My College Degree: Not So Useless After All

Apparently, if you’re getting a humanities degree and you want to make money, a philosophy degree is the way to go. This is according to PayScale, a company which surveys college graduates about such things:

Although philosophy majors rank 75th on PayScale’s overall list of majors at mid-career earnings, it’s the top humanities bachelors degree in their ranking—from early career all the way to later career.

The idea here is that getting a philosophy degree gives you a certain amount of creative problem-solving abilities other folks might not have, which may come in handy out in the real world.

Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly why I got my philosophy degree.

Although, honestly, it’s not out of line with what I’ve said the advantage of getting that particular degree has been. I learned how to learn, and I also learned how to argue and to evaluate arguments, and in particular I learned how language works and how people use it. All of which has come in handy in my professional work.

I don’t know that I would recommend people get a philosophy degree if they want to make money (note that 75th overall ranking, there), but I certainly think over time I have gotten value out of my degree, and not just for the purposes of making money, although clearly it’s done okay for me in that regard. I mean overall quality of life.

So if you want to make money, go for Petroleum Engineering or an MBA. For the rest of it, including maybe some money on the side? Philosophy’s not so bad.

71 Comments on “My College Degree: Not So Useless After All”

  1. Actually, the “I learned how to learn, and I also learned how to argue and to evaluate arguments, and in particular I learned how language works and how people use it.” skill should be embraced by everyone, BEFORE attempting to either study or do anything else at all.

  2. Well I slightly agree with you, slightly because I am getting my degree in Communication and Public Relation next April and I believe that though a degree in philosophy might back it up well enough and bring some bucks with it, I strongly believe that a law degree will break the bank even easier ….thats on the “money” side of view…but professionally a philosophy degree is the way to go.

  3. “Whether a society values its philosophers and degrades its plumbers, or admires its plumbers and and detests its philosophers, the price is the same: neither its theories nor its pipes will hold water.”

    — John Gardner, Excellence

    And I’m sure I’m misquoting that. Probably I shouldn’t have that third beer at breakfast.

  4. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to people about my “irrelevant” degree for years. Any other degree can teach you about *what* people think; philosophy can give you so much more insight into *how* people think.

  5. My college degree was in Computer Science, which has proven to be VERY useful; my decision to flip from majoring in English and minoring in C.S., and do the reverse instead, has certainly led to a decent adulthood. After a pretty poor (in multiple senses of the world) childhood, I decided I liked the idea of a job that would guarantee a roof over my head, and I’d already discovered I liked working with computers.

    And certainly in the last ten years I’ve been grateful for reliable health benefits. But also for a day job that lets me afford to do what I wanted to do in the first place: write books, and then periodically sell them! Sometimes even at conventions!

    So yeah. C.S. degree? DEFINITELY useful.

  6. if you are going to tell a kid to get a philosophy degree do the kid a favor and if he doesn’t have a scholarship or rich parents to spend 2 years at junior college. The first 2 years are basic requirements and fairly similair everywhere. Then go to an instate school so the kid does not come out of school $150,000 in debt.

    My undergrad political science/international studies double major is totally useless. I had to teach myself to code when I was waiting tables. Then I went back to school at night for 6.5 (year round) getting 2 masters degrees in Software Engineering and an MBA. I think the MBA is pretty useless. The only thing of value was the first finance class I took. I had to read ‘A Random Walk Down Wallstreet’. I realized my financial planner was ripping me off. I fired him and bought cheap indexed mutual funds. The savings on fees is enormous. That book covered the cost of my degrees by itself in saved fees many times over.

    There were 2 types of people in an MBA program. Those who thought it was garbage and those who didn’t understand the question. I would ask ‘Does this class have value to my career’ and my fellows students give me a dumbfounded look and respond with ‘Is it a requirement for the degree?’

    Skip the MBA. Read the book I mentioned and you will will come out financially ahead.

    As far as creative problem solving… I took alot of theory classes as an undergrad. I got alot more problem solving by having to take a bunch of calculus and other math at a junior college as pre-reqs for my masters degrees.

  7. I don’t know where anthropology ranks in there, but I’m willing to bet it’s somewhere below philosophy. I got myself a handy dandy degree in anthropology. But I can’t bring myself to regret it. I had a damn good time doing the work. And money can’t buy me love.

  8. MBA’s are only a ticky-box to get you past HR, they are a self-selecting waste of time – you need to have one to get the job, so they are valuable because you need to have one to get the job.

