performing in San Diego! Another is a reporter
for one of the Pulitzer newspapers.
Here are some other jobs our
students have received for which philosophy might have some relevance: a
librarian, several consultant/advisors, for instance, one who works for a
think-tank in economics in Los Angeles, another with a banking consulting firm
There are writers of fiction,
biographical and other novels. Some are in government, including the diplomatic
corps. Another works in the Peace Corps.
Getting into any of these
jobs required initiative on the part of the individual--and that is the usual
picture. These people were doing things unrelated to philosophy and still
enjoyed studying philosophy. If they had it to do over again, they would still
major in philosophy.
I have no way of reassuring
you or your parents that you will end up with a job, and there is no way that
the job you end up with in any major is the place you'll want to be ten years
down the line.
What we will do for our
students is to cut them slack so that any career they will want to pursue will
not be threatened by having to take too much work in philosophy. For instance,
we will help design a course package for students who want to go into business.
They will take all the basic
business courses needed to qualify them for admission to a master's of business
administration program. If journalism is what attracts the student, we will
work out a program which allows for that possibility at the end of the four
years by having them take those courses which would be helpful in the field.
As you can see, philosophy
bakes no bread, but it does give the student that sort of education in the
skills of thinking which opens up doors in the world of work.
If finding a saleable career
is your goal, then don't major in philosophy. There is no way into dental
hygiene or nursing but by training in these programs.
If a career beckons you,
pursue it. It is possible to return to philosophy. It won't go away or become
You'll have to decide where
your talents and abilities lie. Philosophy is very demanding; some say the
toughest of the liberal arts. I don't know about this, but you do have to read,
reason, and write well to do well in philosophy.
You ought to have that sort
of inquisitiveness and curiosity which doesn't rest easy until intellectual
problems are understood and can be dealt with.
Philosophers turn their
attention to more than just the elements of the history of philosophy. They pick
areas in which they want to become expert, for instance in science, psychology,
religion, art, social science, and so on.
One's training can take off
in a number of areas where there are concepts which require analysis.
Philosophy at heart is the art of "crap detection," and it is this
training which makes the philosopher a valued person in the world at large.
Philosophy prepares one for
analysis and the business of living, and with the exceptions noted, does not
prepare one for a job. Yet, insofar as life and work are related, the capacity
to think clearly is philosophy's contribution.
Should you want to major in
philosophy, I hope these remarks help make the case for you.
William F. Nietmann, Emeritus