Department of Philosophy and Religion
Southeast Missouri State University
The Philosophy Major's Career Guide
Getting a Degree and Getting a Job
... it is not enough
to have a sound mind;
the main thing is
to apply it well.
Table of Contents
- The Relation Between Getting a Degree and Getting a Job
- Types of Postgraduate Career Paths Open to Philosophy Majors
- (a) Further Education
- (i) Graduate Education
- (ii) Law and Health Related Professions
- (iii) Other Professional Schools
- (b) Looking for a job
- Preparing Yourself for the Job Market
- (a) General Preparation
(b) Assessing Your Interests, Abilities, and Life Style Preferences
(c) Defining Your Goals
(d) Course Work Planning
(e) Work Experience
- When should I start planning?
- Should I be Anxious about Getting a Job?
1. Introduction [Top : Next]
Philosophy is the study of the most fundamental questions that arise in our reflection on ourselves and our place in the natural world. Most students who major in philosophy study it for its intrinsic interest. Nonetheless, relatively few people become professional or academic philosophers. For most of us, our professional lives are spent in other endeavors. The aim of this handbook is to help you think about the relation between your degree in philosophy and getting a job or planning a career (or life) after graduation, and to help you to prepare intelligently for it.
2. The Relation Between Getting a Degree and Getting a Job [Top : Prev : Next]
It is a mistake to think of an undergraduate degree in a college of liberal arts and sciences as a matter of being trained for a specific job or profession. This is just as much true of the sciences as it is of the liberal arts. The main aim of a degree in the liberal arts or in the basic sciences is the acquisition of a certain body of knowledge and the acquisition of the skills needed to extend your knowledge on your own. Many people are apt to think of going to college or the university as a matter of job preparation. In some sense it is. College graduates earn substantially more over their lifetimes than people who have completed only a high school degree. But this is not because going to college prepares you for some specific high paying job. If that were its purpose, it would be much less valuable than it is. The benefits to your earning power are really incidental to the main purpose of a degree, which is to provide you with a broad education in central disciplines of study in advanced learning (that's the general education part) and with a more specialized training in a particular area (that's the major part). The value of a university education lies in the prospect it opens up on the pleasures of the life of the mind, the breadth of vision it encourages, the knowledge it provides of the most important developments in our collective understanding of the world, and the sense of what is possible through sustained intellectual study of a particular subject. But it is not an accident, of course, that people with college degrees earn more over a lifetime than people without. The skills you learn in the serious study of any academic subject turn out to be quite generally applicable, and put you in a position to do things which someone who has not had that training is not in a position to do. These are primarily skills in identifying, analyzing and solving problems, skills in handling quantitative data, skills in written and verbal communication, and the ability to engage in the kind of disciplined and sustained intellectual application that is required of you for academic success. These skills turn out to be invaluable later on, and prepare one for a wide range of jobs and professions and careers.
So the while the main aim of a liberal arts degree is not to get you a job (it's more valuable than that), nonetheless, pursuing an academic degree seriously will give you a lot of skills which will make you a valuable employee, and moreover give you the skills that will be valuable not just in one or another specific job or enterprise, but for an almost open-ended number of careers.
It is also important to keep in mind that while your degree will give you important general intellectual skills, it will certainly not give you all the skills you need for any specific job you undertake. In any job, entrepreneurial undertaking, or profession, you will have to undertake some further training and learn additional skills. This usually takes place on the job. This turns out to be true even for those majors in colleges which think of themselves as primarily professional, such as the Business college and the Engineering college. If you think about it, this is what you would expect. Unless you are entering a craft profession (and even then to some extent), you will find that in any challenging job you will have to be constantly learning new things and acquiring new skills as the kinds of tasks you have to complete and the challenges you face change. One reason why the skills you acquire now turn out to be so valuable is that they prepare you for what you will find is the almost constant need to learn more and to acquire new skills, or to apply old skills to novel problems and tasks.