    In the people who’ve worked for me, one of the worst at the job had an MBA, one of the best didn’t (although he is a kid (27) and is now doing an MBA – only reason I encouraged him to get one is so he can get an interview in the future for a job he can already do, without the MBA.

  9. I hired programmers starting in the eighties, before the CS degree was really common. The degrees I looked for were Music, Physics, Philosophy, and Math. Having one of those degrees seemed to correlate pretty well with being able to learn to program professionally.

  10. Edited to add – I have a Medieval and Modern History degree. In the UK, the field of study didn’t matter 25 years ago – I’m an accountant, having an accounting degree didn’t help much with becoming a chartered accountant back then.

  11. My advice to college kids? You can fake a science degree at any level by changing your name to that of an appropriately-aged researcher who no longer publishes papers. “Robyn Bennis” has actually been dead for years.

    I swear, it was an accident.

  12. I find it Interesting that there’s no indication given of adjustment for socioeconomic background pre-college on this one; certainly over here PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) is what rich young men read at Oxford in preparation for a career in politics, ending up with a Lordship or senior ministerial role having done their turn in the back benches as an MP.

  13. My undergraduate degree was in German (actually so was my first graduate degree), but I minored in philosophy. Very useful for law school. And, because it does teach about “how” people think, very useful in my current career as a teacher. FWIW, as a new teacher (albeit with graduate degrees and credits), I am making nearly as much as I made as a lawyer. The big bucks of being a lawyer depends tremendously on what kind of law you practice and where. I could have made a lot more money practicing business law or doing personal injury cases, but I would have fled screaming from my job really quickly. Not my personality. My suggestion is to get a good grounding in any liberal art (history, philosophy, English), and then do what feeds your soul. Would have saved me a fortune in therapy bills. For my son, we are going the community college route. It gives him a chance to get the basics out of the way and saves us a lot of money. He’s willing to live at home and save his money for his final two years. I’m sorry he’s missing out on the social experience, but it isn’t worth $40 -60,0000 a year

  14. A great topic! My small contribution is based on observations over many years recruiting software testers – from absolute beginners to grizzled old hands I found, oddly enough, that an Arts degree was usually a good indicator. The subject didn’t really make too much difference – art, music, literature, etc. – but 8 or 9 times out of 10 the Arts graduates were better at the job.
    After many discussions on this I finally decided it was the analytical skills that worked so well – approaching something unknown, breaking it down, seeing it in context, reaching conclusions about how effective it was. I’m grateful as it gave me the status of guru in my field

  15. My degree is in theatre, and I was mostly a stage manager, which gave me a very useful set of skills I have used in every job I’ve ever had, in a wide variety of fields. But at my college (at the time–I think things may have changed) a theatre degree was still, largely, an academic degree, which meant a lot of lit classes. And there were still the distribution requirements (O, quaint!) to be satisfied. And the courses I took because I thought they looked interesting. None of which I could have pointed to and said “this is going to make me a better employee,” or “this is going to help me get a job.” What I did learn, over all, was to research, and approach my research thoughtfully, and synthesize an idea, or a solution, from my research.

    Which sounds pretty damned useful to me.

    But I was always a little in awe of the philosophy majors.

  16. Regardless of major, at least one lower-division class in logic should be required. Learn context as well as content.

  17. 30 years ago I switched my major from Computer Science to Mass Communcations/PR (with minors in CS, aerospace, political science and psychology). After spending time in sales, I ended up as a web designer then programmer then manager. The point is, if you LEARN HOW TO LEARN, which you gain in a Liberal Arts education, then you can do anything you want.

    That said, I’d love to study philosophy.

  18. The survey did not include the other terminal degree’s, one reason why philosophy degrees make more money on average is that a large percentage of them then go on to law school. At Sonoma State where I got my degree as a reentry student in 2000, of the graduating class of 18 phil students, 3 were already accepted in to a law program. Another was going to medical school.

  19. @kaberett

    Over here PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) is what rich young men read at Oxford in preparation for a career in politics, ending up with a Lordship or senior ministerial role having done their turn in the back benches as an MP.

    Not really. Of course some people who read PPE at Oxford do end up as politicians – though I can think of several who have done so who were neither rich nor men. But the overwhelming majority of PPE students don’t end up as politicians and never had any aspiration to do so. I am one of those – also not rich, though I confess to having been young at the time – and the benefits of having studied philosophy remain with me many years later.

