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How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree (nytimes.com)
50 points by wallflower on Sept 15, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

Not every Philosopher deserves the job they manage to land ... my experience is that they live to be vague, so make sure you know whether the philosopher is one of the logical philosophers during their interview. You don't want the waffling kind.

One quick example ... my son was taking a 400-level IST class on Enterprise Architecture at Penn State from a very vague professor with a Philosophy degree. When asked to define Enterprise Architecture, he rambled on for half an hour before concluding that "you really can't define it ... kind of like Electrical Engineering". He was pretty flustered when one of the students read him the IEEE definition of Electrical Engineering. So this is an example of the type of person you don't want to hire.

For an example of the type of Philosopher that can help you move forward, read this comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6390914. A person like this is good with program logic, but is also trained to recognize false arguments, inconsistencies, etc when you're debating how to build something. Want to get political agendas and personal biases out of the way? Hire this guy!

There's an old joke that says while physicists, engineers etc. focus on knowing everything about something so specific that it's practically nothing, philosophers focus on knowing as little as possible about everything.

Different strokes for different folks.

This quote really stuck with me: “this race to get jobs becomes more important than the actual ‘let’s educate our students,’ ” Henderson said. “It’s not uncommon to encounter a 20-year-old who has not benefited from the maturation you get from higher education, from true engagement in a classroom — it becomes more about taking classes as an extended way to build your résumé. You think you’re talking to a 20-year-old who should have bright ideas and enthusiasm, and they can’t get out of the mode of: ‘What are the words I’m supposed to use in this conversation?’ And you see that the risk has been taken out of résumés — that’s the part that’s most disheartening.”

I go to UPenn, and the pre-professionalism defines the school. The students, especially those in Wharton, do almost nothing between the hours of 8am and 8pm that isn't in some way connected to building a career. I'm not condemning this attitude though, because it is productive and realistic. In the modern economy students at Penn often come out with great jobs and a relatively secure future, and that's very important. I also can't say I'm much above it, I put a ton of effort into finding internships and jobs. I just wish there was some way to balance this with the "Hollywood" depiction of college where students sit around and engage each other in intellectual conversation for the sake of mental expansion. I wish this was the type of where people don't just join a handful of clubs/groups to build their resume, and where people don't avoid interesting classes that might hurt their GPA. I've loved my 3.5 years here, but that element has been decidedly missing.

Well it certainly drives me nuts from the other side as well. Perhaps the best skill I walked away from liberal arts school with is to listen to a roomful of people over the course of 90 minutes, understand their individual arguments and find consensus or points of disagreement that need to be further hashed out. At work, no matter where I've worked, the big issue I see over and over is people talk a great deal but fail to listen to each other. A roomful of people doesn't always have to agree, but it kills me how many times I've seen disagreement at work take the form of "we'll all keep doing our jobs the way we individually define them without really discussing that it doesn't give our product a cohesive direction." I'm biased but I believe this is at least in part because college education for most people lacks students engaging each other's ideas.

...and with well-connected, rich parents, of course. I was very surprised to read how involved these parents are in their precious snowflakes careers, at times it read as if they were still high-schoolers instead of functional adults! I guess that with that kind of support there is virtually no way you are ever going to screw up or find yourself in a difficult situation, with or without a philosophy degree.

Your son wants to be a philosophy major? Chan paraphrased the response of many a parent: “How do you get a job in philosophy?” But hold your tongue, he urged them. Let them think big. Two months later, they might decide they love math anyway...

== The only reference in the article to the headline topic.

Oh, come on now. You should realize that "philosophy" is just a stand-in for "liberal arts" here. It's like I used to joke with a friend of mine in college who was doubling in Philosophy and English... "You're majoring in 'what graduate school am I going to,' aren't you?"

I got a job with a philosophy degree by sending out letters to job ads in the newspaper, back in the day when that was the done thing. I got a phone call back from someone who said "I've never met anyone with a philosophy degree - why don't you come on in to chat". So I did, and got a job at a small startup (though that trendy term hadn't been coined just yet).

I got a philosophy degree because I felt it was the only thing I could get a degree in. I'd dropped out of college because I'd failed calculus - twice - and was basically told I'd never graduate without passing calculus, and it seemed hopeless. I got coaxed back much later, and lamented to a friend during lunch about the calculus/degree situation.

"Well," he said, "you could take a logic class, but that's really hard". Umm... Really? There are classes in that? I took it. People dropped out of the class, but I'd aced it. I'd already been programming about 10 years at that point, so the principles of logic were pretty ingrained, though I didn't know all the terms. But I passed, and was encouraged to enter the philosophy program, such as it was. So I did. I did it basically because it was the only time a professor had ever shown an interest in me or my talents. So I had a philosophy degree to show for it.

