Thursday, November 22, 2007

Are philosophers employable?

If so, it's not for their ability to interpret statistics. I've noticed a lot of bloggers linking enthusiastically to the Guardian article 'I think, therefore I earn', claiming that the data in it suggest that studying philosophy is good for your employment prospects. This is not true. If you actually read the article carefully, all it tells us is that philosophy graduates are now doing better than in the past. That is no indication of absolute success. Indeed, the one relevant statistic suggests that philosophy students are still doing slightly worse than average, with 6.7% unemployed six months after graduation, compared to 6% of graduates overall.

Since for most students the relevant alternative to studying philosophy now is not to study philosophy in the past, but to study other subjects now, it is misleading to describe these findings as indicating that studying philosophy will help you get a job.

Of course, it's good news that philosophy graduates are doing less dismally than in the past. If this upward trend continues, as it surely deserves to in light of the immense intellectual value of philosophical training, then we may expect philosophy graduates to start doing well in the future. But we're not there yet (at least according to the above findings). So if one is to give honest advice to prospective students, "philosophy will help you get a job" isn't it. More like, "the career costs are surprisingly small, and easily outweighed by such benefits as the intrinsic interest of the subject."


  1. Maybe the idea is that the trend is more significant than a snapshot of the present state of affairs, since most students choosing a major now won't be in the job market for 3-5 years. The claim could be: If current trends continue, then by the time current students hit the job market, philosophy majors could actually have a slight advantage over others. Of course, whether we really should expect the trend to continue is another question.

  2. I graducated in Philosophy 8 years ago now. I never really felt it put me at a disadvantage in my career. I work in venture capital now. If anything I think it probably helped me. It's a talking point in interviews and makes me stand out from other candidates.

  3. Figures six months after graduation also tell us a fairly limited amount on their own, since we don't know how many people in any given subject went on to postgrad. study or took the year out they didn't spend after A-Levels. And not all jobs are equal, of course.

  4. Philosophy studients are some of the brightest around.So the difference is probably more than the .7% since those peopel would probably otherwise have a very low unemployment rate.

  5. woops forgot to sign


  6. Arthur Schopenhauer said, a >married philosopher< is a contradiction of terms - an assertion which Karl Marx proceeded to refute on the grounds that it was the duty of the philosopher, not to contemplate, but to change the world (or words to that effect). But since the result has hardly been worth the hundreds of millions of lives wasted in the process, I personally, do not consider >that studying philosophy is good for your employment prospects.<

    On the contrary, the philosopher is the laureate of the contemplative!

  7. Richard,

    First up. I'm the researcher quoted in the article, and provided the stats for it.

    I'm speaking in a private capacity here, though. Also, I didn't write the piece and have no connection to the Guardian.

    On one level, you're right. In the UK, the unemployment rate for philosophy graduates is marginally higher than for graduates on average. That doesn't look so good. But not only has the unemployment rate for philosophers dropped, but it is also falling more quickly than for other degrees. It also means that UK philosophy graduates from 2006 were less likely to be out of work than graduates in physics, biology, IT, economics, mechanical engineering, to name a few subjects. Many degrees with lower unemployment rates are heavily vocational as well.

    On the other hand, graduate unemployment in 2006 was comparatively low if we look at historical figures, so that also needs to be borne into account.

    The main thrust of the article, though, is to tackle a few myths - like the pervasive one that the study of philosophy is not useful for the 'real world'. Philosophy is valued by employers, and a lot of people don't realise that.

    To Robert Seddon - actually, the data quoted in the article takes into account all the people who went onto further study (22.1%, thanks for asking), and all the people who took time out after their first degree (5% went travelling, for example).

    Because philosophy is studied by a comparatively small number of people (we graduate approximately 6 law graduates for every philosophy graduate in the UK every year), there hasn't been as much work done on them as for other subjects, though.

    A better tagline would be 'philosophy can help you to get a job if you use it properly'.

    I'm glad that people have been interested in the article and that it's provoked some debate.

  8. "Being on an ethics committee of the NHS is something Cunningham is looking into. "It would be a direct application of my skills," he says."

    Perhaps someone should tell Joe, that being on an NHS ethics committee is a voluntary position, not something you get paid for...

    Charlie I was wondering whether the change was statistically significant, as you note there just aren't that many philosophy students?


  9. "The main thrust of the article, though, is to tackle a few myths - like the pervasive one that the study of philosophy is not useful for the 'real world'"

    I agree that's very important, though the fact that philosophy imparts valuable skills is independent of employers recognizing this. Indeed, it's precisely this widespread undervaluation that makes it so important to highlight the virtues of a philosophical training! But it is encouraging to hear that the situation is improving, at least.

  10. Hey Richard, Alex Douglas here. Could it be morally selfish to allow the intrinsic interest to weigh more heavily on your decisions of what to study than career potential? Shouldn't we study things that will help people? And isn't the amount that people are willing to pay for expertise a measure, however distorted and imprecise, of how much better off it will make them? Or at least how much better off they believe it will make them (and who are we to claim to know better)?

    E-mail me, by the way, at if you get the chance.

  11. David,

    When I said 'there aren't many' philosophy graduates in the sample, I was speaking as a graduate labour market analyst, where fewer than 2500 graduates in a subject in a year equates to 'not very many'!

    There were actually 1535 philosophy first degree graduates in the sample. The total UK-domiciled first degree philosopher cohort was 2040 in 2006. To most normal people, that's actually quite a lot of graduates!

  12. Hi Alex! Interesting questions. I think we should be fairly permissive when it comes to vocations and similar personal choices. (The world is generally improved by people pursuing their passions.) We should do things that are worthwhile, for sure, but "helping people" is not the only such option. There's also something to be said for the pursuit of knowledge, advancing human understanding, promoting a more rational society, becoming a better citizen, etc.

  13. As one of the philosophy bloggers who linked to the article, I can say that I noticed that statistic but considered that it responded adequately to the usual concern. That concern is not "If I major in philosophy will I be as employable as I would be if I majored in computer engineering?"

    It's pretty clear that philosophy does not come with a ready-made career track. That's why no philosophy department could claim, as my university's computer engineering program claims, that every graduate who wants a job in Silicon Valley gets a job in Silicon Valley.

    But what the statistic *does* indicate is that, counter to the concern that a philosophy degree gives you no marketable skills, philosophy graduates really aren't so bad off on the job market. (And then Charlie's points above are especially encouraging.)

    It does seem like philosophy graduates need extra initiative to find how to put their analytic, critical, and creative reasoning skills to use.

  14. "what the statistic *does* indicate is that... philosophy graduates really aren't so bad off"

    Yes, that's exactly what I said. But note that some other bloggers went further than this and misrepresented the findings, e.g., "According to a recent article in The Guardian studying Philosophy at University can improve your employment prospects."

  15. A few words from another employed philospher. Many years ago I left an academic career for a career in government (US). In making the transition, I did not market myself as a philosopher. However, I did try look for positions where the skills philosophers have -- the ability to think creatively about abstract issues and to speak and write about them clearly -- would be valued. I found a number of opportunities connected with government policy...and it really hasn't mattered much what the subject areas were. As I have become more senior I have often wished, fervently, that we could hire more people with the kinds of skills I brought with me when I 'crossed over'.


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