Job Prospects for Philosophy Majors: Perception and Reality

The number of philosophy majors in the U.S. is down 35% since its recent peak in 2007, and today, philosophy majors make up only around 0.137% of the student population.

These figures, based on data from Humanities Indicators, are among those discussed in a recent article in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University.

Over the past decade there has been a significant decline in the numbers of all humanities majors, as the following graph depicts.

Graph from The Atlantic, based on data from Humanities Indicators

And while the longer view (in the graph below) shows that the numbers in philosophy are less volatile than in some of the other humanities disciplines, there is the possibility that the recent steeper decline can be informative for those interested in the long term prospects of philosophy offerings in U.S. colleges and universities.

Graph from The Atlantic, based on data from Humanities Indicators

Professor Schmidt thinks that the culprit is not a general sudden decline in people being interested in the humanities, nor is it politics (“Do you think students are put off by liberal pieties in the classroom? It’s difficult to square that argument with the two decades of stability that followed the beginning of the culture wars in the late 1980s”).

Rather, he says: “In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, students seem to have shifted their view of what they should be studying—in a largely misguided effort to enhance their chances on the job market… Students fled the humanities after the financial crisis because they became more fearful of the job market.”

The students are misinformed, he argues. The “actual career prospects of humanities majors” don’t do the explanatory work:

Evidence does indicate that humanities majors are probably slightly worse off than average—maybe as much as one more point of unemployment and $5,000 to $10,000 a year in income. Finance and computer-science majors make more; biology and business majors make about the same. But most of the differences are slight—well within the margins of error of the surveys. One analysis actually found that humanities majors under the age of 35 are actually less likely to be unemployed than life-science or social-science majors. Other factors, like gender, matter more: Men with terminal humanities B.A.’s make more money than women in any field but engineering. Being the type of person inclined to view a college major in terms of return on investment will probably make a much bigger difference in your earnings than the actual major does.

In other areas of the economy, we view these kinds of differences with equanimity. The difference between humanities majors and science majors, in median income and unemployment, seems to be no more than the difference between residents of Virginia and North Carolina. If someone told to me not to move to Charlotte because no one there can make a living, I would never take them seriously. But worried relatives express the same concerns about classics majors every day, with no sounder evidence.

This suggests that efforts by philosophers, philosophy departments, and organizations such as the American Philosophical Association to provide more information about the employment prospects of philosophy majors could be an effective part of a strategy for increasing the number of students studying philosophy—especially since philosophy majors seem to do pretty well compared to other humanities majors.

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