What Can You Do With a Philosophy Degree?

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by Caio Santos Rodrigues ’16

Although the value of a philosophy major is clear for those who study the discipline, for many others it seems puzzling. And the single question I have been asked most often since my sophomore year is, “What are you going to do with a philosophy degree?” Before I declared the major, I wasn’t sure how to answer that question either.

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Caroline Stephenson ’13 thought she would be a bioethical advisor to the U.S. president. “I had big dreams of helping the leader of our country work through his or her ethical quandaries on human health and health care systems,” she recalls. Stephenson is operations manager at National Geographic Learning: Her team oversees strategy, administration and operations for customized educational materials such as language translations, and she recognized early on in her Dickinson career the broad application of philosophy as well as art & art history, she says.

For Artrese Morrison ’92, a nonprofit consultant, philosophy was the perfect match for her personality and interests. She recalls her advisor, Professor of Philosophy Cyril Dwiggins, telling her, “Artrese, philosophy doesn’t teach you what to think; it teaches you how to think.”

“I was always curious about ideas and information, and philosophy helped satisfy that curiosity,” she says. “I knew after a couple of classes it was what I wanted to study.” She declared her major during her first year. “I’ve truly, truly experienced that idea of having been taught how to think, not what to think.”

Ron Reisman ’76 was considering a law career when he arrived at Dickinson. That goal was influenced by his mother, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the United States. “That was what drove me along,” he recalls. “That drove me to law and to philosophy. Philosophy was seen as a place to develop arguments for law.” While at Dickinson, he changed his mind, however, and double majored in philosophy and Greek. For the past 30 years, he’s been a computer engineer at NASA.

Reisman says that when it comes to complex issues, the abstract and systematic thinking he developed in his philosophy courses helped him make important decisions. “A lot of what we do here at NASA is deciding which new ideas should be [carried forward],” he explains, “and there are all kinds of questions we have to consider. If you choose the wrong thing, the government loses tens of billions of dollars in investment. All that philosophy stuff that we learned at Dickinson comes up all the time in practical issues.”

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Some philosophy majors never leave the discipline. Alison Bailey ’83 is a professor of philosophy at Illinois State University. Her scholarship engages broadly with questions in feminist theory, with a focus on applied ethics. She is particularly interested in epistemology and questions of social justice related to the intersections of gender and race, and has directed the women’s and gender studies program for the past 10 years.

Lawrence Shapiro ’84 is also a philosophy professor, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his research focus is in philosophy of mind and of cognitive science. “We all go to college knowing something about math, history, English, etc.,” Shapiro says. “But few of us are exposed to philosophy as high school students.” “Philosophy courses were the first courses that I really enjoyed and did well in,” Bailey adds. “The tools philosophy gave me provided a clarity that I found helpful during frightening political times.”

Neither had philosophy as their career goal, however. Shapiro recalls how, like many college seniors, he was unsure of what he wanted to do after graduation. He applied to different graduate school programs and decided that if he got accepted into a top program, he would continue doing philosophy for as long as it was possible. He was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his master’s in 1988 and his doctorate in 1992, and has been at Wisconsin since 1993.

“The career is everything I hoped it would be,” Shapiro says. “I have a lot of time to write articles and books on the subjects of most interest to me. Basically, I’m being paid to teach stuff I like to teach and learn stuff that I want to learn. It’s hard to imagine a better profession.”

Bailey applied to graduate school because of her growing activism in women’s issues, in nuclear nonproliferation and in social justice in Central America. She was convinced that philosophy could help her understand these issues more clearly and deeply, and that there was a strong gendered component to these issues that needed to be addressed.  Her interest in feminist philosophy began with Professor of Philosophy Susan Feldman’s Women and Philosophy class.

“It was the only class of its kind,” she recalls. After graduation, Bailey moved to Colorado to pursue her master’s in applied ethics at Colorado State University. There she worked with a local Central American solidarity group and wrote a book on the moral dimensions of the Reagan administration’s nuclear policy. Bailey met well-known feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar, who invited her to continue her studies at the University of Cincinnati the following year. Bailey defended her dissertation on feminist peace politics and earned her Ph.D. from Cincinnati in 1993.

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When reflecting on her time at Dickinson, Bailey remembers how much she loved being a philosophy student. “The department was small, friendly and really engaging,” she says. “It was quite a supportive intellectual community. The faculty were first rate, and I especially loved the upper-level seminars.”

Shapiro also had many memorable moments as a philosophy student, but probably the most mem-orable one was when he met Athena Skaleris ’84, whom he would eventually marry, in his Introduction to Philosophy class. “I guess philosophy wasn’t the only thing on my mind,” he says.

The job market in academia is competitive. This is particularly true of the humanities, and even more so of philosophy positions. Yet that has not stopped Chaney Burlin ’13 or Alison Springle ’11 from pursuing graduate degrees in philosophy. In fact, both knew they wanted to study philosophy even before college.

“I like trying to answer deep questions—about what we can know, what we ought to do, whether we have free will, how society ought to be organized and so on—and philosophy can enable one to do that,” says Burlin.

“[Deciding to study philosophy] was how I found my purpose and in truth turned my life around,” Springle adds. “I get to think about questions concerning the nature of meaning, consciousness, various mental states, the relationship between the mind and the body and other questions I find riveting. I get to read what really smart people who have thought about these questions have to say about them, and then I get to try to make my own contribution to the debate. My favorite thing about philosophy remains the thing that first got me hooked: good philosophical conversation—to be engaged in a dialectic.”

Burlin is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, where he focuses on the history of early modern philosophy, philosophy of perception, mind and epistemology. Springle is in her third year at the University of Pittsburgh, where she focuses on philosophy of mind, including philosophy of psychology, cognitive neuroscience and perception. She is also completing a graduate certificate at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition.

Both Burlin and Springle have their sights set on tenure-track careers. Springle has stated an especially urgent reason to seek a position in academia: making philosophy departments more diverse and inclusive. “One of the things that motivates me is the fact that women—and minorities—are underrepresented in philosophy,” she says. “Change is happening, slowly but actively, and I am excited to be a part of that change.”

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So, what am I going to do with my philosophy degree? This July, I joined the Nielsen Company as part of its Watch Emerging Leaders Program, a two-year rotational program where I will work on projects with different teams, develop my professional skills and network across departments. Once my rotation is over, I will choose an area of the business to focus on.

I also will continue reading philosophy, both mainstream articles, such as those in “The Stone” section of The New York Times, and more scholarly ones. When I studied abroad in Copenhagen, I received a scholarship that allowed me to focus on my studies without having to take on a job. As a result, I had a lot of free time. I took advantage of that and took my time reading my assignments, sometimes even twice before the next class session. It was one of my favorite memories of being abroad.

Ultimately, prospective philosophy majors should consider Reisman’s advice. He understands the challenges every college graduate faces when navigating the job market, and that things have changed since he graduated in the 1980s. Nevertheless, he still thinks studying philosophy helps students with issues beyond getting a job.

“A philosophy major will prepare you for so many aspects of life, not just work, but issues of life and death—if you do it right,” he says. “What I would say is get the philosophy degree for your life.”

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Published July 12, 2016