On the benefits of a philosophy major

My fantastic colleague, Ty Fagan, made this graphic from recent data coming from the Educational Testing Service.

I thought it was worth a blog post, because students interested in a philosophy major often ask me whether they should do a double-major or minor in “something more practical.” Often, business is the major considered to be more practical. Sometimes Political Science, History and English are even cited by students and parents to be more useful than philosophy.

One of my good friends, Andrew Wicklander, runs his own project management group and software company. His wife, Maile, owns a yoga studio. They are both the sort of “job-creators” touted as crucial to the success of America. Andrew says that when he and Maile are hiring, they do not consider a business major to be practical preparation for job candidates. Instead, Andrew and Maile look for evidence that a candidate can identify and solve problems related to their industries and products. As Andrew says, “Often a person with a business degree has memorized a map of business processes and solutions. But rarely will that map be an accurate depiction of the current state of a business or industry. What we want is a person who knows how to use a compass, not a person with an outdated map.”

Andrew wants to hire smart, articulate people who can identify problems, take them apart into manageable bits, and solve them in unique ways. In philosophical terms, this is the ability to perform critical reasoning. Critical reasoning is defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Elmhurst College, like most colleges and universities, offers Reasoning as a 200-level philosophy course. The skills learned in this course are strengthened as students advance in their major via their application to increasingly difficult problems in courses such as Philosophy of Mind, Epistemology, Environmental Ethics, and Biomedical Ethics.

Thus it is not a surprise (at least to me!) that philosophy majors are some of the best with regard to analytical skills, evidenced by the above graphic. According to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, the analytic writing section tests “critical thinking and analytical writing skills. It assesses [your] ability to articulate and support complex ideas, construct and evaluate arguments, and sustain a focused and coherent discussion.” Philosophy majors are also the best with regard to verbal ability, and the best of the liberal arts students at quantitative reasoning. Simply put, our students have the best all-around intellectual skills.

What employer wouldn’t want an articulate employee with great critical reasoning skills? Of course, I’m not attempting to make the claim that a business major, or a political science major, is never useful. But matching the content of the courses taught in these majors to jobs in business or policy should not be assumed. Given the fluid, uncertain nature of the job market and the technology used in work, is it really impractical to become skilled at information analysis, problem solving, and argument? I don’t think so.

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  1. [...] read this… on the performance of philosophy majors on the GRE – and what businesses REALLY want (hint, it’s not actually business majors) — If [...]

  2. Charlotte H. Udziela · · Reply

    Thanks for this article. It should be shared far and wide…especially in corporate America, the land of lite thinkers so often, too often.

  3. I’ll be sure to hire a philosophy major when I need to hire my next electrical or plant engineer.

    1. Irrelevant to this article. It’s not addressing jobs that require specialist prior training. Don’t be a smartass if you aren’t smart.

  4. that seems silly jon. why wouldn’t you hire an electrical or plant engineer? ignoratio elenchi?

    1. I’m pretty sure he was being sarcastic.

      1. I’m pretty sure todd was being sarcastic also.

  5. Where are the math majors?

  6. What the data says is that students who intend to major in Philosopy have high values in a lot of testing categories. Alas, it does not say that they score comparably after they have finished their degree. While I am happy that we are such splendid people, I would assume that the others might actually learn something too while going for a degree in a less noble subject.

    1. Roland, the graph is of GRE scores by intended /graduate/ majors, not undergraduate ones. It’s safe to assume that most people who take the GRE in order to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy have either completed or nearly completed an undergraduate major in philosophy when they take the test. The same applies to the other disciplines. If we had a chart of SAT scores and intended undergrad majors, it’d be susceptible to your critique.

  7. danielmullin81 · · Reply

    Reblogged this on The Unemployed Philosopher's Blog and commented:
    More on Philosophy and GRE Scores. HT: Leiter Reports

  8. Peter Brian Barry · · Reply

    Hi Katrina,

    Thanks very much for providing this! Any chance you fantastic colleague would permit a fellow philosopher to reproduce this graphic for professional purposes? This is the sort of thing that would make administrators at my institution drool.

    1. Hi, yes, the graphic may be used by anyone willing to provide a link to this blog page and the designer’s name (Ty Fagan).

  9. “philosopher worthless, why aren’t they be engineers also?????” i dunno, jon.

  10. Ed Engelmann · · Reply

    In reply to Roland– sort of like Steve Jobs?

  11. Kristina Meshelski · · Reply

    What is “intended graduate major”? I read that as intended field of study in graduate school, as listed by people not yet in graduate school. So then the data would be about people who are intending to study philosophy in graduate school not people who were philosophy majors in undergrad.

    1. This is a good point, Kristina. The data only refers to undergraduates who took the GRE, which certainly does not include all philosophy majors. I think it safe to assume, however, that all GRE-takers who identified philosophy as their intended graduate major were undergraduate philosophy majors.

      1. Kristina Meshelski · ·

        Probably true for the most part (though I do know a handful of philosophers who were not philosophy majors). I’m not so sure about how many philosophy majors intend to study something else in graduate school, or how many phil majors take the GRE.

      2. Not very safe to assume at all, really. Many students enroll in graduate programs that do not reflect their undergraduate major, and that’s true across a wide variety of fields.

        Fields like the hard sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), mathematics, computer science, etc. might be more appealing for students with those same degrees because the graduate piece is a chance to dig into a specific niche. Many other fields, though – including engineering, architecture, law, medicine, digital technologies, arts, philosophy, and even business – attract a great diversity of students from many other fields, for a lot of reasons.

