Should you major in philosophy?
Deciding what you want to study in college can be tough; in this blog series, we examine and evaluate popular college majors. Today, we’re tackling philosophy!
As Stanford puts it, an undergraduate philosophy program “presents students with the perspectives of past thinkers and introduces students to a variety of methods of reasoning and judgment formation.” Does that sound thrilling? Boring? Confusing? Either way, read on to see if philosophy is the right major for you!
“I haven’t had much (or any) exposure to philosophy. Where can I try it out before making a final decision?”
Many high school curriculums are sadly devoid of philosophy, but don’t let that discourage you! At most colleges, students declare their major by the end of sophomore year, which gives you around 2 years to test out different majors (most students do). Even if you’re coming into college tabula rasa — aka with no prior knowledge of philosophy — you’ll have ample time to take philosophy classes and meet philosophy majors and professors.
If you’re hoping to try out the major before stepping foot on campus, check out the following:
Podcasts: Philosophize This!, The Partially Examined Life
Books/Reading: What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel, Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, Plato’s Republic
Show/movies: Westworld, Blaise Pascal, Black Mirror
Free online courses on Coursera, Udemy, etc.
Not all of the recommended content above will perfectly reflect the rigor or content of an undergraduate philosophy education. They are, however, decent gauges of whether you might find the topics and questions of the major interesting. As a general self-reflection, do you spend a lot of time pondering life’s large questions, whether political or existential? Do you enjoy hearing and dissecting others’ arguments? And are you okay with a lot of reading and writing? (You’ll be doing a lot of both as a philosophy major.)
“Sounds interesting… but let’s be real. Can I make money with a philosophy degree?”
Late Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, billionaire investor George Soros, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina… what do they all have in common? You guessed it — they’re all massively accomplished! And they all majored in philosophy in college.
While philosophy degrees are a common punchline of jokes about un(der)employment, there’s no strong data to back up this stereotype. This WSJ chart tracks salary increases by major — while philosophy majors don’t start out making a lot of money, their mid-career median salary is on average 103.5% higher than their peers’. The trajectory for growth is steep for philosophy graduates. (Anyways, salary is one facet of many — personal fulfillment, room for growth, supportive teammates, etc. are other valuable factors of a job.)
“What kinds of classes will I take?”
This varies by school, but you’ll likely get a glimpse of logic, value theory, theoretical theory, and other foundational courses before narrowing in on your specific area of study. Here are some sample classes*. Do they sound interesting to you?
“Philosophy of Race”
“Ancient Greek Philosophers”
“Philosophy and the Constitution”
“What is Meaning?”
*These are real philosophy classes offered at the University of Pennsylvania, but you’ll see similar courses wherever you end up!
“What else will I learn?”
As a philosophy student, you’ll probably dabble in many fields. Philosophy is not a silo: it influences and is influenced by other fields of study, such as:
“What can I do outside of class?”
Joining these philosophy-related clubs will allow you to engage with class content from different lenses. You’ll also meet many people in the same major, which is a plus.
Philosophy Club/Literary societies: If your college has a designated Philosophy Club, lucky you! These spaces are created for the discussion and enjoyment of philosophy, and are great social grounds to connect with peers. If there is no specific “Philosophy Club” at your school, many universities have more generalized literary societies where intellectually curious students discuss literature to current events to social trends — philosophy is sure to play a role!
Pi Sigma Tau: The international honors society for philosophers (both current and graduated students). If you are accepted as a member, you will gain access to networking events, mentorship, and more. This group emphasizes professional development.
Student Publication: Is there a pressing philosophical question you wish to take a written stand on? Check to see if you can contribute to a school journal or newspaper. You don’t even have to write about anything explicitly academic. One of my favorite college newspaper columns used the lens of philosophy to discuss daily life as a college student — a thoughtful, measured analysis of class commutes and cafeteria food? Sign me up.
Speech/Debate: Public speaking and quick analysis are invaluable skills. These competitive circuits will refine the way you think about and apply philosophical theories and arguments.
“What can I do with a degree in philosophy?”
Almost anything! You don’t have to be a “philosopher,” whatever that means. No sitting around in coffee shops and waxing poetic about the meaning of life, unless that’s what you want to do! Your ability to think logically, conduct/comprehend research, and communicate will be a great asset no matter where you end up.
Law: While law schools don’t require you to have a specific major, many philosophy students choose this route. The persuasive, logical thinking necessary in the major is similarly needed to succeed in law, and it’s no secret how intertwined the two fields are.
Health/Medicine: Surprised? A number of pre-med undergrad students actually opt to major in philosophy while simultaneously fulfilling their pre-med requirements. Philosophy plays a big role in bioethics, especially relevant for anyone wanting to go into healthcare management. Philosophy can also serve as an intellectually diverse respite from all the required bio and chem classes of pre-med.
Academia: Enjoyed learning about philosophy so much that you want to be on the other side of the lectern? Pursuing more advanced degrees in the field might just be your path.
Consulting: Consulting, while broad, is universal in its need for problem-solvers and good communicators — aka philosophers! A philosophy major would surely be successful in traditional management consulting, but what about entertainment consulting? The popular life-after-death show, The Good Place, hired a UCLA philosophy professor to consult on the show’s themes and character motivations.
Nonprofit/NGO spaces: Putting your degree to good public use, consider working for a nonprofit or NGO. Understanding the philosophical undercurrents of the cause at hand will help you tackle it more effectively.
As you can see, the options are (almost) endless!
Does philosophy sound like something you’d be interested in pursuing? Are you in search of guidance as you plan for college? Consider booking a consultation with college counselor Robert Powers to talk all about your unique goals and how you can achieve them.
Angela Lin is the Humanities Specialist at College Torch. She tutors English. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (626) 604–6219.