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Why Major in Philosophy?

You're kind of interested in philosophy; maybe you've even taken a couple of classes in philosophy and they were fun. Now comes the $64, 000 question: "But what can I do with it?"

Many people (perhaps you're one of them) believe that if you spend too much time doing philosophy as an undergraduate, you will lessen your chances of success on the job market when you graduate. This is a myth! Philosophy graduates flourish in all kinds of professions. Indeed, when it comes to the standardized tests that are required for professional schools, there is detailed evidence that philosophers perform extremely well.

In a study conducted in the 1980s for the National Institute of Education, Clifford Adelman investigated the percentage by which majors in 29 different fields scored above or below the mean scores of all test-takers in the GMAT (business school), the LSAT (law school), and the verbal and quantitative GRE (graduate school). The bottom line for a typical year (1982): Philosophy majors came in second (mathematics majors were first).

  • In the GMAT, only mathematics majors outperformed philosophy majors.
  • In the LSAT, philosophers came in third behind economists and mathematicians.
  • In the verbal GRE, philosophers came in first, even though 1982 was their worst year in the period Adelman looked at.
  • In the quantitative GRE, philosophers and economists were the only humanities and social science majors to beat the mean (however, economists and mathematicians flopped on the verbal GRE, while physicists, the top performers on the quantitative GRE, did somewhat better).

Adelman was puzzled by his results, but after thinking about them came to the following conclusion:

Undergraduates who major in professional and occupational fields consistently underperform those who major in traditional arts and sciences fields...Students who major in a field characterized by formal thought, structural relationships, abstract models, symbolic languages and deductive reasoning consistently outperform others on these examinations.

And it goes without saying, of course, that students who have been trained in these abilities and disciplines are also better equipped than others to excel in the business world. Adelman's study, together with employment and salary data for philosophy majors, led David Hoekema, past Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association, to write the following:

It is no denigration of the value of learning for its own sake to identify the more concrete rewards of studying the humanities. Having done so, we can respond constructively to student worries about the market value of their college degree. "Why would you want to be a business or education major?" We may well ask, "Why not study something practical, like philosophy?"

Tulane University, School of Liberal Arts, 102 Newcomb Hall, New Orleans, LA  70118, (504) 865-5225, liberalarts@tulane.edu