Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"What are you going to do with a philosophy degree?"

It's a question I get asked when I report my degree, and frequently. Sometimes it is asked out of curiosity or interest. They have not heard of philosophy before. They have studied some and enjoyed it. Sometimes it is asked because this is small talk and that is what you ask. Sometimes it is asked because the person thinks a philosophy degree is a fluff degree, that cannot lead to 'success' in the world. Success in their sense is having a job that allows you to purchase a house and a car. For me success could also be the ability to attract someone with a house and a car. My part in the success can be raising a good, sturdy family. These people look down on philosophy, as some snobby academic discipline that can never allow you to 'succeed in the real world.'

I think that these people are less common, but I think there is a touch of it in the question each time it is asked. Even if they do not know why they are asking it, there is a general impression from society that a philosophy degree will get you nowhere.

I used to tell people that I would be in debt and live in a cardboard box because I did something I love. One day a man asked me, 'do you really believe that?' No. I didn't believe it. I just come up with something to tell people when they ask 'what do you plan to do with your life?' and I tell the same story to everyone. I told them about how I would be a biologist. I told them about how I would work as a translator. I'm not certain where my future will lead. Many people interpret this uncertainty as a weakness. It is not. I keep changing my path but that does not mean I am flaky or indecisive. I love a great many things. There are many things I could be passionate about. I select based on talent, opportunity, and lack. It doesn't mean I am flaky. It doesn't even mean I'm keeping my options open. I'm not keeping them open, I'm just making changes in the places that have not closed off yet. At the moment some doors are mostly closed. More changes will be made before the currently open options have disappeared. That is how I create my life.

Now when asked I tell people that I want to be a professor. I tell them that I am going for grad school but might not get in. I don't like doing this because it makes it appear as if philosophy really is a limited discipline, a snobby academic thing.

Sometimes I list the jobs you can do with a philosophy degree: Office work, writing, editing, civil service, military. None of these jobs clearly link to a philosophy degree.

Part of it is that the job market has changed. They might have got a job because they finished high school which I will be lucky to get now with my fancy degree and all. Yes, you used to be able to walk into an office and get a job. Now there is so much competition that you most often need a bunch of school or a bunch of experience in order to get that job.

But what does philosophy really give me in the end? The opportunity to read good books, explore interesting arguments, and learn about the world. The opportunity to have classes with talented scholars who are making contributions to the academic world. The ability to speak my mind clearly, present arguments, to hold to convictions. Other disciplines do this too, but one thing you can certainly say about philosophy is that it makes good citizens.


Paul Carroll said...

Philosophy degrees are always looked down on so unjustly! When my friends and I would tell our teachers what we were going to be studying in college, the scenario usually played like this:

Him: Psychology...
Teacher: Oh, that's good.
Him: And Philosophy.
Teacher: Oh...

I think he uses the same live-in-a-box story, too. We sometimes make slight jokes over it. Of course, Philosophy is part of my course (a very, very small part, unfortunately). Over the past year we had two modules with two lectures. And you know what? They were both brilliant lecturers! That's something that can't be said for every member of staff in other departments. They were great academics, very friendly and their arguments and discussions well taught out. Both are also widely published in the field, and that's something you could do, too. It's quite clear you're a smart girl (who picks up on the silly little mistakes *certain* bloggers might make...) and I know if you really wanted you could do just as good a job as either of those lecturers. (I really hope you prove me right, now!!)

jesse said...

Wow, I think you just made my day. Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.