Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Why Not Major in Philosophy?

What can you do with a philosophy major? This section is devoted to this question, which is probably the one most pressing questions faced by prospective philosophy majors — and their parents.

For now we will ignore the tremendous intrinsic worth of the study of philosophy; for this, we refer you to the study of philosophy itself. Our concern here is rather the practical benefits of philosophy. How does it help someone prepare for a career in the much-ballyhooed "real world" or for graduate study?


Preparing for graduate study

The study of philosophy develops your ability to read and understand difficult material, to think critically, to distinguish good and bad reasoning, and to develop and defend your own ideas. These skills are invaluable in any academic field and, we submit, are often quite useful even in the real world. Of course, proponents of many fields would claim that their disciplines hone these very same skills. Perhaps; but we claim that the study of philosophy is not just one way of developing these skills; rather, it is one of the most effective ways.

One sort of evidence for this is the data concerning the performance of students with various undergraduate majors on standardized tests like the LSAT, the GMAT, and the GRE. This data is relevant because these tests are not tests of knowledge but rather tests of certain intellectual skills — indeed, they are supposed to test for the very skills mentioned above. The numbers don't lie; the performance of philosophy majors on these tests when compared to the performance of students with other majors is telling.

The chart below summarizes the percentage by which the average score of test-takers from various undergraduate majors differs from the average score of all test-takers (as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

Major LSAT GMAT GRE verbal GRE quant.
Philosophy +8.7% +11.0% +17.6% +4.6%
Arts and Music -.05% -1.2% +14.5% -5.7%
English +5.6% +4.1% +14.5% -5.7%
Foreign Langs. +5.7% +3.3% +7.9% -4.2%
History +2.9% +4.6% +10.8% -5.5%
Gen. Humanities +4.7% +1.8% +7.3% -5.0%
Political Science -1.6% +.06% +3.5% -5.0%
Psychology +0.9% +0.8% +3.1% -4.0%
Sociology -7.0% -5.0% -5.0% -15.0%
Education -8.7% -4.2% -10.4% -15.8%
Speech -2.7% not reported -6.0% -14.3%
Biology +4.0% +3.3% +5.4% +8.0%
Mathematics +12.8% +13.3% +2.7% +26.3%
Chemistry +7.6% +7.5% +2.1% +18.3%
Business Adm. -4.5% -0.8% -9.1% -2.3%
Management -5.4% -7.7% not reported not reported

Philosophers in the workplace

Philosophy majors are increasingly in demand in the workplace. Articles appearing in the Times of London, the New York Times (and here again), CNN, and Bloomberg Businessweek address the "employability" of philosophy majors. The University of Florida also offers some information about some of the career options available to philosophy majors.

Law school

As we noted earlier, philosophy majors tend to do better than most other majors on the LSAT. Philosophy majors at TRU receive intensive training in clear writing and thinking, careful argument analysis, and close reading of difficult texts. Those same skills are crucial to success in law school.

Medical school

That’s not a typo; many philosophy graduates have gone to medical school following graduation. While most medical schools expect students to take a certain collection of courses in the natural sciences in college, it is definitely not the case that one must major in science in order to be accepted into medical school. Somewhat notoriously, the 1998 statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges show that philosophy majors actually have the highest acceptance rate of all majors considered at 50%, compared with, for example, 35% for biology majors, 39% for chemistry majors, and 42% for physics majors.

Graduate school in philosophy or in other fields

In the section on law school above, we noted that philosophy majors at TRU receive intensive training in clear writing and thinking, careful argument analysis, and close reading of difficult texts. Such skills are valuable in a variety of disciplines; consequently, majoring in philosophy at TRU can help to prepare you for graduate study in a variety of fields.