Why Study Philosophy?


Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value - perhaps its chief value - through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from its contemplation. -Bertrand Russell

Why Study Philosophy?

There is no question that the study of philosophy pays off, and it does so in numerous ways.

Some of the benefits come right away.  You might think of these as personal benefits.  Taking philosophy classes – in particular, majoring or minoring in philosophy – can be one of the most intellectually rewarding and stimulating things you can do while you are a student at Washburn.  Philosophers aim to develop a deep understanding of the world in general, and whatever the topic of the class you are taking, we will be doing our part to make the classes interesting and challenging for you.

Other benefits of studying philosophy become apparent later.  You can call these the vocational benefits.  Taking a philosophy class trains your ability to comprehend complex issues that require careful deliberation and sound judgment.  It also develops your capacity to come to a considered decision about that complex issue and to craft a compelling argument that defends your decision.  And these skills are not just useful in a philosophy classroom.  In an economy that rewards literate, thoughtful, creative people adept at analytical thinking, clear communication, and making careful deliberative judgments, people who study philosophy can thrive.

Some of the most important benefits of studying philosophy are also some of the longest-lasting.  Call these the societal benefits.  Part of the mission of the University is to help students develop into thoughtful, responsible citizens that can participate in the governance of a democratic society.  Successful democracies need well-informed, thoughtful, rational people as citizens.  The habits of mind that come from studying philosophy can be very useful in this regard.

What Are the Practical Advantages of Studying Philosophy?

Perhaps you are now agreed that studying philosophy can be rewarding in a theoretical and abstract sense, but you are not yet sure how it might be rewarding in a practical sense.  It is an important question, and the answer will be interesting to you – regardless of whether you are a prospective student thinking about coming to Washburn, a student currently at Washburn, or the parent of a student thinking about studying philosophy at Washburn.

Although some philosophy majors go on to earn advanced degrees and wind up as philosophy professors, most people who study philosophy – whether they do so with philosophy as their major or their minor field of study – do not go on to careers in philosophy.  Instead, they go on to a wide range of interesting, beneficial, and valuable careers.  There are lawyers, scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, investors, entertainers, actors, journalists, judges, writers, religious officials, and people in public service who majored or minored in philosophy.

You might be wondering how that is possible.  After all, the obvious career path for a philosophy major is philosophy, right?  In a sense, that is true.  But philosophy majors are well-suited for a wide variety of other career paths.  This is possible because philosophy teaches and promotes basic skills of critical thinking, of clear communication in reading, writing, and speaking, and of rational argumentation.  It encourages and rewards an inquisitive and analytic habit of mind, creative capacities to integrate the results of a person’s careful thinking, and the ability to see non-obvious solutions to complex and difficult problems.  These skills are useful in a wide range of enterprises, unlikely to go out of fashion, and make philosophy majors attractive to potential employers.

What if I Want to Continue My Education By Going to Graduate or Professional School?

If you are interested in going on to obtain a graduate or professional degree, there is not much better preparation than majoring in philosophy.  Philosophy is an intellectually demanding major, and this benefits students who seek to earn advanced degrees.  Philosophy majors are traditionally among the top performers on GREs, LSATs, and GMATs.

GRE Performance

  • On the 2011-2012 GREs, philosophy majors had the highest average scores out of all surveyed majors in the Verbal Reasoning and Analytical Writing categories.  Philosophy majors also ranked 15th in the Quantitative Reasoning category.  These data are compiled from the GRE Guide to the Use of Scores 2012-2013, pp. 28-31.  For context and an excellent illustration of these data, see this blog post from Katrina Sifferd, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Elmhurst College, Illinois.
  • The performance of philosophy majors on the GRE is a well-established trend.  On the GREs conducted between July 2006 and June 2009, philosophy majors also had the highest scores in the categories of Verbal Reasoning and Analytical Writing.  Philosophy majors also ranked 15th in the category of Quantitative Reasoning.  The results of this examination period have been compiled and analyzed by the Washburn Philosophy Department and are available here; you can access these data for yourself in the GRE Guide to the Use of Scores 2010-2011, pp. 17-19.  Older GRE results that are consistent with the more recent ones can be found here.
  • The tendency of philosophy majors to do well on the GRE has been noticed by other disciplines as well.  For example, according to a recent blog post on Physics Central (a blog affiliated with the American Physical Society), philosophy students have the best scores on the Verbal Reasoning and Analytical Writing sections of the GRE, as well as having the highest Quantitative Reasoning score of any humanities discipline.  The original table for Physics Central’s data can be found here.

