Most of us who work on Philosophy News have a degree in philosophy, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level. However, most of us are not in academia anymore. Here are some stories about those of us who left professional philosophy and academia for careers in other fields. At the end are some tips for how to prepare for these careers while you are studying philosophy, since you ultimately may decide not to pursue philosophy professionally or work in academia. Also, be sure to check out our popular Placement Reports for more information as you think about pursuing full-time work in philosophy.
Paul, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Seattle Pacific University, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft
While I do teach philosophy at the college level as an adjunct and have done so since leaving graduate school, I began studying philosophy well before I entered graduate school and continue to study philosophy ardently. It is not only due to my training but because of my deep passion and love for the discipline that I am a philosopher in the truest sense of that word. So I begin my comments with a complete rejection of the idea that one must be teaching or working full time in philosophy in order to be rightly called a philosopher. In fact, I’m inclined to think that the amateur (a person who performs his or her craft for the love of it) may define what it means to be a philosopher in ways that the word “professional” may in fact ultimately undermine.
This also means that if one is a philosopher in the sense I mean, it would be impossible that philosophy does not only prepare its students for whatever he or she does to earn a living but should permeate every aspect of that person, impacting how he or she thinks and lives. This certainly has been the case for me. I began reading philosophy out of an overwhelming desire to understand problems I was encountering in my own epistemology particularly around the religious beliefs in which I was raised. My reading was driven by questions and my study of philosophy remains largely driven by questions and an insatiable desire to get more near to the truth. In reading philosophy, talking with other philosophers, and finally studying philosophy at the graduate level, I learned how both to better shape my questions and rigorously construct what may begin to resemble answers. It is here that the cross-disciplinary value of philosophy began for me.
I entered graduate school with plenty of debt incurred from my undergraduate studies and that debt compounded while in my Master’s program. I had to work full time in grad school to support my family and leveraged my hobby in computers to find gainful employment at small consulting firm. While learning metaphysics and epistemology, I was also learning object-oriented programming and software automation. Towards the end of my graduate program, I got a call from a relative at Microsoft and eventually was offered a job doing entry-level build automation for the Interactive Media group (which I largely took at the time to pay down some debt). Three kids later, I ended up building a career at Microsoft eventually getting into full software development and management. Philosophy has served me all along the way.
When working at a large corporation like Microsoft, solving problems becomes an essential part of daily life. I use the skills I learn studying philosophy to break down problems, arguments, assertions, data, and scenarios into smaller parts, weight those parts on a scale ranging from very important to irrelevant, and then prioritize what needs attention and what can be set aside. The analytic side of philosophy is all about defining terms, establishing valid relationships between those terms, and attempting to figure out the truth value of the concept those terms represent. This discipline has helped me navigate a complex environment like the one found at Microsoft more easily. Logic and epistemology have been critical for learning the types of disciplines that foster success here.
But philosophy has also helped me be a better people manager. I use concepts and skills I’ve gained from studying epistemology (and even philosophy of mind which is a close relative of psychology) each and every day in working with people. By better understanding my own epistemic makeup—how I form beliefs, how I should think about certainty, how beliefs translate into knowledge, and what truth may mean—I’ve found I have better insight into the epistemology of the people that report to me and with whom I work. I can better distinguish a truth claim from a belief or personal opinion; the bullshit from the pay dirt. I can more easily recognize formal fallacies in arguments and informal fallacies when passions run high. Of course recognizing these things doesn’t always mean I know what to do with them. But recognition, I’ve found, is half the battle.
There have been some good articles written on how philosophy can help those pursing careers in business and other disciplines and others that explain how philosophy majors tend to fare better in business than those studying other subjects. Here are a couple to whet the appetite: 9 Famous Execs Who Majored In Philosophy on Business Insider, and this widely published and disseminated report on how philosophy majors fare on the GRE compared to other disciplines. There are more articles linked below in the “For Further Reading” section.
The true student of philosophy will become a better, more rigorous thinker. Any person pursuing a career path that requires problem solving, deep interaction with other humans, the need to break down arguments and truth claims, or an ability to look both at the big picture and the finer details, will benefit from a formal education in philosophy. Of course, life in general requires all these things so the study of philosophy could benefit anyone. As Daniel Robinson has said, “the philosophical mind is the human mind that takes itself seriously.”
I wrote this article for Philosophy News a while ago that summarizes the value philosophy has for me.
