Advice for Philosophy Graduates

Alexander the Great: Philosophy Student

Recent UK graduates will no doubt have been disheartened to read that there are currently 70 graduates to every job that’s out there.

Anna Miller recently wrote on these pages about the challenges facing philosophy graduates and suggested a number of ways in which they might ‘de-stress’.

As a philosophy graduate, I think Anna is guilty of perpetuating a number of pernicious stereotypes about philosophy students in her article, and I mean to set the record straight.

These comments will make more sense if you follow the original article at the same time…

Starting with the first paragraph:

  1. Who doesn’t know what it is like to be on the end of pitying or scornful looks? The insinuation that you’d be receiving them because you’re a philosophy student is pretty close to the insinuation that you *should* be be receiving them because you’re a philosophy student.
  2. You may not have had a choice to study philosophy? Since when did anyone get forced to study philosophy?! It’s quite the reverse: it demands a considerable amount of time, effort and debt.
  3. Philosophy graduates are enjoying their moment in the sun? Really? And why would it be just a ‘moment’?
  4. Apparently the best fields to work in if you are a philosophy graduate are… all of them (or none of them).  Miller declines to provide her sources.  My advice: concentrate on jobs in policy, research, journalism, education and government if you want to use your philosophical skills to earn money.
  5. Why think that because someone is interested in logic, systematic thinking, intellectual rigour and the history of ideas that they aren’t interested in having a successful career? Another lazy stereotype… here’s the success stories page from the British Philosophical Association.
  6. ”There’s nothing like academia to neutralize the stress associated with entering the world of employment.” In my experience employment is a lot less stressful than studying. You don’t have to worry about it when you’re not at work, you typically have more training and support available, and… they pay you instead of it costing an arm and a leg! Again, the lazy stereotype of the philosophy student who slouches around the pub contemplating their navel is just under the surface of Miller’s writing… When the most stressful thing about most jobs is getting them in the first place.
  7. Taking on postgrad will improve your employment prospects – but it depends what the subject is. Postgrad is ten times as demanding as undergrad study and not the route to take if you’re trying to avoid stress (especially at PhD level).

It’s pretty evident to me that the author has little or no experience of philosophy, though I am happy to be corrected.

In my experience, philosophy graduates are typically stressed because of two main factors.

Firstly, like most graduates, they are poor and find it hard to get a job that reflects their education and skills (often because employers are largely ignorant of the subject and what it demands).  This is a more general problem for graduates which is exacerbated by the perception of philosophy as indulgent and irrelevant.

Secondly, they often move from an environment which prizes critical and original thinking, ethical integrity and rationality to environments in which these are often considered problems. The culture of compliance that is so prevalent in the modern workplace can be a shock to the philosophy graduate who has been developing their independent thought.

Like most students, the best thing a philosophy student can do is try to get work experience in an area where they would like to work while they are doing their degree. This has the advantage of undermining the stereotypical view of philosophy students and helping to build a more realistic impression of the workplace.

It’s important to think about how you can sell your degree to employers in ways that will make sense to them.  This is partly about the clichéd ‘transferable skills‘ of philosophy, but it’s also about creating a sense of narrative about who you are and why you chose to study the subject in the first place, what you got out of it and why it makes you a distinctive candidate for a particular role.  Most university websites have some advice on this:  see the LSE, Birmingham and Essex pages for examples.

There is some criticism to be made of the philosophical community in respect of the general perception of philosophy. Academics and university managers need to do more to promote the subject among employers, explain why the stereotypes are not true, and encourage them to give philosophy students a chance.

2 thoughts on “Advice for Philosophy Graduates”

  1. Wise words! I’ve just completed a part-time U of London degree, alongside my career in publishing. Many colleagues struggle to see the connection between my studies and my ‘day job’, but I think it is definitely there. One thing they do appreciate is an ability to cut through the fluff and convey the key principles behind complex issues. I definitely feel I have improved these skills as a result of my studies.

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