    I went there expecting my interest and attention to be focused first on economics, secondly on politics and only thirdly on the philosophy. As it turned out, my final degree completely reversed that, with philosophy and politics dominating and economics dropped altogether, for being hopelessly disconnected from reality.

  20. Get a liberal arts degree as an undergrad and then polish your education with grad school or work experience. Early specialization tends to produce less well-rounded individuals. (BTW – Traditional liberal arts includes a solid dose of science.)

    Aside: I’ve noticed that my engineering colleagues tend to have much higher divorce rates than the biological or chemical scientists in all the companies where I’ve worked.

  21. One thing you learn with those not-so-useless liberal arts degrees is to be skeptical of what your’e told and to look behind the data, particularly when you’re receiving a second-hand headline-y gloss on what data supposedly said. The PayScale report can be found here. Their methodology is voluntary online survey that people complete and is then subject to “proprietary internal taxonomies” to sort out, as well as some rather clinical and possibly arbitrary decisions about what is and isn’t included; for example, they flatly eliminate novelists. Sorry, John.

    Which – speaking as someone with the world’s least marketable undergrad degree, and if you come at me with some weaksauce “oh but I majored in French Medieval music theory” challenge I will fight you – is not a criticism of philosophy degrees. For all I know it’s even more profitable than our host suggests, and it probably is if you take the law school thing* into account. But this survey is not something I’d rely on as authoritative.

    *as a digression, law is a profession that has a bimodal salary distribution and thus tends to mess up salary surveys that are looking for an “average” wage, to the consternation of a whole lot of new JD holders.

  22. Kate George: My college bf was an anthropology/philosophy double major, with a minor in Japanese. He intended to become an archaeologist. We broke up before we graduated, so I dunno if he ever made it, but I know how smart he was, so I’m confident he’s out on a dig somewhere as we speak.


  23. Concerning Computer Science degrees.. I am in the profession. I don’t have a CS degree. Scroll up to see my education background. I had to teach myself to code. It was very hard and took a long time and basically working at it whenever I wasn’t working. Then working at it at home after I found someone to hire me to improve. I took a number of undergrad CS classes as pre-reqs for a masters degree.

    CS is critical if you want to get into coding these days. Companies are not looking to train you. Very few will even interview you without a CS degree if you don’t have work experience. Its not worth the trouble to find the 1 in 100 who actually taught themselves how to code. There is too much you don’t know as a self trained coder before you get work experience.

    The degree is very good. Its fairly similiar everywhere. It is very useful. My big beef with it is the change to use the Java programming language as a base from C/C++. With C you have to understand and solve lower level memory issues. It gives you a better fundamental understanding of coding. It makes you a better coder. The expectation should be C/C++ is the foundation, but we will make you do projects later on in Java so teach yourself. If you know C/C++ its very easy to learn java.

    I would strongly recommend sending your kid to a school (if there are any) that use C/C++ over java with the expectation that the kid learn java on his own. The kid will be far more competitive in the job market and the kid will have an easier time learning new technologies. This skill is critical for success. No one will hold your hand. I have not had training in 10 years.

    A kid with a liberal arts degree these days has almost no chance to get a programming job. There may be a few exceptions, but its unlikely. The counter to this should not be ‘back in the 80s I hired people’ or I know someone with 25 years experience with a philosophy degree. They have the experience. No one wants to pay you to learn to code.

  24. I got my degrees in mathematics and computer science and I think the aspects of philosophy that are beneficial to being in the workforce are those that it shares with mathematics: rational thinking, logical extrapolation, rigorous proofs, and so on.

    I am, however, reminded of an ancient joke about our two fields:

    Dean, to the physics department. “Why do I always have to give you guys so much money, for laboratories and expensive equipment and stuff. Why couldn’t you be like the math department – all they need is money for pencils, paper and waste-paper baskets. Or even better, like the philosophy department. All they need are pencils and paper.”

  25. I graduated with a degree in English (and a PolySci minor), but I enjoyed the two Philosophy courses I took at my college. I remember my professor liked my work so Mitch that he kept suggesting I switch majors and commit to the Philosophy program. It would’ve been interesting to see how my career would’ve changed if I’d taken his advice.

  26. Like you say, the real purpose of going to university should be learning how to think diversely, across a range of issues, and craft a compelling and logical argument based on those thoughts and a certain amount of objective data. The rest (e.g., employment) is gravy: if you know how to think and communicate those thoughts to others, you’ll find a job.

