A Degree in Philosophy Will Teach You to Identify Faulty Assumptions from Career Advisors

A friend of mine recently drew my attention to an article that began with this paragraph:

Earning a Ph.D. in philosophy is certainly a noble pursuit which would equip you with a deep understanding of the insights of Plato and Socrates, but it may not land you a career with the earning potential commensurate with the financial investment and years of study required to earn the degree. If you want to get the most bang for your educational bucks, it may pay to look at a wide range of career options—including jobs that require less than a four-year college degree.

As someone who does have a Ph.D., and who just this week began teaching, of all things, a course entitled Introduction to Philosophy, I took this article somewhat personally. True, philosophy students learn about Plato and Socrates, but more importantly, they learn to think carefully and clearly—to identify assumptions and watch out for empty rhetoric. So, reading the article philosophically, I reached quite the opposite conclusion than what the author was hoping I would receive.

I’m not alone in my contrarian view. Read on, and you’ll discover that the median pay for a person holding a B.A. in Philosophy isn’t so shabby after all:

  • First 5 years of career: $45,000
  • Next 5 years of career: $61,000
  • Years 10 to 20: $82,000
  • Years 20+: $95,000

maturity payscale for ba philosophy

2015–2016 Data from www.payscale.com

Be Cautious about Fallacious Reasoning from Career Advisors

Published by a partnership between Thrivent Financial and Forbes magazine and entitled “Careers That Offer The Best Return For Your Education Dollars,” the article warned that “The average cost of attending a private institution is $32,405 per year—a total of nearly $130,000 over four years.” The author urged students who pursue a bachelor’s degree to study lucrative subjects such as petroleum engineering, “which pays, on average, $101,000 to start and $168,000 mid-career.” The author cautioned that “the bottom of the list is dominated by educational and service careers,” such as “teaching” and “ministry … which range in average annual salary from about $30,000 to $55,000.” Rather than pursuing one of those careers, a student would be better off completing a two-year degree and becoming a dental hygienist or medical equipment technician or some similar occupation that earns “in the range of $40,000 to $90,000 per year.”

I found numerous lapses of logic in the article. Perhaps you can find even more. Here are seven faulty assumptions worth discussing further:

  1. Averages apply to everyone equally well.
  2. Students pay sticker price for a college degree.
  3. The most important benefit of a college degree is getting a job.
  4. The most important characteristic of a job is the salary.
  5. The higher the salary is, the better.
  6. Educational Savings Accounts are the best tool for investing in education.
  7. Job applicants with degrees in philosophy don’t get high-paying jobs.

Not one of these claims holds up to philosophical scrutiny—and I don’t just mean “arm chair philosophy,” but rather the evaluations that philosophers make of the relationship between real-world evidence and what people think (rightly or wrongly) to be true.

1. Do averages apply to everyone equally well?

No. Sometimes no one is average. For example, I’m 6’-2” and my wife is 5’4’. So, our average height is 5’9”, but no one in our family is actually that height. In fact, no one is even within 4” of that height—she’s 5” shorter and I’m 5” taller than our average.

Similarly, no one has to pay the average cost of a college. A lot of people will pay less. In fact, probably far more than half of all students will attend a cheaper-than-average college, since the average cost likely is higher than the median (or 50th percentile) cost due to a handful of rich students brining up the average when they pay to attend super-expensive elite colleges.

The article reports that the average cost of tuition and fees for a private, 4-year college is $32,000. I teach at a private, 4-year college where the 2016–2017 cost comes to only $27,000. Adding room and board to the mix, the article reports an average cost of $44,000, compared to my school, $35,000.

2. Do students pay sticker price for college?

Hardly ever. At my college, for example, 98% of all students receive some form of financial aid. After subtracting monies received from scholarships and grants, the average net price for tuition, room, and board at my school comes to only $15,000. That’s less than half the “sticker price.”

Granted, this is only one isolated example from the college I know best. But I also know of many other quality private colleges with a net price in the range of $15,000 to $20,000. Yes, this still represents a tremendous financial investment, and one that should not be taken lightly. However, the article overstates the necessity when projecting “a total of nearly $130,000 over four years” as a typical cost for a 4-year degree from a private college.