To put it most generally, then, an undergraduate degree provides you with quite generally applicable intellectual skills, and provides you with the ability to learn the particular skills you will need to know for your first job, and for whatever subsequent jobs or careers you may pursue.
3. Types of Postgraduate Career Paths Open to Philosophy Majors [Top : Prev : Next]
After receiving your degree, you can either pursue further formal education, or look for work immediately. Using this choice as the first branching of a decision tree, we can represent the possible options in the following table.
Postgraduation Choices Further Education Employment Graduate Professional Public Private
Of course, the table is necessarily incomplete at the bottom, since there are going to be many more branches at each of the four main sub-branches, and more for each of the branches of these. But this gives you a map of the basic options to be thinking about.
(a) Further Education
If your aim is to pursue further education after getting your undergraduate degree, you should take care to provide yourself with whatever course work may be required by the particular graduate program or professional school you are interested in.
(i) Graduate Education
An undergraduate degree in philosophy can also provide a background for graduate study in a related field (e.g., religion, education, literature, rhetoric, history), but generally students will be expected to have some significant background in the field in which they intend to do graduate work.
(ii) Law and Health Related Professions
No special course work is required for law school, but philosophy is a good major for preparation for the study of law. Many of the skills you need in law school, such as the ability to read difficult and closely argued written material quickly and to extract the main line of argument, and to analyze and to give arguments, are skills which are very important in the study of philosophy as well. Even though no specific course work is required in preparation for laws school, it is still a good idea to consult both the undergraduate advisor in philosophy and the college's Prelaw advisor for advice on preparing and on the application process. For students considering law school, the Prelaw Advisor serves as a central resource for information on all matters relating to preparation for law school. Students interested in attending law school should make an appointment with the Prelaw advisor so that they may receive assistance concerning the Law School Admissions Test, school selection and the application process. The American Bar Association is an excellent source of useful information.
Courses required for medical colleges or other health related professional colleges can be taken in conjunction with any major. Useful information can be obtained from the Association of American Medical Colleges
(iii) Other Professional Schools
For other professional schools, such as Business, or Journalism, students should consult advisors at the appropriate college at Southeast for more information on typical applicant profiles. A philosophy major should provide a good background for most non-technical professional schools, though it will also pay to obtain more specific course work relating to the area you are interested.
(b) Looking for a job
Your philosophy degree will prepare you generally for any career or position which does not presuppose a fairly high degree of technical training, of the sort which would be required to get a degree in mathematics or one of the sciences. Of course, your academic work outside of philosophy may include enough training in technical subjects to open up for you careers in technical areas. If you are interested in pursuing an career in such an area but still want to major in philosophy, you should plan your other course work carefully, and if you can it might be a good idea to pursue a double major. While pursuing a double major requires careful planning, many students complete double majors in philosophy and another subject.
4. Preparing Yourself for the Job Market [Top : Previous : Next]
(a) General Preparation
Relax! There hundreds of occupations you can pursue as a liberal arts graduate. While liberal arts majors generally have to do more thinking about how to prepare themselves for the job market and to present themselves to employers than majors whose training prepares them for a more narrowly defined are of employment (engineering, or accounting, e.g.), once employed, liberal arts graduates tend to be more employable over their working lives than graduates of any other discipline. This is because your education provides you with a broad base of general skills that makes you more adaptable and marketable in the long run.
Several years ago, the University of Illinois Career Development and Placement Office surveyed 52,000 alumni over a ten-year period. While fewer liberal arts graduates had jobs prior to graduation (roughly 30 percent) than graduates in technically-oriented fields, there was no significant difference between the rate of employment for liberal arts and technically-oriented students four months following graduation (over 90 percent had full-time employment). By starting early, planning intelligently, and making good use of your broad-based skills, especially those related to research, analysis, and communication, you will be very able to respond to and meet the challenges of choosing a career field and embarking successfully on the job search process.
