Friday, May 15, 2015

What Job Can I Do With A Philosophy Degree?

Photo: Dakine Kane

Being involved with my faculty's open house for the past three years, that is the questionas phrased in our local parlancethat prospective students (or their parents) will always ask. It is so important that a certain ritual is often performed before the question is asked. 

The student or parent would pause as if to consider whether it is the appropriate time to ask. Then, it is occasionally followed by a false start complemented with an obligatory tinge of embarrassment: "Erm... Wha-what job can I (or my son/daughter) do with a philosophy degree?" 

This question, to many, is the million-dollar question; the barometer indicating the worth of pursuing a discipline. This question irks me the most. 

It irks me not because it is a bad question. Far from that; being prudential can be a virtue in certain circumstances. It is the way it is asked. It makes all the previous questions seem banalchatter that paves the way for the "important" question. 

It makes going to university, which is an absolute privilege, akin to going through a toll booth. One does not care for it and is eager to go through it just to get to a supposedly better destination. Most of all, I get a feeling that the question is asked without much reflection. It is amazing how some students are very frank about why they are asking the question: "What do I tell my mum?" 

In previous years, I was eager to brush the question aside. I would cite a few seniors as examples and list a few other possible jobs which left the student/parent and I equally unsatisfied. With the benefit of having a philosophical education for four years, it is time to address this question properly. 

The Underlying Question

The question that is often asked is far from simple. In fact it is the wrong question to start with. The fact that simply listing various examples is not satisfactory means that there is an underlying need that is not addressed. What could it be?

While there are several reasons which compel one to ask that question, two comes to mind immediately:

(a) You are worried about not being employable. 

(b) You have a desired job or an industry in mind and you wonder whether philosophy will help or hinder you. 


Granted thatapart from academia or particular teaching jobsyou hardly see "Wanted: Philosophy Graduates" in job advertisements, philosophy graduates are not sleeping under bridges. In fact, the previous two batches of graduates (i.e., the most recent group to enter the workforce) are employed in both public and private sectors. They work in a variety of industries such as Singapore Airlines, customs, human resource, and consultancy.

As such, the major worries in (a) are unfounded. This should also help to answer (b) to some degree.

Assistance or Hindrance?

The whole focus of (b) is problematic. There is an underlying assumption that there is some form of simple correlation between your major and a job or range of jobs. Also, it seems to focus on the paper qualifications itself rather than whether the skills you acquire through philosophy are helpful. 

Firstly, based on the variety of industries my seniors are working in, whatever major you take in the course of getting your B.A. does not matter save for specialised industries such as medicine, law, engineering etc.

More importantly, the paper qualifications play an incredibly small part as to whether you eventually get the job and subsequently thrive in it. A lot has to do with your overall performance in the interview, your attitude, adaptability, and willingness to learn. 

That said, it must be acknowledged that the class of your B.A. (not the major) will determine the career tracks and pay grades in quite a few industries. While NUS has changed its degree classification, it is a cosmetic change and employers will still know whether your degree is a first or second class. 

As such, while your grades are not the be-all and end-all, it is still important. What is the point of pursuing a supposedly more profitable discipline, which does not guarantee anything in the first place, only to obtain mediocre marks because it does not interest you? 

Gone are the days when dogged memorisation and regurgitation will get you good marks. There must be a great deal of inner motivation to see you through a tough ride. Three or four years is a considerable investment of your time, why not do something you enjoy?

The million-dollar question is only worth a hundred dollars.


Of course, I am not under the illusion that what I have written thus far would convince everyone, especially in the hard-nosed and "practical" culture that I am brought up in. So what "transferable" skills does philosophy equip you with?

An easy answer is to utter the buzz words: critical thinking. But such an answer is unhelpful and ironically shows that one is not even thinking.

Another easy but slightly better answer is that it makes you question all assumptions. I do not think that it is necessarily the case but in the course of tackling philosophical questions, it would at least make you aware of them. This will help define the problem better and it paves the way to solving or at least addressing it. It is no wonder that the quote by Charles Kettering, "A problem well stated is a problem half-solved," is often repeated by peers and professors.

Another skill that is very much in the spirit of Kettering is the clarity of expression. This may seem very surprising to those who have not taken philosophy because there are some philosophers who are utterly impenetrable. However, those philosophers are often of a different era or the original text is not in English. Otherwise, it is expected of us to be able to express the views of others clearly, robustly, charitably, and succinctly.

A close companion of writing would, of course, be reading. In the course of engaging with various thinkers, one will encounter a variety of rhetorical styles; from the systematic and almost scientific presentations to one with literary flourish. One is required not only to read for understanding but for nuance. The choice of words, examples, punctuation, and even italics are incredibly important in identifying the stance of the philosopher.

Additionally, due to the various branches of philosophy, one will be equipped to read papers from other disciplines. For example, in a philosophy of mind class, a couple of my readings were actually psychology papers and we were required to go through them and suss out the philosophically important aspects of the experiments. I have also encountered texts from sociologists, cultural commentators, and even biologists in the course of four years. This is due to the fact we have a faculty that has a wide range of research interests and that various branches of philosophy are inter-disciplinary by nature.