  27. DH was being dunned by one of those fly-by-night debt collection companies for classes for a supposed degree in Mechanical Engineering. Never took a single course in ME; his response: “Does that mean if I pay you the $2000 you say I owe, I’ll get a BS in Engineering? From where?” Dead silence and never heard back from them.

  28. Meh.. I’ll take my mostly useless in polite society skill set in knowing how to dis/arm land mines or calculate how to blow something up. It comes in useful when watching movies where one or two blocks of C-4 destroy a 60,000+ sq/ft warehouse. ~rolling eyes~

  29. I know.1991 B.S. Criminal Justice only put me in debt.Passing
    a test for a public sector job only got me on a waiting list.One year later, my eligibility expires. Wait for another opening.Apply,test, wait and repeat the cycle. Substitute teaching for some cash.

  30. Like our host, my upbringing was not, ahem, well off. I was lucky that a bad fall while in the military led to disabled veteran’s status which paid for a college education. Though I majored in computer science my state school lost out to another university for that degree program and I had to quickly switch majors to Classical Antiquities. This resulted in a less-that-desirable BA degree but it turned out not to be a detriment. Many of the classes I took to complete my BA proved useful later in life. And employers — even the computer companies — seemed more interested in the fact that I had a degree and a decent GPA than the precise nature of my major. It’s been 35 years since I graduated and like Mr. Scalzi I have been financially successful and I’m deeply thankful for the upward mobility provide by the US veterans program, and a decent education.

  31. Perhaps it’s also something to do with the personality of those who major in philosophy? I think you’re the only person I’ve actually liked among those I’ve met who had philosophy degrees, but all of them were self-assured, articulate men who were unafraid of self-promotion. And those are all traits that lend themselves to financial success.

  32. Lots of good insights in this string.

    I will say however, that there seems to be some hubris and self aggrandizement among the “philosophy” majors. The assumption seems to be that the study of philosophy is the only way to learn to think and analyze things. I disagree. My one attempt at a philosophy class made me cancel immediately as the professor didn’t want to teach how to think, but rather what to think (plus showing massive disrespect for the students). Life is too short for that, even for a humble student. I realize not all philosophy instructors would be like this*.

    Having studied science and engineering, I can attest that these courses and instructors do spend considerable time teaching how to think and how to analyze things. After all, those are the basic tools scientists and engineers use. Skills which served me very well during my working career.

    Pick a course of study that you are interested in, that you are good at, and that leads to some reasonable opportunity to keep a roof over your head. But a lot of that is the skill and personality of the student and later the worker. If you like people and can work with people, you will do better regardless of the field.

    *P.S. I did later learn of some a**hole engineering instructors who I was lucky enough to not encounter directly.

  33. The “better pay for philosophers” phenomenom may be because there’s more men doing philosophy, and the gender-pay gap kicks in. There’s a good discussion of this possibility over at Feminist Fhilosophers: Philosophers make more money than other humanities majors but is that because lots of them are male.

    (PS: First time commenter. I’ve been reading Whatever for a while, due to your great work on poverty, and privilege and the like. Also, I enjoy reading your books. Cheers!)

  34. Computer Science degree here (C++ and SQL mostly with the occasional foray into other languages like Haskell and even machine code and MSIL). These days I think a CS degree should focus more on concepts and methodologies than on any one language (since languages seem to be cycling damn quickly).

    However requirements for the degree included at least some writing papers as well as philosophy and logic. I found both really useful.

  35. John Barnes: Here’s the quote you were trying to remember.

    The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

  36. When I went back to college nights I took a philosophy course. The professor tried to convince me to make it my major but it didn’t feel like the right fit to me. Part of the problem might have been the fantastic private high school I’d gone to on scholarship. Teacher/student ratio at HS was 1/10 before they split classes up and sometimes as small as 1/3 or 1/1 for independent study. We were taught a lot about how to critically think, argue, do research, etc.

    I had dropped out of college at 19, giving up my scholarship, as I’d been bored/had too much time on my hands. In high school I was used to what I felt at the time to be a higher level of scholarship where questioning teacher was encouraged. I was also used to working three jobs. The college I chose was not the right fit and was in the middle of nowhere so there was no work available. When I decided to quit I went back to being poor, not dirt poor, but poor. It took a few years and a marriage to reach middle class living paycheck to paycheck with hefty debt.