"What will you do with a philosophy degree?!" was the standard reply of most of my family. "I dunno" was my standard reply. Looking back, it's apparently a standard springboard in to law, but I wasn't aware of that path either. I hated school, and was happy to be done (after a mere 6 years!), but I realized there were no "philosopher wanted" ads in the paper, which was all I knew where to look.

Tying it back to the article a bit, the 'career department' was 100% useless - they didn't even try to help, and two of the people in there said they only had time to help "real" students. Basically, if you were doing engineering, they'd place you at GM/Ford/Chrysler at the time - I'm not sure what else they did there, really.

I studied philosophy (specifically History and Philosophy of Science) because it was what I was interested in. I got my first job because I could demonstrate programming ability and because the employer saw a degree in any subject as demonstrating an ability to learn (it didn't hurt that I went to a prestigious school)

In the longer term the key things that have helped from the philosophy degree are to do with analytical and critical thinking, and the ability to write a well structured document.

> I'd dropped out of college because I'd failed calculus - twice - and was basically told I'd never graduate without passing calculus

One of the biggest pieces of BS is forcing calculus on people who have neither the need nor the desire to know calculus.

CS majors, for example, would be better served by a Discrete Math course instead of calculus: That's formal logic (first-order predicate logic, in specific) along with combinatorics and big-O notations (big-O, big-Theta, big-Omega, etc.), and some emphasis on writing proofs. If they later decide to learn calculus, they can either take freshman formula-grind calculus or Real Analysis, which is where you learn where stuff like the chain rule actually comes from by deriving calculus from first principles. Real Analysis is a lot more interesting.

Gradually getting back to my point, the focus on calculus is outdated and at odds with any STEM program that isn't exclusively or even primarily about creating civil engineers and physicists.

I've still got a chip on my shoulder about it (or, maybe... some other humiliation thing going on). From what I could tell, this was a basic general ed requirement - people getting English degrees were taking it, and passing, but somehow I could not get it. It was quite a depressing period in my life, and for the life of me I still don't understand how so many people can grasp something apparently so basic, yet I'm stymied by it. Furthermore, why is "if a=b and b=c then a=c" stye logic apparently so difficult to others; people were dropping out of logic 101 saying it was "too hard", but apparently calculus is 'easy'?

Do a Google search on 'algebra vs analysis' (without quotes) and you'll see that analysis (the broad field of mathematics where calculus lives) and algebra (the broad field of mathematics where the kind of logic you likely studied lives) are two different mindsets more than anything else. Different kinds of mathematicians are attracted to each of those fields.

This is, of course, another reason why calculus shouldn't be the barrier course (you can't graduate without it!) that it is. Some people just don't do that, and they shouldn't be penalized for it if their field doesn't require calculus (or any analysis) in the first place.

This thread is interesting: http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=619519


Calculus is used in CS--not a whole bunch but a little bit. The problem is that it's usually taught abominably. Knuth, and others, literally wrote the book on what math you need to do CS and it uses some calculus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete_Mathematics

I don't doubt that Real Analysis is more interesting. If only I knew from the start that upper level math was actually interesting rather than tedious. Graph theory is also loads of fun.

While this article did a great job extolling Andy Chan it did nothing to answer the question, How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree.

I have a philosophy degree and a job in software engineering. I don't think it's like trying to get a job with Leprosy, or anything.

It's remarkably similar to how you get a job without a philosophy degree.

Roll the certificate of graduation into a tight roll and use it to tap out your résumé on your keyboard.

I went to college more than 15 years ago at a top-25 ranked school. Unlike in this article, one of the defining characteristics of my college experience (and one of the reasons I chose that college) was that no one asked anyone how they did on their SATs or how they were doing in class.

There was no implicit academic ranking or pressure. It was each person's individual choice to work extremely hard, to work the required amount, or to slack off, and all three choices were viewed as valid.

I also didn't feel so much pressure to study something with the sole end goal of making money. I understand why that's changed for millennials, although I think it's unfortunate. Maybe a solution would be for schools to support more double liberal-arts/STEM majors?

On the good side, the career services described in the article are leaps and bounds ahead of the career services I received at college. If those have improved, it's a big step in the right direction.

I was a philosophy major and I now work as a software developer. While my primary goal in studying philosophy wasn't to improve my chances at getting a job, my studies certainly prepared me for the problems I would face as a professional developer.

Learning how to think logically, approach complex problems, and structure coherent arguments, are important skills that you gain from studying philosophy. Perhaps this is why the mid-career median salary for a philosophy major is, according to PayScale Inc., more than that of several other science or business related majors (with only a bachelor's degree, 10 years after graduation) [1].

As an aside, philosophy and computer science aren't as unrelated as one might think; there are some interesting scholarly works that examine the philosophical foundations and implications of topics in computer science (android epistemology [2] is a good example).

