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. 

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