    A few years later I took a few night classes to get back into the habit while applying to life experience programs. I went back to college so I’d start getting paid for the work I was actually doing and be eligible for promotion. In the end I got a BS in Business Management over 14 months once they’d transferred credits and done testing/reviewed my “life experience”. I did what was needed to get the piece of paper which was being required in my field (technical writing in the computer industry in the mid-1990s). It had a dramatic impact within 2 years on my income and promotions more than doubling my income within 3 years. Not necessarily the right degree for technical writers starting out today.

  37. At the price of college nowadays (even community colleges have gone up), I think I’d encourage my kid to look at a more immediately-practical field. Science, engineering, and CS will also teach you about evidence and how to evaluate it.

    If they were mechanically instead of scholastically inclined, I’d encourage plumbing. People always need plumbers, and it’s one job that can never be outsourced. I’ve heard this from a lot of well-educated professional people.

    Of course, one could become a chemical engineer, who are jokingly called plumbers!

    If you discount the lawyers and the odd novelist, all the philosophy majors I know are, money-wise, lower-middle class. And heaven help those with advanced philosophy degrees; they’re trying to eke out a living as adjunct professors (mostly teaching kids who are just taking Phil 101 to fill the distribution requirements) or in some blue-collar job.

    PPE may be one degree at Oxford, but out here, it’s 3 different ones with a bit of overlap.

  38. I started off as a physics major, mostly because I’d loved astronomy since childhood. Couple years later, the math got to be more than I could handle (I had gotten straight A’s until I started calculus). I was under a time limit because of financial aid, so I switched to general studies. Later did a year of graduate work in anthropology and linguistics. Much later, finished a master’s in library science.

    Needless to say, none of this has helped me in the making-big-bucks department. On the other hand, if I had followed my first plan and become a tenured science professor, I’d be far more comfortable financially… but I’d probably have no friends and an ulcer the size of Montana. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

  39. Back when I entered the industry, when CS was a newish degree (in fact, my university didn’t even offer it as a single subject, only as a joint honours course), some employers had a policy of recruiting from numerate sciences rather than CS: “That way, we don’t have to wait while they unlearn all the bad habits.”

    My degree is in physics.

  40. Future students: please, for the love of all you hold dear DO NOT get an MBA alone! Either get it as a secondary to some other course of study, or skip it entirely and go back for it after you already know how to do something useful. I do not need to run into yet more people out there who think that manipulating charts is what makes the business run. Instead of, you know, the folks making the products or the folks answering the phones and installing the widgets.

  41. I dropped out of art school (BFA!) in the ’80s, when this thing called a “Macintosh” came along. Turned out I was really good at groking them, started fixing the school computers, the nearby print shops, etc. Now, many years and security clearances later, making 6 figures herding clusters around for “the man.” My office mate/co-worker has dual PhDs in Comp-Sci and EE. Ya never know where life’ll take you. Funny thing is, I still want to finish my BFA. Weird!

  42. Now that you mention it… my highest-earning relative, as far as I know, has only one degree, and it was indeed a BA in philosophy from the University of Chicago. I don’t even really know what he did. Something to do with computers and big banking. He has homes in two countries and took early retirement to spend more time traveling and–yep, studying more philosophy. I think he’s working on a midlife PhD.

  43. Did a Physics bachelor’s at a respected liberal arts university. It only turned into a B.S. after a year abroad where 2/3rd of the course load was Physics. Did NOT want to continue in Physics and thought about library science, technical writing…ended up in a graduate geodetic science program (enticed by “computer-aided mapping”). At the time, and probably still, they would look at anyone with an undergraduate STEM degree. It’s a very interesting field, now morphed into GIS (geographic information systems aka geomatics). I found my career.

    Although I always wonder what would have happened if I’d majored in Japanese instead…

  44. English major, Philosophy minor, then an M.A in English at the University of Chicago (though several years before you went there). I’m a writer every day now, though my novels are still unpublished (anybody got an agent?) but studying philosophy has helped my thinking and my writing even after all these years.

  45. Bachelors in CS and Avionics here (plus grad school for aircraft control and dynamics). I actually don’t use most of the advanced concepts from CS in my day-to-day (I can’t think of the last time I used a red-black tree or an esoteric sort algorithm, because most of my time is spent making sure that my code does what I want in ways that others can easily read and understand). On the flip side, my very expensive education (MIT) actually did pay for itself in at least three ways:
    1. The MIT degree has opened doors for me when other schools might not have.
    2. The coursework that I did was always focused on the next level down.
    A. Every CS course was a different language, chosen to illustrate a particular point, and you very quickly learned to abstract away from the syntax of a language to understand the semantics of what you were trying to do. To this day picking up new computer languages is pretty simple for me, having both a large base of known languages to compare to, and knowing that knowing what I mean is more important than knowing how to say a zillion things I don’t mean.
    B. The courses always had far more emphasis on concepts and semantics than details and syntax – most exams were open book or open notes, and they were still fiendishly difficult.
    3. Every course taught the material in multiple ways, approaching the same concepts from different angles, and emphasized the relation between topics past and topics future – all of which teaches you how to, when faced with a large unknown problem, where the potential handles to a solution might be, and how to go about finding them. In short, how to learn.