Such skills are useful even at the interview stage. There are some positions within the government sector (unfortunately, I am not at liberty to disclose too much here) that require a few rounds of interviews before a final decision is made. The first couple of rounds are a variety of tests. Some of the questions could be in the form of a logic question (logic is a compulsory module for all majors) or one may be asked to summarise articles. Clearly, the skills mentioned above will put one in good stead.

The Life of the Mind

The one thing that I seldom get to tell students at the open house is the sheer joy of studying philosophy. I once asked one of my professors what do we tell people who ask why they should study philosophy and he said, "For starters, I have not met anyone with a philosophy degree who regretted their decision." While it is not certain if that applies to all philosophy graduates, I for one do not regret my decision.

The life of the mind is the best gift a university education can offer and it has an impact beyond academia. The way we think and the phrases we use are all shaped by the discourses that are circulated in our society. University is a wonderful opportunity to examine, assess, measure, and interrogate these concepts and ideas. It is not merely an intellectual exercise or the domain of the proverbial ivory tower, but a continuous process of seeing yourself in relation to the world. Philosophy thus offers a very broad prism for you to glance into.

In a speech about the legacy of Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry quotes from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis in which Wilde talks about the "Oxford temper"the ability to "play gracefully with ideas." This should really be the temperament of any university student. While playing gracefully may have the ostensible implication of frivolity, the qualities Wilde refers to are subtlety, dexterity, kindness, curiosity and open-mindedness. It is also why I think the phrase, "come for the answers, stay for the questions" is very pertinent to philosophy.

The pithy paragraph above does an injustice to Fry and it is rewarding to at least listen to the end of the speech in which he talks about the life of the mind.

It is only in acknowledging this, that one realisesas I mentioned earlierwhat a privilege it is in having the opportunity to attend university. An opportunity given that is derived from the toil of others whose children may not necessarily be given the same privilege.

The best way to show gratitude is to revel in this wonderful pursuit and not sully it by treating it as a grimy toll booth. 

Monday, May 4, 2015


Photo: drpavloff
I am glad to announce that my exams are over and my summer break has started. If there is something I really want to accomplish during the summer break, it is to blog more often.

Once in a while, I will come across a couple of things or issues that compel me to talk about it and I would post a couple of lines on Facebook. But due to the immediacy of typing, I would either express it awkwardly or change my stance on it the next day. Blogging would help me gather my thoughts and perhaps express them in a more coherent way. 

While preparing for my exams, I cannot help but procrastinate once in a while. Everything seemed more interesting and even important such as the need to revamp this blog. I was tinkering with the layout of this blog to see if I could improve it but not many changes were made due to my lack of skills. 

In the process of  reviewing the layout, I could not help but notice how childish some of the content was. The category "social commentary" is quite pretentious. As such, I have changed it to "soap box" which is a better reflection of what those posts are. I am only offering my opinion on some issues and I do not pretend that those opinions necessarily contain profound insights. Additionally, I have also changed the "About Me" page. While reading it, I was cringing as if I ate a sour plum. I have changed its contents to a simpler and personable version while tutting away at my 17-year-old self who wrote it.  

I hope these changes will please you and do stick around as I have a few posts coming up! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy St Patrick's Day!

I am writing this post in the final hour of St Patrick's Day. To my Irish readers or those who adore the Irish culture, here's wishing you a very Happy St Patrick's Day.

The idea for this post came to me as I was deciding what I should post on my Facebook to celebrate the occasion. An easy choice would be a clip from Riverdance as it really brought Irish dancing to the world. However, it is a bit of a cliché at best or patronising at worst. But the problem is that I really love the show because, apart from its popular appeal, it is very well conceived. While distinctly Irish, it is intercultural as it showcased cousin art forms such as flamenco and tap dance. It also launched the career of the choir, Anuna, beyond the Irish borders.  After much agony, I decided to post a clip of Colin Dunne (rather than Michael Flatley) and Maria Pages doing a duet; a lesser known number in the show and it reminds you of its intercultural nature.

As I was watching Colin Dunne dance, I was reminded of the time he performed his solo show, Out of Time, in Singapore. It was a rare treat as it was only showing for two nights. I attended the opening night and I sat dead center and was probably three feet away from him. It was an intimate show as Dunne reflected upon his experience as a dancer as well as the roots of the art form. Unfortunately, 10 minutes into the show, he slipped, fell, strained a leg muscle, and had to limp offstage. After another 10 minutes of rest and assessment of his condition, Dunne decided to cancel the show and refund our tickets. My first impulse was to immediately buy a ticket for the second night even though I was quite busy that day. However, I thought he might not perform the next night and I needed to spend time completing my school assignments anyway. Thankfully, but unfortunately for me, he did not cancel the next night.

