How can I tell my parents I want to be a philosophy major?

The first thing to notice is that it is only your socialization that leads you to think that majoring in philosophy needs any more justification than choosing a major in history, English, sociology, political science, etc, etc. If, for whatever reason, you are not drawn to a narrowly focused career-oriented major, then philosophy can provide you with a first rate liberal arts education as well as—if not better than—any major on campus. Training in philosophy provides you with:

  • advanced critical thinking skills,
  • keen creative and constructive problem solving skills,
  • moral training that will enable you to seek collaborative win-win solutions to human problems,
  • sensitivity to global and environmental issues,
  • the ability to think clearly about social institutions and how they operate,
  • the ability to vividly occupy the perspective of people from other cultures, perspectives, or times, and
  • the ability to clearly and accurately articulate your views and the views of others both verbally and in writing.

These are incredibly valuable skills. They are valuable not only to you personally; they are valuable to others too! This leads to the next question:

“OK, I will gain a lot by being a philosophy major, but CAN I GET A JOB?”

To begin with you need to realize that there are two main tracks for any college student, no matter what their major. Once you graduate you can:

1. Go on the job market or
2. Go to graduate school.

As a practitioner of logic, I should take a moment to point out that—strictly speaking—these choices are not exhaustive. For example, you could join the military or the Peace Corps. You could help your family, travel, or run off and become a hermit. But for now, let’s consider the two main options in order.

If you decide to enter the job market, you can approach this in basically two ways. On the one hand, you can be apologetic about being a philosophy major. For example, you can go into your job interview and say something like:

I suppose that you are wondering why I chose to be a philosophy major. Well, I’m sorry about that. I know that I should have done something more practical. Everyone told me that I’d regret it. But if you’d only give me a chance, I’m sure you will soon see that I don’t always make impractical self-indulgent decisions.

On the other hand, you could be proud, concise, factual, and persuasive by saying something like:

You want to know why I majored in philosophy. Well, I thought about it like this. I knew that someday I’d be competing for a job with a lot of other kids my age, and–to be blunt about it–I wanted to give myself a competitive advantage. Philosophy majors are special people. By majoring in philosophy, I have acquired precisely the skills that you want most in an employee. I have excellent critical thinking skills. I have learned how to think about problems from a wide variety of perspectives. I can grasp and work creatively with many divergent points of view. I can construct new and innovative solutions to problems. I have also acquired a rich ethical perspective that is grounded in caring about individual people and honoring basic principles. I have learned how to collaborate with others and to seek win-win solutions. I can clearly articulate my thoughts both verbally and in writing. I have all the skills that you could want in an employee. Philosophy is a demanding major and my performance shows that I can master difficult material. I believe that I have the skills that will allow me to go through your training program and emerge as one of your best employees. I have this confidence because I know that majoring in philosophy has given me a competitive advantage over most of my classmates.

If you put yourself into their shoes and think about what most employers are looking for, I’m sure you will agree that the student who gives an interview something like the one directly above, will not suffer relative to his or her classmates from having chosen to major in philosophy.

So what about the other option—graduate school? The first thing to realize here is that philosophy is an ideal undergraduate major for those who what to go either to law school or to divinity school. Furthermore, many other fields and programs are happy to accept philosophy majors. Finally, going to graduate school to study philosophy is also an exciting option. There are many excellent career options available to students who have advanced degrees in philosophy.

It is always difficult to strike out in an unfamiliar direction. But the intrinsic and practical appeal of philosophy is worth your courage. Your parents and others no doubt have your best interests at heart. But ultimately, you are the one who must live your life. If you are deeply interested in studying philosophy, then you should listen to yourself and go for it.

By Dr. Nim Batchelor