Tales of the “Unemployable”: Being a Philosophy Major in our Career-centric Climate

 

“You won’t get a job with a major like that,” is something that senior philosophy major Briana Hutter has heard often during her four years at the University of Mary Washington. Hutter finds herself having to explain her choice in major a lot, but she doesn’t let it get to her.

 

There are many misconceptions surrounding her field in particular, like the most common assumption that students in the major can only aspire to be “teachers…or unemployed…or baristas,” said Hutter.

 

Though Hutter isn’t the only one trying to correct the general opinion on studying philosophy in college.

 

In fact, new research has come out recently disputing the prevalent “unemployment” conception. Last week, the publication PR Web published an article citing numerous findings by researchers debunking popular myths about the discipline.

 

One in particular was a recent study conducted by The Federal Reserve Bank of New York showing that in 2015 only five percent of philosophy majors were unemployed six months after graduation.

 

Another article, published the same week by Bloomberg claimed that philosophy majors were actually seeing their incomes increasing. “Beyond those with special technical skills, philosophy and public policy majors have also seen their earnings rise,” said Austin Weinstein, author of the article.

 

These findings show that the job market for philosophy majors could be much more open and receptive to this group of young thinkers than most would assume.

 

Hutter is one of many students rebelling against more practical considerations about choosing a “moneymaking” degree over a major they actually enjoy. Some would even go as far as to call these majors “useless”, which is something Hutter would adamantly disagree with.

 

But she admits that it wasn’t always a popular decision, especially when telling her parents during her first year at school.

 

“They initially were concerned that I wasn’t going to be a basic business major, but after, they realized it doesn’t matter what you major in. It just matters that you get that diploma. I would have a better time in college majoring in something I enjoyed studying,” said Hutter.

 

She’s still right about the enjoying herself part of that decision. Not many people get the opportunity to spend their days in pursuit of enlightened thought. This semester she’s decided to take a direct focus on the philosophy of western religion. Hutter spends her mornings discussing The Bible for her “Christian Beginnings” class and then she’s off to muse over “Death & Dying in Early Christianity”. When she’s not in class, Hutter is in the Simpson Library working on her thesis paper. In which, she discusses the cyclical universe, religious pluralism and nihilism.

 

Another obvious proponent of this academic course of study is UMW’s department chair, Craig Vasey, who had much to say about the negative discourse on the study of philosophy.

 

“It is a complete misconception. We had a career panel three weeks ago and two recent graduates (working as a technical writer/ consultant for Booze Allen and as Financial Director of the Kennedy School for Ethics at Georgetown) both told us that it is precisely their skills from philosophy that make them successful. They both credited their training in logic, and their ability to do research, to write well, and to think critically,” said Vasey.

 

“Paino was a philosophy major, by the way,” Vasey added, referring to the current president at the University of Mary Washington, Dr. Troy Paino.

 

Vasey might be right about the changing times, as more and more news publications have been buzzing over the resurgence of interest in philosophy.

 

A recent Forbes article entitled, “A Case For Majoring In Philosophy” spoke on the change in rhetoric surrounding the major. The Forbes contributor who wrote the article, Travis Chamberlain, was a proud philosophy major himself and even earned his Ph.D. in the subject. He wrote on the increasing interest in studying philosophy.

 

Chamberlain names another article in The Atlantic called, “The Earning Power of Philosophy Majors”, arguing that philosophy may be a good way to go in terms of real world benefits. The Atlantic article includes an impressive roster of very successful philosophy majors, including well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Peter Thiel.

 

But another philosophy major, Charlotte Ciobanu, believes that the field may be in jeopardy.

 

Ciobanu recently graduated from the University of California, Riverside with her BA in philosophy and is currently pursuing her Master’s in the discipline at the San Francisco State University. She currently teaches introductory undergraduate philosophy classes at her university.

 

She worries that, with the rampant misunderstandings about philosophy, departmental numbers could dwindle.

 

“It’s strange but much of the focus in academia has shifted to applied, practical knowledge–engineering, computer science, applied sciences. Philosophy explores the theoretical side of things. Philosophy of mathematics, of language, of science, all of these sub fields within the broader discipline of philosophy directly inform the way things like applied science are done,” said Ciobanu.

 

The one thing that remains unwavering is her dedication to the importance of philosophy.

 

“Everyone stands to benefit from studying philosophy–it will make you sharper, more capable of assessing and identifying good arguments, it will make you more articulate, more thoughtful. I have found it to be a very humbling discipline, in the sense that, I must remain vigilant in even assessing my own implicit biases, my own potentially bad arguments,” said Ciobanu.

 

In early March, the philosophy department at UMW held the aforementioned campus event where prospective students got to speak and interact with Vasey, philosophy and religion professors, and alumni. This on-campus gathering was a definitive move on the part of the department to attract more prospective philosophy students while also dispelling any misconceptions undeclared majors may have.

 

Some students begin cultivating their interest in philosophy even earlier than freshman year.

 

For Hutter, the bug bit her early on in high school. “I took a European history course and for the briefest of days we talked about existentialism and it got me hooked. Then, in AP English class we read Ayn Rand’s book Anthem and that completely changed my outlook on life and I wanted to be a philosophy major,” said Hutter.

 

It isn’t all a creative pursuit to her, as she uses the more practical aspects of her major at her part-time job in food service. Philosophy sharpens her empirical thinking skills and helps her anticipate people’s needs. But in a way, it has also imparted her with a passion for knowledge.

 

“Philosophy as a skill is literally a love of wisdom. So it gives you the skills to use logic and rationalize situations and organize the thought process in a way that isn’t taught in other majors. Other majors teach you specific job applicable skills where philosophy teaches you how to think effectively,” said Hutter.

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