Andy, Senior Data Scientist At Virtual Institution Resources
I came to late academic philosophy late in my undergraduate studies. I was a double major in mathematics and political science, but only discovered philosophy my junior year. Having become hooked, I applied for masters programs in philosophy with the intention of going on to the PhD level and to become a professor. During my first year of graduate studies, I became more aware of the job market and what lay ahead of me if I wished to continue studying philosophy at the professional level. I also discovered that, although I enjoyed philosophy, I didn’t love it like my fellow graduate students did. I pursued it for my own sake, for my own purposes, and not for its own sake. Faced with the prospect of many years of graduate study, followed by a long struggle to find a tenure-track position with little financial incentive, even at the peak of my career, I began to look elsewhere. I knew I could still study philosophy on my own, and that would be enough for me.
Discussing my situation with a close college friend, he suggested I intern with his dad’s database consulting company, VIR, over the summer. As I began my internship, I discovered that object oriented programming was simply applied logic; SQL querying was simply applied set theory. Given my mathematics and logic background, the transition to learning SQL and understanding database design was relatively smooth. When I returned for my second year of graduate study in philosophy, I took introductory C++ programming and continued to read about database design and SQL querying on my own.
Once I graduated, I joined VIR full time. Through a mutual friend, I was contracted to a Microsoft project as the database designer and administrator. While continuing to develop my skills on the job, I enrolled in a certificate program in Data Science through the University of Washington. Through this program I learned more about database design and administration, Business Intelligence, data mining, and predictive analytics. Now, having graduated from the program and through my experience on the job and continued learning off the job, I have become marketable as a database administrator, business intelligence consultant, and data scientist, all of which are currently in demand. Thus, I would say I have been able to successfully transition from the academic world to the business/technology world, all in a very short time and with little prior experience and knowledge.
I am very grateful for my philosophy background, and I would still get my master’s in philosophy if I had to it all over again. It was a great experience and I learned an incredible amount about myself and the world of ideas. My graduate studies have been incredibly helpful to me in my current career. My thinking is clearer and sharper. My writing is more persuasive and focused. I can see more clearly how ideas relate in business discussions and how to isolate the relevant points of discussion and debate. Getting a degree in philosophy is definitely not a waste of time; it is rewarding for it’s own sake, regardless of what you do afterwards. Nevertheless, I am very happy pursuing my current career, and I am thankful I can still continue to study and do philosophy on the side.
Mike, Associate, Academic Research at the Charles Koch Foundation
I am a second generation philosophy student. My father entered the profession in the mid-seventies. I pursued both an undergraduate and an MA in philosophy. I have also taught for several years as an adjunct faculty member. I can’t claim to be the final expert on whether or not one should study philosophy, but my experience provides me with what hopefully is an interesting perspective on the field.
The good news is that if you enjoy philosophy, if you enjoy school and you have good study habits, you will enjoy the experience of graduate school in philosophy. You will spend much of your time in the company of people who enjoy philosophy as much as you do, and you will leave a graduate degree in philosophy with the type of analytical training that prepares you for challenges in just about any other field from computer science to the legal profession.
The bad news? Well, sadly, there is a lot of it. You won’t suffer alone in graduate school, but you will suffer! You will need to be more self-directed, conscientious, and disciplined. If you don’t have these traits already you can learn them in graduate school, but the process might be painful. And the pain doesn’t stop there. The road after graduation, whether at the PhD or the MA level, is not as clear or straight as one would hope.
There are not many jobs in philosophy, and most jobs in philosophy (and the academy as a whole) are course-by-course part time (i.e., adjunct) positions. These positions are unsustainable for the individual working them. The pay per course can range from $1,800-$3,000. To work anything close to a living wage would require working for at least two, if not three, separate schools. You will also have no benefits or retirement plan. All this is assuming that you can secure that many courses from three different institutions and make sure that they fit within your schedule. Added to this, adjunct faculty are extremely marginal and can find themselves without work at relatively short notice. That was what happened to me when one my schools informed me that because of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act they would not be able to offer me any more courses for the year (as the university did not want me qualifying as a ‘full time’ worker).
In contrast, my new job at the Charles Koch Foundation, a liberty-advancing private foundation, has been very fulfilling. The foundation provides greater social interaction on a daily basis through collaborative work. It rewards hard work, financially and in other ways, and it encourages the development of new skills and capacities. Even the small things that most people take for granted are deeply appreciated. I have my own desk, a work-provided computer, plenty of office supplies, and free coffee. I had none of these as an adjunct. Finally, the environment is one of intellectual curiosity and continued learning.
Since we are often considering grant proposals from academics, my background in the academy has been very useful in assessing the merits of the proposals. And given the nature of my work, I am able to continue my philosophical pursuits and studies through my work, even though I am no longer in professional academia. Thus, I have been able to transition to a ‘normal job’, with all of its benefits, without having to give up my academic interests.
Summary of Advice
Here is a summary of the lessons and advice gathered from the stories above:
1. Consider carefully whether you need to study philosophy in an academic setting, and think even more carefully about pursuing it as a profession.