I can still remember the shock when I saw him fall right in front of me. Part of me was worried about his career. After all, he pulled a leg muscle and was already in his 40s then. But like any professional, he dust himself off and continued to tour his show. As for me, all I have is this video clip to remember the performance:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Adulterated Views

Don't you just hate it when someone does that? You're reading a blog post that has somewhat interested you and there is a photo, supposedly informative, that accompanies the text. You look at it - hoping that it will reinforce or illustrate what was written. But at the corner, or somewhere embedded, comes that grating text that serves as a declaration of one's non-existent photographic skill.  

Never has there been an act more pompous and selfish than branding photos in such a conspicuous manner. 

Now don't get me wrong, there are commercial and artistic circumstances in which a photographer has every right to do as he/she pleases. But more often than not, those who took the pains to create some form of watermark are 'photographers' whose only training in the craft is to push that button of a digital camera that automatically gives you an ideal setting or, worse still, iphonographers and their smart phone brethren. 

There's no conceivable reason for one to do so. Do they think that one will not know who took the photo? Do these people seriously think that someone will take their photo and make a ton of money by selling it to some publication? 

It only indicates that they are protective of their vanity rather than content presentation - to inform, entertain, inspire, compel, question, and provoke. Then again, they did succeed in provoking me to write this post. 

So what about the photos on my blog? Aside from photos of myself and friends, feel free to steal, covet, manipulate, re-create, and use all you want.  I couldn't care less and am actually flattered that you deem it to be good enough. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Best of July's August Man

For those of you who are my Facebook friends, you should have known by now that I'm currently interning with August Man magazine. If you're wondering what is it like to work for a magazine, stay tuned as I'll write about my experiences in a later post. 

For now, I shall share with you what I like best about the July's issue which hit newsstands roughly a fortnight ago. I know what you are thinking... 

No, I'm not doing this because I want to impress the editor (he doesn't even know I have this blog) or that they are paying me extra to do this (how I wish this were true). One of the reasons why I even applied to work for them, apart from pocket money and killing time, is because I like the magazine. I wouldn't work for a publication that I have no interest in. 

So here goes, the best of July... or what interests me the most.

Of course, I have to include my own work. It'll be impossible for me to stay on for so long if I didn't take pride in what I do. My byline appears in two sections: Calendar and Emporium.

For the former, I pick five events that really interests me which may appeal to the August Man reader. And my byline is justifiably there because I took the effort to write something that best describes the event - nothing was copied wholesale from the press releases. I particular enjoyed writing about Free by Raw Moves and Red by Blank Space Theatre which I eventually got to see and review (click on the links to read them). 

As for Emporium, I picked ten things that one could consider buying if they want something different for their wardrobe. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to personally look at the products as I have rather strict editorial timelines. 

Now on to the fun stuff. I thought the choice of theme for the main book - non-conformist - is a good one as it opened up lots of possibilities to interview and write about interesting people. I was really happy to help out with research and transcription of the main feature, The Power of One. It highlights five regular individuals who have made a change in the community or even the world. Their causes are varied from the political and social causes of animal and LGBTQ rights to a more personal one of raising funds for cancer patients and making them laugh so as to ease the pain of chemo and radiotherapy sessions. 

Being a lifestyle magazine, we are never far away from the fashion world. The managing editor, Darren Ho (@DarrenJYHo) wrote two pieces, one of which is rather fascinating while the other is very useful and practical. His feature on the Sapeurs - a group of elegant and stylish men from the Republic of Congo - talks about how they view fashion as a way of life and a statement against the conflicts in their war-torn country. For those clueless about tuxedos, he also wrote an article about the evolution of the tuxedo and its sartorial features through the ages. I'm definitely creating a checklist based on this article before going to my tailor. 

To round up the fashion features, it's time to bring back the hat and score that 'hat trick'. It tells you about the fedora, its distinctive features (not every hat is a fedora), and the styles that are available. While I have some opinions about people wearing a hat, I shall spare my readers the soapbox this time and say this: donning a fedora does not a Sinatra make. 

Horology and art enthusiasts should read the Arts & Craft section and find out how AP brought together the best of both worlds in their exhibition at Art Basel Hong Kong. Also, if you are tired of hearing doom and gloom in the region of Afghanistan, then wake up. The magazine has a refreshing coverage about Skateistan, an NGO that aims to bridge various divides through a common sport and affect real change in the countries that they are working in. Yes, the pictures show that the girls can really skate.  

Finally, eager entrepreneurs will not feel left out because there is a business supplement, Guru, which covers start-ups from a variety of industries. Of course, long-time readers will have their usual fix of fashion trends, travel destinations, electronics, fitness, grooming, cars, watches, and food - all in one package. 

To top it all off, you can even buy the mag from a vending machine! The great thing is that you can purchase the June issue if you forgot to get it from the newsstand. Yes, I helped with that issue too. 

As if me waxing lyrical hasn't convinced you enough, if you purchase the magazine from bookshops or the vending machine, you'll get a free phone case from KASE. Some kind soul has even documented some of the designs available if you are wondering what's on offer.

Till the August issue.