    As I’ve interviewed more and more people, I’ve come to discover that not everyone knows how to do that, and filtering for the ones who do will save you ever so much time in the long run.

  46. Philosophy major here as well (and going back for a “little later in life Ph.D. in it, too”). Having been neck deep in the department of philosophy off and on for over 20 years now, my opinion has been that an undergraduate degree in philosophy is a great career-wise in 3 ways:

    1) To go onto a Ph.D. and stick with philosophy academics (although good luck finding a good teaching position, the job market sucks! But like being a writer, most people become philosophers because that’s just who they are.)

    2) As an excellent pre-law degree,

    3) As a second major or minor with pretty much any other degree out there. Philosophy is likely the most useful second major (or minor) for probably every other degree out there (although I could see a case made for business as well, but I’m not familiar with it). Depending on what courses you take, philosophy can benefit just about every single field in some way.

  47. Dear John,

    I’m not so keen on a specialized education, at least not for the first go-round.

    I’m pretty emphatic about not recommending such to students who ask me what they should pursue in the way of higher education. The biggest reason? Because odds are they really don’t know what they’re going to do with the rest of their life. The next biggest reason? Because a liberal arts education will better prepare them for whatever they’re going to do with the next stage of their life than any kind of specialized education, unless they’ve made some very, very lucky guesses.

    I went to the most uber-elite of elite tech schools. Kids come into that school very, very focused and with real clear ideas of what they’re going to become if they grow up. I would dare say that the majority of my classmates did not spend the majority of their adult lives doing what they thought they’d be doing as freshmen. I thought I was the exception, the guy who went for a double degree in English and Physics while deciding to become a photographer. I think that’s the myth. The reality is that to a greater or lesser degree, I’m the rule.

    People make left turns in life all the time. Dr Brian May, formerly lead guitarist with Queen — when that stopped being his primary gig, he went back to his first love and got his doctorate in astrophysics. Frank Capra was the opposite story. A lifelong fabulously successful career in moviemaking, and he never stopped regretting that he hadn’t found the time to go to graduate school in astronomy and study under his idol, Edwin Hubble.

    It can happen later rather than sooner. Bob Cameron, the photographer who did all those Above San Francisco/New York/London/etc. books, he was a marketing and advertising guy in New York. After he retired from that, at the age of 64, he took up aerial photography as a second career. Which ran him another 30 years.

    It could happen to you. Life is a long time. 15 years from now, you might decide you’re tired of writing or, even if you’re not tired of it something else captures your passion, and you’ve got enough money salted away, and so you decide to become a… well… lumberjack. I don’t know. Whatever. (hmmm, good title…)

    I used to joke that degrees in English and Physics were great background for being a photographer. Except I discovered it wasn’t a joke. And when I started writing nonfiction it became even less of a joke, and when I took up fiction it was totally not a joke. That English degree proved awfully useful. Seriously. I had learned all sorts of analytic skills for looking at what I was writing and how I was writing it.

    Ya nevva knowz.

    My recommendation to students? Get yourself a good liberal arts education. If you can swing one of the nice small elite liberal arts colleges like Grinnell or Carlton, great. But even if you can’t, get the education. By the end of those four years, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to do with your life. You’ll still probably be wrong, but at least you will have a clue.

    In case anyone thinks I’m making that recommendation on the assumption they’re going to be a non-techie, stop thinking that. I’m recommending it especially for techies. The best damned practical physicist I know was a Grinnell undergrad. I’ve never forgotten what Richard Feynman said when asked why he thought it was important that Caltech students study art. “Because nobody ever did anything creative knowing only one thing. You have to put two different things together and mash them up and then you come up with a new third thing. Art is a ‘different thing’.”

    None of the most successful and talented people I know (those are not the same thing) are single-purpose specialists. I don’t think that’s a coincidence nor an accident.

    … Or maybe I just hang out in a bad crowd. It’s possible.

