Friday, July 4, 2014

Philosophy: we're only in it for the money

The APA tries to correct the common misconception about philosophy majors and employment:

Dear Editor:

Clair Caine Miller’s recent article, "A College Major Matters Even More in a Recession" (June 20, 2014), on Altonji, Kahn, and Speer’s "Cashier or Consultant? Entry Labor Market Conditions, Field of Study and Career Success” reports that during a recession "those who major in subjects that lead to lower-paying jobs, like philosophy and music, are even more disadvantaged than in normal economic times.” This is quite misleading about philosophy majors’ earning prospects. According to a Wall Street Journal list, "Degrees that Pay You Back," philosophy majors have the highest increase in yearly earnings from starting median salary to mid-career salary at 103.5 percent while religion majors’ median salary increase is 52.5 percent, for a difference at midcareer of $81,200 versus $52,000. Philosophy is the top earning humanities major, ranking above chemistry, accounting, and business management for midcareer earning potential.
Part of the difficulty is that Altonji et al. treat philosophy and religious studies as a combined category. Perhaps they do so because part of their study relies on SAT scores by major, and the College Board itself fails to distinguish between the SAT scores of students intending to major and philosophy from those intending to major in religious studies. There is separate data available for philosophy majors’ GRE scores, which shows that they are doing exceptionally well. A summary from the American Physical Society of ETS results by intended graduate major on the 2013 GRE shows that philosophy students "dominate” on the verbal and analytical portions of the GRE and are equivalent to biological sciences students on the quantitative portion.

The temptation to combine data for philosophy and religious studies may be due to the fact that these disciplines were once often combined in single departments, and there are still institutions where those combined departments exist. In the very distant past, when religious studies meant theology, it made some sense of do so. Religious studies today is a highly interdisciplinary field, drawing on history, sociology, literary studies, anthropology, and philosophy. The content of that discipline bears little resemblance to philosophy, has a very different undergraduate curriculum and draws a different cohort of students.

The philosophy major trains students’ general cognitive skills, improving their ability to reason, to make principled decisions, to fairly represent competing points of view, to write clear and logically well-organized prose, and to isolate the main point or problem in complex texts. These sorts of analytic skills make philosophy majors highly flexible in the job market. 

Why does all this matter? US students entering college, unlike European students, have little idea what philosophy is, and bring to their selection of a major all sorts of misconceptions about philosophy, including that it is not practical because it will not lead to profitable employment. Many students who would enjoy and benefit from philosophical training do not, as a result, find their way into philosophy majors, and may also be discouraged from studying philosophy whatever their major. For many students these are important lost opportunities. And we need to ensure that our institutions of higher education make these important opportunities available.

Michael Bratman
Chair of the Board of Officers, American Philosophical Association (2011-2014)

Cheshire Calhoun
Chair of the Board of Officers, American Philosophical Association (2014-2017)

Amy E. Ferrer
Executive Director, American Philosophical Association

And the APA fails to correct the common misconception about philosophy majors and employment because the New York Times doesn't think it matters whether they get this right. Shame.