Enter this process with enthusiasm and a positive outlook! Keep in mind that most of the qualities employers are looking for in a successful job candidate are integral components of a liberal education. In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers ranked oral communication, interpersonal savvy, and teamwork skills as the top three skills desired in a job candidate. Analytical and problem-solving ability, written communication, leadership ability, adaptability, computer skills, and proficiency in one's field of study were also cited as important criteria used to evaluate job applicants. The ideal candidate offers a combination of these skills, none of which are specific to any one academic major, but most of which are strengths of a liberal education!
The key to success in getting the job you want is to convince employers that you have developed the attributes and skills they desire. Interviewers will look for evidence of this in your accomplishments and experience. Part of this will come from your academic accomplishments as represented by your course work and your degree. But employers will also look favorably on any leadership positions in student or community organizations you may have held. They will look for classes you have taken which are related to the field in which you wish to work, and at any experience you have through internships, co-ops, or volunteer work. While your degree is your main credential, employers will look for additional evidence that you have what it takes to be successful in their company or organization. If you want to enhance your opportunities, it is therefore important that you take an active role in identifying career goals and acquiring experiences which will complement your academic program.
(b) Assessing Your Interests, Abilities, and Life Style Preferences
The most crucial element of planning a career is also the most often ignored - assessing your interests, skills, values and life style preferences. What types of activities do you like and dislike? What do you do well? Where do you want to live? What types of people do you enjoy interacting with?
Maybe you already have a clear idea about what you want to do. But if you do not, many of these questions can be addressed through self-directed activities or by working with a career counselor. The Career Resource Center (CRC) has a number of career planning books containing activities to help you identify what you want out of a career. You may also meet with a counselor to learn about other options for self-assessment, such as interest inventories and personality assessments. These paper and pencil "tests" can help you identify and clarify your interests, skills, and personal qualities and indicate how these qualities relate to various career paths. Computer-assisted career guidance programs are also useful tools for identifying what you want out of a career and linking those criteria to specific opportunities.
(c) Defining Your Goals
Because you do have so many options available to you as a liberal arts student, assessing yourself and researching career options are essential to narrowing down and deciding upon an initial career path. Once you have researched yourself and your options, setting goals for future accomplishments becomes easier. Be SMART when setting goals, whether career-related or not. Make sure that your goals are:
Specific - concrete rather than very broad or undefined;
Measurable - so that you can tell when they have been achieved;
Attainable - something realistic and achievable;
Relevant - something that relates to your interests, values, and desires;
Time-bound - something that can be accomplishable within a specific period of time.
When setting academic and career goals, evaluate them using these criteria. While saying, "I want to pick a career that will make me happy", sounds good, it satisfies none of the above criteria. You need to decide what would constitute for you a happy or a good life. So say instead, "I am going to take an interest inventory next week to evaluate my interests and to provide me with initial information about how my interests relate to various careers." This satisfies all of our criteria.
The key to success is to break down large goals into smaller goals. If your goal is to seek full-time employment after graduation, set yourself a series of sub-goals, such as researching career opportunities, researching companies offering such opportunities, writing a resume, seeking an internship, and so on. Each sub-goal is easier to attain and work toward than your larger goals. After accomplishing certain sub-goals, you might even change your plans and formulate new goals based on what you have learned about yourself. Consult with an academic advisor or career counselor if you encounter difficulty formulating goals for yourself.