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery
    — Digital Restorations

  48. There’s also the signalling aspect. Even if a given Philosophy dept isn’t any good at teaching teenagers to think critically, choosing to major in philosophy and succeeding in doing so is an indication of critical thinking skills.

  49. I have a career degree but I always felt it was a compromise: job vs real education. The above comments document my dominant scenario: That many people only go to school for a job, and that if they could magically have a good job without one, they wouldn’t go—except maybe for the parties.

    School was stressful, and I sure felt good once it was over and I had my degree, but even if I was a millionaire I would still have done it, if only so I wouldn’t die of curiosity about what I missed. Similarly, I don’t regret my military service.

  50. Just for the record, do *not* go for a petroleum engineer degree just for the money. Right now the market is contracting strongly, and that major is unlikely to ever see anything like the boom they just finished ever again.

    You might find a job, but you’ll probably also find student loans now and a pink slip later, assuming you got hired in the first place. That’s the nature of a cyclical commodity business.

  51. I wonder if the ranking controlled for gender (my understanding is philosophy is more heavily male than most other majors, and men earn more money on average) and socioeconomic status (less privileged hum majors may be more likely to stick to English and History, which appear in almost all high schools). There may also be selection into major difficulty, but if that is the case then the major would function as a signal of quality and going into it would still command a higher wage.

  52. Interesting that two of my favorite writers are Philosophy majors (and both are named John.) The other one is John Gierach.

  53. I think the recommendation for a philosophy major is for the same reasoning an engineering degree has always been looked highly upon. Both are problem-solving degrees though the former is slanted more from an ethical viewpoint. I would think a philosophy major is somewhat less academically ‘strenuous’ than one in structural engineering (or mechanical or electrical), but you probably have more job opportunities with an engineering major too.

    The rise in problem-solving skills may be due to a possible drop in social skills overall in, well, humanity. The information age has arrived and left everyone too busy with social media–and every app in between. Being able to see beyond however many characters one can next text might be in danger of becoming a lost skill. The mind is a wonderful thing, but it takes multiple perspectives to get a balanced picture for any given situation. That can be difficult to accomplish when limiting oneself to an ipad or laptop or smartphone. We are anything but simple creatures and sometimes it’s the little things that matter the most, even if for a little while. Take a sunset or a clear summer day, for example.

    What’s the value of knowing so much about the world we live in if we lose the able to interact(i.e., interface/relate) with it?

  54. I started in college going for a Mechanical Engineering degree. Changed schools when the original one underwent a change of management and changed majors to industrial design, while noodling around in fine art. After several times butting heads with faculty, including a group project that pretty much killed any chance I had to graduate in that program, I decided to get serious about the art degree and graduated with a BFA. Years later, I got my Master’s in Library and Information Science. The funny thing is that I still use the analytical skills I picked up in engineering to talk to the plumbers, carpenters, IT people, and electricians who keep our aging building operational. Who knew being able to read blueprints was an important part of being a librarian? No knowledge goes to waste.

  55. Poli Sci undergrad degree, Deaf Education graduate degree, actual job in computer programming.

    I often wish I had majored in computer science—I had been intending to, but I got spooked by a CS major who whined about how haaaaard her classes were*—but to be honest, there are very very few times in my career where I have felt that my lack of CS knowledge has prevented me from getting work done.

    *Memo to my past self and all future college frosh: Everyone in college whines about how hard their classes are. Take such complaints with a brick of salt.

  56. B. A. in English, with Classics and Math minors, M. A. in English, LL. B. So naturally, I’m a software developer (C++, Unix). I doubt I could make that transition today without going back for a degree in C.S., though. (Things were different enough that my department chair – in English – had a monthly column in Byte magazine.)

    As far as philosophy goes, though, my father and brother both have PhDs in Philosophy, and it hasn’t hurt their careers (admittedly, my father taught it and has ended up as an FRSC, and my brother’s a priest who teaches at the English College in Rome).

  57. The above comments document my dominant scenario: That many people only go to school for a job, and that if they could magically have a good job without one, they wouldn’t go—except maybe for the parties.

    I suspect most of the people going to college just for a job are not going to four-year residential institutions and looking at humanities majors; they’re going to city and community colleges for career-oriented programs (court reporting, automobile repair, nursing assistant), and they’re also in programs that let them go home at night instead of back to a dorm, so they can take care of their families and/or hold down jobs at the same time.