Philosophical study is incredibly rewarding, especially at the graduate level. You will learn a lot about yourself and the world, and you will also gain valuable writing, thinking, and analytical skills that can be applied to any situation. And, as you know from our stories, you do not need to (and perhaps may not want to) pursue philosophy as a profession in academia. So one can still enjoy the fruits of academic philosophical study without fully committing to academia as a career.
However, graduate study in philosophy may not be for everyone interested in philosophy, particularly given other factors like the current job market in academia. As one of us states, “While I do recognize the great personal value in the [philosophy] education I received, the future economic prospects are so utterly dire that if I had to choose over again I would pursue a degree in business or marketing.” Other degrees are more readily marketable, and with limited time and resources, these other degrees may be a better choice for some people, particularly those concerned about future job prospects.
By following the advice below, a middle route between full devotion to academic philosophy and complete rejection of it, one can mitigate the difficult “future economic prospects” of pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy and provide for yourself a parachute of sorts if you choose another career outside of academia. Remember also that, if you are committed to philosophy and would like the occasion for advanced study that graduate school provides, consider pursuing it as a hobby and not as a profession. Many graduate courses are offered at night and working slowly towards an MA while having a ‘day job’ is certainly doable. And there are always plenty of books, articles, and blogs to read in your spare time to keep you doing philosophy.
2. Have a Backup plan
Suppose you do not make it as a professional academic philosopher, or you change your mind about what you would like to do professionally. What then? What else would you do? If you do not have a backup plan and adequately prepare for the implementation of that plan, the transition from academia to the business world may be very rough. As one of us has experienced, “You will likely be type-cast by HR departments as an academic (not a good thing) and will be seen as lacking valuable skills that are required in the business world. When you do secure a position it is likely that you will be at ‘square one’ in a new career which may not value your extensive years of schooling.” To avoid this fate, figure out what other sorts of career paths you would be interested in pursuing and, while still working towards your dream of being a professional philosopher, also prepare yourself professionally for other options that may be more appealing or necessary as time moves on.
3. Network, network, network!
Most of us are in the work we are currently in thanks to someone we knew who knew someone else who knew someone else… who needed someone like us for a job. A personal recommendation from an intermediary that knows both the employer and potential employee is incredibly valuable in terms of securing a position. Talk to your parent’s friends, your friend’s parents, and your friend’s friends that work in fields you are interested in. Learn how they got to be where they are and get to know them personally. Ask them to keep an eye open for an opening wherever they work.
4. Take classes within philosophy that will look help you succeed in business, technology, and other related fields
Use philosophy classes to develop skills that will be useful outside of philosophy. Work on your analytical writing by taking classes that will require you to write a lot. Take as many logic classes as you can. Select classes that could apply to another field (e.g., environmental ethics for biological work) and write on topics that could help you learn more about that field (e.g., political philosophy for government work).
5. Minor in a more marketable field in addition to your philosophy major
If you have the time and resources, minor in a readily marketable field. A business, communications, marketing, mathematics, computer science, accounting, economics, or advertising minor will round out your skill set as you enter into the work force. Interdisciplinary work is all the rage these days, so having a diverse educational background will help you to stand out.
6. Take classes outside your degree: if you can’t minor in another more immediately marketable field, take individual classes if you can while still in your undergraduate or graduate programs. Here are some classes we recommend:
- Introductory Programming (to C++, C#, Java, Python, or some other object oriented programming language)
- Database Systems and Management
- Any class related to Office software (e.g., Excel)
- Linear Algebra
- Discrete Mathematics
- Number Theory
- Mathematical Modeling
- Business Finance
- Decision Making
- Program and Project Management
- Business Planning
- Public Speaking
- Financial Accounting
- Managerial Accounting
7. Take online or continuing education courses:
If you have already graduated, continue your learning by taking online courses or continuing education courses through your local universities. You can take classes individually (like those above), or you can earn certificates, degrees, and certifications. Here are some links:
- University of Washington Professional & Continuing Education
- Language Trainers (UK)
- Look for videos on YouTube on various topics
8. Buy and read used textbooks:
Get and read used textbooks on subjects related to the classes up above. You can get great deals on used textbooks that are only a few years old from online book sellers. Teach yourself in your spare time.
By following this advice, you can continue to study philosophy, at the undergraduate or graduates levels, and prepare yourself for the business and technology world. This way, no matter what your ultimate decision is about pursuing philosophy professionally, you will be prepared.
For Further Reading
“I think, therefore I earn” at The Guardian
“Philosophy is Back in Business” at BusinessWeek
“Learn Philosophy” at US News and World Report
A nice list from a blogger in Canada of other articles and information on the value of a philosophy degree