3. Is the most important benefit of a college degree getting a job?

Not necessarily. A college is not merely a job-skills boot camp, but an institution of higher learning. Colleges provide something more foundational than employability: it’s called “education.” Students acquire knowledge, understanding, and skills. A liberal arts education in particular does not provide narrowly training for a specific job, but rather educates the whole person for a fuller and more enriching life. Now, it also turns out that such an education provides an excellent preparation for gainful employment.

Liberal Arts Success Statistics from Bethany Lutheran College

  • 89% of grads are admitted to their first choice of graduate school
  • 90% of grads are employed FT within 6 months of graduation

Perhaps “education” and “employability” even deserve to tie for first place when it comes to ranking the purposes of pursuing higher education. My modest request is simply this: don’t make “getting a job” number one in a class all by itself, as if everything else takes second seat.

Furthermore, let us not assume that “getting a job” and leading a financially productive life are one and the same thing. Graduates from my college have done well getting a job when they’ve sought one, but they also have done well starting their own businesses straight out of college, indeed, even before graduating from college. Here, too, the liberal arts tradition offers a great benefit: learning to think outside the box, learning to create a job for yourself, rather than merely getting a job from some other creative leader in the community.

4. Is the most important characteristic of a job the salary?

If so, then I have made some foolish decisions. I have turned down employment opportunities that would have boosted my salary. I have chosen precisely those careers that the article calls “the bottom of the list”: teaching and ministry. Oops?

However, I have no regrets. My job offers flexible hours. I eat breakfast with my children seven days each week, reading a chapter from the Bible each morning. I eat lunch with them five days each week. I eat supper with them and tuck them into bed every evening—unless, perchance, about once or twice per month, I’m traveling for business or attending an evening lecture at my college. Even then, I sometimes take the older children with me.

I also handle my own plumbing and electrical work. The base charge for a plumber is $150 for the first hour. I’d have to get paid over $200 per hour to have enough money left, after taxes, to pay a plumber, and so I do it myself, often with a child lending Daddy a helping hand. In other words, I may have less money in the bank, but I have a more enriching experience in my home. My job as a teacher at a Christian college supports a high-quality lifestyle, even if the salary has not always kept pace with inflation.

5. Is a higher salary necessarily better?

The article assumes as much. Given that the highest number, infinity, can never be reached, it seems that someone seeking a maximum salary could never be satisfied. Is it better to be a dental hygienist earning $60,000 than a teacher earning $40,000? Is it best of all to be an engineer earning $150,000, as the article suggested? If higher is always better, than we have the answer that the article expects us to accept. Get a 4-year degree in engineering or a 2-year degree in dental hygiene, but don’t get a 4-year degree in teaching, and whatever you do, avoid studying philosophy (again, following the false assumption that philosophy majors don’t make much money).

A more reasonable approach would be to define gainful employment as 200% of the federal poverty threshold, or about $50,000 per year for a huband and wife raising two or three children. That will keep your family above welfare. Indeed, you’ll be richer than most the people in the world, both historically and at the present time. In terms of dollars, this means that even most of those careers at the “bottom of the list” in the Thrivent-Forbes article will suffice. As the chart above, from payscale.com, indicates, the median salary for someone with B.A. in Philosophy during the first five years of employment is $45,000—enough to get started on the American Dream. If you wish to pursue a different college major, then by all means do so, but please don’t do it just for the money.

6. Is an Educational Savings Αccount (ESA) the best tool for investing in education?

ESAs provide tax-deferred savings for qualified educational expenses, such as tuition at an accredited school. A diverse “portfolio” of educational experiences should, however, include more than such “qualified expenses.” Expanding the backyard garden is educational. Flying your children out to Alaska to visit their uncle, aunt, and cousins is educational. Taking piano lessons from a non-accredited individual is educational. So, be careful not to put all of your eggs into the ESA basket, lest you not have sufficient funds for other, genuinely educational opportunities.