        That’s the reason that Kristina’s question is such a good one, because the answer can completely change the nature and accuracy of this article.

  12. Eddy Nahmias · · Reply

    Very nice looking graph. I’m happy to see the latest data and that it matches the older data. For the official info, see here: http://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_guide_table4.pdf
    I also wondered what the “intended graduate major” meant, and I assume it’s based on some box the test-takers mark to say what programs they will (might?) apply to.
    If so, then I think it’s fair to assume that most (the vast majority in some cases, like philosophy) of the people represented on the graphs majored in the same field, but also that these numbers will represent a small proportion of undergrad majors in these fields (probably less than 10% of phil majors will apply for grad school in philosophy). Luckily, we also have the data that phil majors do well on LSAT, etc.

  13. As I explain here (http://publiusnemo.blogspot.com/2012/09/challenging-a-supposed-benefit-of.html), arguments like this on the usefulness of majoring in philosophy are deeply problematic and unsound. I think we, as philosophers, need to find new and better arguments.

    1. Completely agreed.

    2. Full disclosure: I’m the dude who mocked up the chart above, so I can’t be trusted. But I would like to push back a bit.

      On your own blog, you raise two objections to “arguments like this”: (1) We don’t have a good grip on the p-values, effect sizes, etc., of data like these, and that muddles their evidentiary value; and (2) Even if the data were clearer, they only show correlation, not causation–and since “arguments like this” are claiming causation, such arguments are spurious.

      I’ll leave (2) pretty much alone, since it’s under discussion already on this thread. My money in this case would be on some messy interaction of (i) philosophy’s genuine contribution to critical thinking, (ii) at least one selection bias, and (iii) oddities about the GRE. But I don’t think there are good data about this, and anyway nobody asked me.

      About (1), though: it’s just not a very deep point, and it’s jammed with weasely, speculative phrases that let you make your rhetorical points without actually venturing a falsifiable claim: I suspect, I expect, it might be, etc. Caution is a virtue, sure–you haven’t seen the raw data, and I haven’t run the numbers on the raw data–but don’t front as if you’re pointing out some profound and insoluble problem.

      For instance: you say you “strongly doubt that the differences here are statistically significant,” but you don’t say which differences you mean, which strikes me as either sloppy or dishonest. If you strongly doubt that ANY of the differences are s.s., that seems highly implausible. If you strongly doubt that ALL of the differences are s.s., that seems more plausible (but way less interesting). If what you really meant is that SOME of the differences probably are s.s., but others might not be…well, OK, but I think you oversold it.

      Look: better data, and better-parsed data, would help. But that’s ALWAYS the case, everywhere. I don’t mind folks pointing that out, but I also don’t think that doing so renders “arguments like this…deeply problematic and unsound.” I’m with you that we need better arguments, and I certainly welcome new arguments, for the usefulness of philosophy. But let’s not take this one out back and shoot it just yet, OK?

  14. I earned a PhD in philosophy, the mark of my failure being that I’m now employed in business.

  15. In case folks want to use the higher-res PDF (which includes a link to the ETS data), it can be found here:


  16. Nathan Kuncel · · Reply

    I have done quite a bit of research on higher education and testing. I may be able to partially resolve the debate here. First, many of the differences are statistically significant including the 4.4 and 4.3 means for analytical writing. It looks small but the standard deviations are 0.7 with sample sizes over 1000 and 5000, respectively. So this not a issue. However, the major problem is that a treatment argument (i.e., the treatment of a Philosophy education is better than others) simply cannot be tested with these data due to: 1. self-selection effects on college major choice (intended undergraduate major shows patterns in the SAT similar to what are shown here), 2. attrition effects during college (dropping out of a major like Philosophy or Engineering is associated with these same abilities), 3. self-selection effects on both the choice to attend graduate school and the choice to attend graduate school in Philosophy (these people are not a random sample of all Philosophy majors). What is needed is a test of gains with appropriate samples. Ortiz conducted a meta-analysis contrasting philosophy with non-philosophy majors on critical thinking gains which can get us closer to an answer. She found tentative evidence for a slightly larger gain for philosophy. However the study did not pit philosophy against any specific majors and was only focused on critical thinking measures.

  17. So, how about an anecdote? :-)

    My spouse, a Ph.D. in PHL with specializations in logic, linguistic philosopy, and Marxism (go figure) has created a very successful career in something called ‘intelligent systems for financial entities.’ (Don’t ask me.)

    Years ago, he spoke to students at my college and told them why he was so successful: he knew how to listen to people speaking ‘different languages,’ to translate those ‘languages.’ and to “think myself out of a paper bag.” I think that pretty much says it.

  18. This education process that produces a clear thinker…a critical thinker…as in ‘the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action,'” seems like the point of all study.

    Doesn’t every area of study at some point back into philosophy, into the critical thinking the study of philosophy engenders…how can you complete a the research for a doctorate without an appreciation of epistemology?

    I wonder if the benefits of a philosophy major might be researched somehow through a longitudinal study which followed the careers, contributions and realized benefits that philosophy majors, grad students or doctorates experienced as a result of their study of philosophy.

    Likewise why don’t education students study epistemology cause it seems like the heart of teaching.

  19. (This is a very quick point NOT about the goodness or badness of the reasoning: the URL to your friend Andrew Wicklander’s site has an extra “http” that causes the link not to work.)

    1. Oh no… Will try to fix…

  20. You left mathematics off. Where can find the raw data?

    1. The ets data can be found via a link on the high-res version of the graphic, linked to in Ty’s comment, above.

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