(d) Course Work Planning
After you have defined your goals, you need to think about whether the university offers you resources in the form of course work to acquire specific skills which would help you to achieve your goals. It may be that you have not identified a specific enough goal for it to make sense for you to identify specific courses that would aid you in reaching it. Or it may be that although you have a specific goal, the university doesn't really offer any courses that would be helpful to you in pursuing it. On the other hand, chances are that if you have a specific goal, you will be able to identify courses at the university that it would be useful for you to take. For example, if you are interested in public relations or marketing, then the university offers many courses that may be helpful to you. Or, if you think having the skills necessary to create interactive web pages, e.g., would be of use to you in what you plan to do, taking some computer programming courses in relevant languages would be a good thing to do. If your goal is to go on to medical school, you should consult with a premed advisor and complete all appropriate biology, chemistry, and physics courses. Or if your desire is to become a journalist, you might consider a minor in journalism or at least specific course work from the college to build up your skills. But the main thing is to think through what you want to do and to find out whether specific course work you can do will provide you with some important skills to help you achieve your goals.
Consult with advisors in the CLAS Academic Advising Center and in the departments in which you wish to complete course work to be clear about what the university offers and to be certain you will indeed be able to enroll in that program. Also, always have contingency plans, rather than only one specific goal, in case you cannot take the specific course work you hoped to. Generally, the earlier you begin planning, the less likely you are to encounter major problems or surprises with your academic planning.
(e) Work Experience
Though it is by no means a necessary condition on success, work experience can be a big help in looking for your first job. Employers often look for job candidates to have some form of experience in non-academic settings. Employers participating in the NACE Job Outlook survey in 1996 said that more than half (58.6 percent) of their entry-level college hires had co-op or internship experience. If you have work experience, a potential employer will know that you have already acquired some of the know-how which would be required in your new job. Most generally, this is just the knowledge of what it is like to work with other people in a business or office environment. It really does take a bit of orientation, and so if you already have work experience, your transition will be a bit easier, and employers know that. In addition, it gives you a track record, and shows that you are serious about working, and can handle the responsibility. If you have in addition work experience in the area for which you are applying for work, that will be an added attraction, since it means, again, that you already have some of the know-how required, and that you will make the transition with less difficulty. Finally, work experience may sometimes lead in a more direct way to a job, if you have, e.g., work experience in the form of an internship with a company, which likes you well enough to want to hire you after graduation. Work experience can also be valuable in giving you a better idea of what kinds of jobs or careers you might find satisfying.
It is also valuable to get involved in campus organizations, extracurricular activities, volunteer and community service. You can do more than just attend meetings: take a leadership roles, chair a committee, organize a special event. Leadership, communication and interpersonal skills, problem solving and analytical ability, persistence, enthusiasm, and interest - if you have all of these, you will likely achieve career success. All of these qualities are acquired through experience, and experience takes time to acquire; steps you take now will help to ensure that you enter the job market with every advantage.
5. When should I start planning? [Top : Previous : Next]
Now! The bottom line is that it is never too early (or too late) to do something about planning your career. Realistically, you want to formulate plans and give yourself enough time to carry them out. The first two years of college can be focused on experimenting with various classes and exploring majors, as well as their relationship to preparation for various career fields. As a sophomore and junior, begin to get more involved in student organizations, volunteer and community service, research with faculty, and internships. During this time, you should also begin focusing on the career fields that meet your goals and capture your interests. As a senior, give yourself at least 3 to 6 months to conduct a thorough job search. Come to the Career Resource Center at any point in this process for assistance!
6. Should I be Anxious about Getting a Job? [Top : Previous]
The short answer is 'no'. The long answer is that, while you shouldn't be complacent about it, you should expect to be successful if you approach your job search intelligently and put some work into it. Job availability any given year depends on factors that are largely out of your control. Sometimes graduates can experience some difficulty in finding a first job to their liking. At other times, a job you really like may come your way without too much trouble. The important thing to keep in mind is that persistence pays off. You will get a job, and as you gain experience and explore your opportunities, you will be able to find a job which is to your liking. Approach your search with optimism, and confidence in your abilities: think of (and present) yourself as someone who is an achiever. Work hard, use your head. You will find opportunities in unexpected places sometimes. Don't be rash: but have the courage to pursue what you are interested in doing. Expect to have to be flexible along the way, but remember Spinoza's dictum to view things sub specie eternitatis (under a certain species of eternity).