[Unfortunately this comment is related more to the article title than the article content since the latter does not address this topic directly.]

[1] http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degree... [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Android_epistemology

I think the effect is overstated by selection and attrition. if you're not capable of thinking logically in the first place you probably will not choose to study philosophy or fail out if you do.

>philosophy and computer science aren't as unrelated as one might think;

There is some interesting category theory and set theory being done in philosophy departments.

You weren't be referring to Quentin Meillassoux would you?

I've always just considered programming to be applied philosophy.. insofar as philosophy is just the study of logic and reasoning.

Obvious man is obvious: learn to program.

Seriously though, there is an immense amount of overlap between formal logic and computer science. I learned most of what I know about Turing machines and computability theory from Philosophy classes.

FWIW, this on my résumé has served me well:

Undergraduate Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. 
This would say "BA," but I abandoned the American higher education system one credit (senior paper) away from graduating. Happy to talk to (or rant at) you about it.

I went to one of the schools mentioned, and am active in alumni affairs in my city. I also have a liberal arts degree.

I don't think these numbers work. And I see it in the fact that alumni affairs is beefing up its career services portion of its events. There is a recognition that if donations are to continue, then understanding that the careers they were sending kids off to based on prestige are slowly disappearing, and that the adults that had those careers are starting to transition into something else.

I'm also not 100% convinced that career offices at liberal arts schools are prepared for this. While I'm actually fairly happy with what I learned (because I can see it taught me to both think analytically about various subjects and communicate what I thought), I also can see that the traditional preparation has absolutely nothing to do with the well paying jobs out there. Further, when I finally figured out some ideas of what I was interested in late in college, my career office actually had no idea how these positions work or what they are like in real life.

I'm not sure they still do either, based on other times I've interacted with graduates. Many of them fell into what they did based on their connections (which all the schools mentioned provide, no doubt), including myself, at times. Based off resumes I've seen, particularly for technical marketing type roles (which I've seen more of, so I can comment about that), the internships don't seem to fully provide a good glimpse of what they know (and can vary hugely), or if they fully understand what goes on in these positions. Further, internships up until recently mattered very little - as the school could provide connections.

Weirdly, I don't blame the school at all. I'm more appalled that they admitted to me at graduation that I should take an unpaid internship (height of the recession) because they figured that most students could afford to effectively work their first jobs unpaid to get skills for jobs they don't know how to connect people to. This is not going to change until they get more alumni with a wider range skills, so, hence, above.

TL:DR Schools are doing this because up until now they could send their kids into jobs. Now well-paid careers are shifting, and they can't. This matches up with the rise of internships and stories like these. Meh.

Anecdote: the Wake Forest University career-services department was not of very much use finding a job programming computers in 2007. A job ad from the (now-defunct) "Hidden Network" on the side of http://thedailywtf.com, though, was incredibly useful. Your mileage may vary. :P

The article is about the changes Andy Chan did to improve Wake Forest's career services. He joined the university in 2009 two year after your experience.

Let's hope his changes mean more recent students got more help.

Let me tell you what I did to get a job with a philosophy (and a sociology m.a.) degree:

- took a programming specialist course (this is how they are calling it over here)

- found a job

- profit

The fancy thing is philosophy is not a technical profession, like medicine or engineering, and I dare say it does not have the aim of making its students to "get a job". You can write books and maybe be another Zizek but more often, you do not do that, or rather cannot do that because life wants you to find a job and get your own life ASAP.

Which sucks, sucks because if I am doing a job which is totally unrelated to the education I have taken, why did I lose all that time and money? To get a piece of paper?

You think programming is unrelated to philosophy? If it was any good, you hopefully spent a lot of time learning how to break arguments into their constituent parts and follow them to their logical conclusions. You learned how to read closely, and how to write. In other words, you learned how to think.

I don't know why Americans seem so confused about the purpose of education, as if you're a failure if you don't leave school and proceed to do exactly what you were doing in school, except getting paid for it. The purpose of school is to is to turn people into intellectually nimble citizens of a democracy. Whatever you then go on to get paid to do, your education was only useless if it failed at that.

It has to do with the rising costs of a college education. If you or your parents are going to pay the equivalent of a single family home to a school for a four year degree, you had better have something concrete to point to at the end of it. "Intellectually nimble citizen of a democracy" does not cut it.

Actually, you haven't established guidelines for what would "cut it." 'Concrete' is extremely vague, so the ball is in your court there.

If you mean 'a degree that will guarantee me a job,' you are SOL there buddy. A dearth of engineers would mean rising unemployment for engineers. (We currently have a glut of unemployed lawyers, for god's sake, no reason that couldn't happen to computer scientists or mechanical engineers if a trend started).

Being able to communicate, reason, and argue better than 99.9% of my peers with traditional CS degrees is in fact a concrete advantage.