LSAT Performance

  • According to a 2009 study by Michael Nieswiadomy, professor of economics at the University of North Texas, philosophy majors were tied with economics majors for the highest average LSAT score for fields with more than 1,900 students taking the exam.  Results regarding the average LSAT scores of the eleven most popular pre-law majors and of the ten most popular pre-law Arts and Humanities majors have also been assembled by the Philosophy Department of the San José State University and are accessible here.

GMAT Performance

  • For the 2010-2011 cycle of the GMAT, philosophy majors had the third highest mean total score of any major, outranking every other major except for physics majors and mathematics majors; that’s according to the 2006-2011 Profile of GMAT Candidates. 

What if I Want to Add Philosophy as a Minor or Second Major?

There are significant benefits to doing this.  One of the advantages of studying philosophy is that you are not locked into a career path, because the skills encouraged by studying philosophy are universally useful and will not ever be made obsolete by technological change.  Philosophy students can thus easily combine their studies with a second major, a minor in a different subject, add a philosophy minor to their plan of studies, or combine the academic study of philosophy with an internship for practical experience.  For example, a student who majored in Chemistry (Pre-Medicine) and added a minor in Philosophy would be well-prepared for medical school; a student who double-majored in Political Science and Philosophy, with our department’s individualized Pre-Law program of study, would be well-prepared to go to law school.  We encourage you to come in and discuss your plans with us.

Does Studying Philosophy Lead to a Satisfying and Rewarding Career Path?

It certainly can.  As mentioned previously, studying philosophy does not lock you into one career path.  That is an advantage that makes you flexible as a job seeker.  Depending upon your chosen career path, a second major, a minor, an internship, other practical experience, or an advanced degree might be necessary.  But additional majors or qualifications are not always required.  Many jobs that philosophy students are qualified for require only a Bachelor of Arts degree and a single major, because employers from all parts of the economy need people who can think broadly, deeply and critically.

Because of the flexibility of a philosophy major, philosophy students go into a wide variety of career paths.  According to a study of 15,600 Williams College alumni by Satyan Devadoss, Associate Professor of Mathematics, philosophy majors have decent numbers in nearly every career path category.  Popular choices for philosophers’ career paths include law and education; note that Professor Devadoss’ study has philosophy students going into every major area of employment.

Bryan Van Norden, Professor of Philosophy and of Chinese and Japanese at Vassar College, has also compiled a list of well-known public figures who hold degrees in philosophy.  Among them:

  • Filmmaker: Ethan Coen
  • General: Jack Keane, USA, Ret
  • Investor and Philanthropist: George Soros
  • Jeopardy Host: Alex Trebek
  • Mayor of Los Angeles: Richard Riordan
  • Morgan Stanley President: Robert Greenhill
  • Network Television Journalist: Stone Phillips
  • Prime Minister of Canada: Paul Martin, Jr.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justices: David Souter and Stephen Bryer

You can see, then, that philosophy majors can and do go on to all sorts of different careers.  The following linked articles and talks should give you some further idea of the different kinds of career paths that philosophy majors can pursue and why philosophy is a good way to prepare for those careers:

Bruce Janz, Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Central Florida, also has an extensive website devoted to the question of what one can accomplish with a humanities degree. 

Regardless of what career path a philosophy student winds up on, career and salary data bear out the conclusion that philosophy students go on to careers that are practically rewarding.  According to the 2011-12 PayScale College Salary Report, mid-career philosophy majors make more money on average than most other majors.  Philosophy majors rank 48th out of 120 surveyed majors with an average starting salary of $39,800 and an average mid-career salary of $75,600.

I Am Interested in Making Philosophy Part of My Course of Study at Washburn.  What Should I Do Next?

Come in and discuss your plans with us.  The Washburn Philosophy Department can be found in Room 206 of Morgan Hall, and you can reach us by telephone at 785.670.1542 or email at