An ESA should really be called an SSA, “School Savings Account,” since government regulations channel those monies narrowly toward schools. They also typically involve a variety of fees, including monthly or annual account maintenance fees, front- and back-load fees for purchasing and selling mutual funds, and ongoing “expense ratios” for holding mutual funds. Unless you shop around carefully, you likely will get stuck with 1.5% to 2% in total fees, or even higher if you begin with a small initial balance (e.g., a $50 annual maintenance fee on an account with just $1,000 invested effectively constitutes a 5% fee; adding fund loads and expense ratios to that, you could soon find yourself losing 7%—some bargain that is!).

7. What good is a degree in philosophy?

I have one. I use it daily, for my livelihood and for far more. I’ve worked in a variety of settings—higher education (both teaching and department administration), ministry, legal research, publishing, event coordination, and the list goes on. But you don’t just have to take my word for it that philosophy courses provide a productive skill set.

In Socrates in the Board Room: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars, Amanda H. Goodall observes that 98 of the top 100 universities in the United States and Great Britain have been headed recently by leading scholars. She explains further that having a degree in Education or Business Administration generally does not prepare a person for serving as a college president as well as being a leading scholar in one’s field—whatever that field may be. For one thing, a non-management-related degree helps the scholar-president think outside the box. For another, it boosts the administration’s credibility with the faculty, resulting in a more productive partnership for leading the university. “A president who is a researcher knows how to nurture and protect [the faculty] from the excesses of the business model” (85).

On that point, Silicon Valley agrees with the Ivy League. Philosophy and other “useless” degrees have provided the career foundation for numerous movers and shakers in the tech world:

  • Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal, majored in philosophy.
  • Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, majored in philosophy, “which he says made him a better writer and debater.”
  • Parker Harris, the cofounder of Salesforce, majored in English literature and never obtained any degree in information technology.
  • “Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO, majored in history and literature.”
  • Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, majored in History and then taught English before moving on to AT&T and HP.

More examples:

  • Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, has a Master’s Degree in Philosophy.
  • Paul Graham, co-founder of Viaweb, a pioneering web-based application that Yahoo! bought for $49 million, majored in Philosophy.

As the Tech Street Journal explains:

Graham, Thiel and Hoffman are intellectual doers. For them, it seems, there is no contradiction between deep, contemplative, intellectual thought and getting stuff done. In fact, creating game-changing businesses like PayPal, Y Combinator and LinkedIn may demand this sort of thinking. Why? One reason might be that philosophy teaches its students useful ways of thinking, how to look at existing concepts from all angles to see their relation to other concepts, and how to treat fragile new ideas with the necessary patience and care so as to give them the opportunity to bloom.

After paying $50 million to acquire Aardvark from Damon Horowitz, Google hired him as “In-House Philosopher / Director of Engineering,” reports the Washington Post. He hosts workshops concerning John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant (the same dead Europeans I discuss with my students), emphasizing the importance of formulating morally sound corporate strategies in the twenty-first-century high tech sector. Horowitz began his career with a tech degree from MIT, but concluded this was not sufficient to take himself or Silicon Valley where he wanted them to go, so he quit his job to pursue a Ph.D. in—that’s right—philosophy.

As a writer for the Washington Post explains:

I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology. A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire may be more likely to understand the human elements of technology and how ease of use and design can be the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people or to understand what users want.

Research supports the conclusion that as helpful as it may be to major in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) discipline, humanities majors also bring important contributions to careers in the tech sector. Of 652 U.S.-born CEOs surveyed from 502 tech firms, only 37% held degrees in computer science or engineering. A broad spectrum of other educational pathways—philosophy among them—led to the same career destination.

What’s true in Silicon Valley also holds up elsewhere. We should all learn to be more careful about drawing too thick of a line between the “hard sciences” and the “soft skills” that students learn from humanities subjects such as philosophy. The humanities in fact provide a firm bedrock that serves as a stable and time-tested foundation for many careers, yes, even in a rapidly changing world.

Moreover, understanding the humanities may also help a student to realize—before it is too late—that there is far more to life-beyond-college than just a career, and far more to a good workplace than just the paycheck.


Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of Into Your Hands LLC and the author of several books, including Rediscovering the American Republic (2 vols.) and Debating Evolution before Darwinism. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschooled children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023 He also serves as President of the Hausvater Project, which mentors Christian parents. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.

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