My point is that subject matter has little to do with preparing you for your career.

Edit: with certain things excepted, of course. I wouldn't want a doctor who didn't have the relevant degrees.

> The purpose of school is to is to turn people into intellectually nimble citizens of a democracy.

Nothing has any purpose except that which people use it for. If people want to use education for finding work, but in fact it turns them into nimble citizens but doesn't help with work, it's failing at the purpose people want to use it for.

Also, I think there's a real dearth of evidence that educated people are better citizens than slightly less educated people. I.e., that education causes delta civic-conscientiousness.

The history of philosophy is the history of people building things out of logic and then rushing to fix them when other people discover flaws in their logic. This is depressingly similar to programming and if anything demonstrates that humans are overall really bad at constructing anything out of logic that's large enough to be interesting and useful while simultaneously being sound enough to never break.

higher education -- a period in which someone (you, the university and/or the state) spends a lot of money to enable your education -- is a huge luxury. It's a totally fair question to ask "what are you going to do with your philosophy degree?". If you're deeply passionate about your subject, then I think you can justify pursuing education purely for its own sake. But that simply does not apply to the vast majority of people studying philosophy/history/sociology etc.

I could already write and think before university and I had all the mathematical tools that most people ever use in real life. University taught me how to write an academic essay of adequate quality, but I don't think this is an essential life skill.

Sitting near the front of the auditorium were the parents of a freshman — an investment manager from Bronxville, N.Y., and his wife. The father went to Dartmouth, and when their son announced that he was applying for early decision at Wake Forest, his father asked, “Are you sure you couldn’t do better?” Under the spell of Chan’s reassuring message on finding a career, he turned to his wife and looked at her intently. “This,” he told her, “is the greatest school.”

Wait, what?

It's a little confusingly worded. There are two time periods being condensed in that cluster of sentences. T1 = when the kid first applied for college and told his father about wanting to go to Wake Forest, prompting the father's dismissive comments; T2 = when the son, now a freshman at the school, shows his parents around.

That last sentence is also a little sloppy in its pronoun use: "he" is referring to the father, when it could conceivably (as written) be referring to the son.

Thanks, that clears it up. I suppose we can't really complain about poor proofing, seeing as they are giving away this content for free.

I can't really see a reason to object to the proofing - it seemed pretty clear to me that two points in time were being contrasted.

Very interesting thoughts there. I have an uncle who has taught Philosophy at the University level at one of those ivy-eating colleges in Massachusetts for over twenty years. He's fond of saying that Philosophy is a dead science, that nothing new has come from that world since the middle of the 1900s. I tell him to watch more of the older HBO comedy specials. Or read comic books.

Hmm, another philosophy degree holder here.

The degree has helped me very little in getting a job. I mean, the most it did was strike up some conversation during my job interviews, but that's about it...and that's okay.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of philosophy to my day-time coding, as trite as this might sound, is that it helps me think clearly and in a structured way.

That doesn't sound trite.

At Purdue CERIAS, the philosophy and linguistics departments are official granters of its Information Security masters degree, along with the technology school.


The title of this post should be "Pimping Wake Forest and Andy Chan." It's good to see universities put an emphasis on how to translate studies to a career but this article doesn't explain any of the approaches other than that Andy Chan used to work at Stanford and a Silicon Valley start up. Maybe I missed the bigger point.

Andy was the man at Stanford...and I'm guessing this is his attempt to prove that he doesn't need the "Stanford brand" to work his career advising magic. Will be interesting to see if other schools follow Wake's lead here and adopt a more b-schooly approach to career services (for better or for worse).

Here's how I started with my freshly-minted philosophy degree:

"Philosophy teaches abstract thinking--how to manipulate and reason about purely abstract concepts; how to logically construct and analyse models of world (and being-in-the-world)."

I probably kissed a little arse too.

The purpose of a liberal arts degree is unrelated to finding gainful employment. If one wants to improve their job prospects, they should probably just get a job.

Or you could become Paul Graham =)

>On a Friday in late August, parents of freshmen starting at Wake Forest University, a small, prestigious liberal-arts school in Winston-Salem, N.C., attended orientation sessions that coached them on how to separate, discouraged them from contacting their children’s professors and assured them about student safety. Finally, as their portion of orientation drew to a close, the parents joined their students in learning the school song and then were instructed to form a huge ring around the collective freshman class, in a show of support.

Just right off the bat, what the fuck? My start to my college career was me and my mom lugging my stuff 300 miles to the dorms, unloading, her hugging me good bye, then not seeing her again for 2 months.

Key words: "small, prestigious"

Extremely similar talks to parents trying to disuade them from helicoptering happened to me at orientation for Texas A&M in 2008, and my sister at Texas Tech in 2013. These are two not particularly prestigious and definitely not small schools, so I think it's a pretty nationwide phenomenon.

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