Ponder this: Philosophy churns out high-fliers too

Philosophy majors spend their college years pondering deep questions, such as: What is the meaning of life? Do we have free will? And what job am I going to get with this degree after graduation?

The answer to the last question turns out to be: Just about anything.

Graduates in philosophy inhabit Wall Street corner offices and reign over boardrooms in Silicon Valley.

Interest in the major has risen steadily in the past three decades. United States data shows the number of students who received bachelor's degrees in philosophy there has doubled since 1987, peaking at 7,926 graduates in 2013.

Professor Christopher Morris, chair of the University of Maryland's philosophy department, said the critical thinking, precise analysis and cogent writing required for a degree is rigorous training for any professional career. "Most people don't have much of an idea of what philosophy is," he said. "People imagine us sort of sitting there casually yakking away with a glass of wine."

Some surveys show that philosophy majors in the US perform better on average than most of their peers on exams for law, medicine and other graduate schools. And research by the salary data site PayScale showed that philosophy majors rank in the top 100 of all academic fields for average mid-career salary, at US$84,100 (S$116,535).

Philosophy majors, ranked 95th, bested graduates who studied business administration, political science, pre-medicine, biology, psychology and journalism. This probably reflects the earning power of many philosophy majors who later obtain advanced graduate or professional degrees.

Still, those who study areas such as ethics, aesthetics and epistemology are used to the misconception that their diplomas lack value. If liberal arts degrees are the target of jokes, philosophy majors are frequently the punchline.

Take comedian Conan O'Brien giving the 2011 Dartmouth College commencement address: "Parents, you should write this down... If your child majored in fine arts or philosophy, you have good reason to be worried. The only place where they are now really qualified to get a job is ancient Greece."

Ms Carly Fiorina majored in philosophy before she became chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. As chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Ms Sheila Bair leaned on her philosophy degree from the University of Kansas to make crucial decisions during the financial crisis. NBC journalist Katy Tur said her background in philosophy helped her formulate probing questions for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"Philosophy majors get a bad rap," Ms Tur said. "I would argue that for the vast majority of people, an education teaching you to think critically about the world you are in and what you know and what you don't know is useful for absolutely everything that you could possibly do in the future."

Ms Tur said she became enthralled by French thinker Rene Descartes and his explorations of existence: "The first question is, what can we trust and what can we prove?" she said.

Ms Fiorina said that at Stanford, she was interested in the roots of human understanding of knowledge, opting to read Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek. "You learn that the questions that we each struggle with, mankind has struggled with for eternity," she said.

Yet even today, she sees the bad reputation philosophy majors must overcome. "Every time I tell people, they laugh," Ms Fiorina said, noting that it was considered a dead-end degree. "It meant I was unemployable." Yet she credits her undergraduate studies with developing critical thinking. "I learnt how to separate the wheat from the chaff, essential from just interesting, and I think that's a particularly critical skill now when there is a ton of interesting but ultimately irrelevant information floating around."

As FDIC chairman from 2006 to 2011, Ms Bair was responsible for ensuring bank customers did not lose their money as financial institutions teetered. She said her studies in philosophy helped her to distil what was most important. She added: "It helps you break things down to their simplest elements."

For Mr Larry Sanger, studying philosophy offered a window into how people think about knowledge - and also how it is shared. After earning a bachelor's degree in the subject from Reed College and a doctorate in philosophy from Ohio State University, he was hired by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales to work on a new project - a Web-based encyclopaedia - that became Wikipedia.

Mr Sanger said his background helped him distil the outline of "what a collaborative encyclopaedia would be like".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'Ponder this: Philosophy churns out high-fliers too'. Print Edition | Subscribe