    College is a lot harder to fund than it was when many of us were able to devote four years to ‘learning how to think’. The price of an education and the entry bar for the workforce are both higher – the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma – and while I too would love to encourage young people to go spend four years ‘learning to think’, I’m not comfortable doing so in an age of limited Pell grants, six-figure debt and the dismantling of California’s educational system.

  58. I have the equivalent of a philosophy degree on the other side of the STEM/arts fence – a degree in theoretical physics (it’s probably arguable that pure maths is the precise equivalent, but there’s not a lot of space between a pure maths and theoretical physics degree).

    A lot of people used to ask me, when I was studying “what job can you do with that?” and I would shrug. I didn’t care. It was interesting, and I wanted to know how everything works. I assumed I would end up in academia, but I didn’t. I do maths for a living now, and it pays surprisingly well.

  59. My English degree finally paid off when I got work as an adjunct eight years ago, at almost $30 per contact hour with students. Believe me, nearly $30 is AWESOME money. May not seem like it in other parts of the country, but here in Redneckville, people boast about getting $14 on a job, while I get to have fun and have a meaningful job at twice that. True, it’s not a full-time job with benefits, but it did encourage me to go back and get my master’s so I can teach even more classes, and maybe get a better job in addition to teaching.

  60. As a professor of philosophy and a fan of your work, I approve of this message. :) (Though I honestly tell my students a liberal arts degree is not about getting some kind of job, but is more about learning to think and read and write–which happen to be valuable things that can get you hired, but that is not what it is about.) Having taught for 21 years now, I have seen my philosophy majors end up in all kinds of interesting places, and they all tell me they appreciated a time to simply study, learn, and think about life–and that what they studied has come into play in countless ways. But oh how marvelous to let yourself become enchanted with all the lovely ideas down through the history of thought, and wonder at it, and be glad you are alive.

  61. I already have a Master of Social Science but I want to undertake a PhD in representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy. Apparently, at ANU (the closest university to where I’m planning to move once I’ve finished my current degree) that means undertaking a PhD in Philosophy. So, awesome.

    Now I just have to convince them to let me in…

  62. Supporting Ctain, at Sept 5 11:06,
    When I gave group tours at community college (while their compulsory English essay was being marked) I would always stop the group at a certain remote corner and tell them that, statistically, many of them were going to change their major. I advised them to take note of what elective courses they liked, and which students they were hanging out with at parties and on weekends.

    Today I might add that a certain art major, well known on the web, started taking so many CS courses that other CS students thought that was his major. It wasn’t, but today he lives in silicon valley, is rich, and on his blog his friends are other computer people, so he did well to (almost) change his major.

  63. And to add a final practical note, all of my students who have double majored in biology and philosophy were accepted into medical school (anecdotal, I know, but there is also the funny thing that a recent surgeon I used was a philosophy major as an undergraduate, and my primary care doctor was one as well).

  64. Folks with Philosophy degrees do better on the LSAT exam, which gets you into law school. I would wager that the better scores are a causal factor into those Philosophy grads getting into better law schools, which is a causal factor into those JD grads getting better paying positions when they finish.

  65. I’m deeply biased because I’m nearly done with my PhD in philosophy, but philosophy courses are so tremendously useful. In addition to logic, problem solving, and learning to ask questions, philosophy courses are all about clear and organized writing. Epically useful, in so many ways. As other people have noted, philosophy best prepares students for the LSAT — but the writing and presenting ideas in an organized manner: so so helpful in so many contexts. I often see my students writing a jumbled mess of ideas in their first papers, and by the end of the term they write these beautiful clear papers. I don’t know that I’d recommend everyone major in philosophy, but taking a few phil courses can be invaluable.

  66. Why, thank you, Theophylact, that is indeed the quote! And I notice that my ever-failing memory edited John Gardner to make him much more of an egalitarian than he actually was. Which is a surprise neither about my memory nor about Gardner.

  67. If you want to make money, don’t get a college degree. Go into the navy and learn welding and go out to jobs which pay $100+/hr for experienced welders. But that’s hard dirty work that urbanites would turn up their noses at.

    If you want to make money, don’t get a college degree. Start a business. Oh, wait, with all the Bush and Obama regulations and regulators weighing a new business down, that might not be a good idea.

    If you want to make money, there’s a shite-ton of ways to do it without a college degree.

    If you want to learn what we, college educators (me: Math/stats) are teaching. learn the discipline and “jump off” on your own to true scholarship; then yes, get a college degree.

    Trust me, I’ve educate hundreds of kids and very few of them belong at a University.

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