Philosophy Majors Make More Money Than Majors in any other Humanities Field


Among those with bachelors degrees, the median earnings of those who majored in philosophy exceed those of majors in any other humanities field, and are the 16th highest in a study comparing salaries across 50 majors in the United States.

These conclusions are based on data collected by PayScale and originally presented by The Wall Street Journal two years ago. The data were organized into the following useful chart* by Reddit user SportsAnalyticsGuy (which had been reposted at the World Economic Forum):

The chart represents both starting median salary and mid-career percentiles (salary data from 10 years after graduation, sorted by percentile, representing the range from lower earners at the 10th percentile up through higher earners at the 90th percentile).**

(via Samantha Brennan)

* I altered the chart to make the philosophy data easier to spot.
** The usual correlation-is-not-causation disclaimers apply.


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D1
D1
2 years ago

I’d like to see the data on terminal undergraduates only. How do people who did a bachelor’s degree in philosophy (but no grad school, law school, trade school, or any other formal education) fare against people who only have a bachelor’s degree but with a different major?Report

D1
D1
Reply to  D1
2 years ago

Whoops, looking at the original article, it turns out that is what this data is of. I just learned a valuable lesson about reading before I comment.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

I did a cursory look through the payscale website to try and find more information about the dataset itself but couldn’t come up with any more than constant marketing slogans. Is there any information about this dataset? Why should I have any confidence that it accurately represents what they say it represents? How was the data collected? How large and geographically diverse is the dataset? The best I can find is from the WSJ article but they only go so far as to say: ” But a year-long survey of 1.2 million people with only a bachelor’s degree by PayScale Inc…” Why should I trust PayScale?

A second concern here is that I find the “Bachelor’s degree” criterion to be quite odd. Since most of the disciplines on the chart are disciplines where a BA is neither necessary nor sufficient for employment in the discipline or field itself, it’s weird to me to see this chart being used as a selling point for philosophy BAs itself.

One, potentially better, source of data on this stuff (though not for BAs) would come from states that publish public employee salary data. For example, California (https://transparentcalifornia.com/), Oregon (https://gov.oregonlive.com/salaries), and Washington (http://fiscal.wa.gov/salaries) make this info pretty easy to find. In lieu of some justification (other than the self-serving ‘it makes Philosophy look good’) for trusting PayScale…I’d have a lot more faith in a statistical analysis of these sorts of publicly available source. They’re not only more likely to be accurate (about public employee salaries anyway), they would provide a more honest picture of what philosophy pays – for those who are paid to do philosophy.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 years ago

Hi Justin,

I agree with you that the data sets I’m suggesting are different from the one being proposed here. However, in the absence of good reason to trust this dataset (at the moment I don’t have any reason to think that a private, for-profit, company accountable only to itself will analyze data in a way that would be up to snuff for most of us), I don’t see much value in posting this data or using it for promotional purposes. So many possible confounds exist here that it’s impossible to rule a garbage-in garbage-out problem. In contexts like these, it’s better to have no data than bad data.

Regarding the other datasets I posted (about working academics), I think it’s actually really helpful for students interested in philosophy to see what philosophy pays (i.e., what doing philosophy pays professionally).Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

PayScale’s business model is providing various analyses of salaries to companies. They have a fairly strong commercial incentive to be, and to be seen to be, dealing honestly and competently with their data.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

My issue here isn’t necessarily that they do shoddy work (though I can’t rule that out either – there’s no reason to think that companies would care too much about the sorts of double-blind review of methods characteristic of academic research when it comes to analytics about internal salary).

My concern, opaque methodology and analysis aside, is that PayScale isn’t interested in the same sorts of questions that we are. It’s not clear, for example, that they are interested in the sort sorts of questions that several of us have brought up in this thread about the relevant variables that best explain their (opaquely collected and analyzed) data.

What I wish we were doing here is to imagine that PayScale’s data had shown that Philosophy was one of the worst majors in terms of salary. What sorts of questions would we ask in the light of such a finding? What would we want out of that dataset in order for us to believe it? Right now I feel like we have some fairly big belief bias effects leading us to think that the data are good only because they make us feel good. I’m resisting that given the data and where it’s coming from.Report

D.C.
D.C.
2 years ago

Is it possible that philosophy majors skew towards white, male, and from higher-income families?Report

poor philosophy graduate
poor philosophy graduate
Reply to  D.C.
2 years ago

More than possible, I think this is obviously plausible if not likely the case.Report

Emily
Emily
Reply to  D.C.
2 years ago

Could that not also be the case for the other majors as well?
I do not mean to excuse the issue, rather, if other majors also proceed from the same benefits, then the comparisons might not be that skewed. It seems like most of us desire more data than what was given.Report

A.
A.
2 years ago

D. C. – its more than possible.Report

Tomi
Tomi
2 years ago

My immediate, unreflective thought is that this could very well have more to do with the gender pay gap than philosophy being a better preparation for work than other humanities subjects. Insofar as that might be true, it wouldn’t really be anything to celebrate.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Tomi
2 years ago

This is significant, but not the whole story: at a rough estimate, it explains about half of the pay difference. Here’s a quick analysis: sources, unless I say otherwise, are from https://www.humanitiesindicators.org .

The median mid-career salary in philosophy is 81K (from the WSJ link above), and philosophy is about 30% female. Humanitiesindicators gives a mid-career salary median across the humanities of 64K (which matches the super-crude result I got from the WSJ data by averaging all the humanities numbers, FWIW). So philosophy students, on average, earn 23% more than the humanities average.

Humanities on average are about 60% female. And of Humanities students with terminal bachelors’ degrees at the mid-career stage, women earn about 2/3 what men do, translating to mid-career median earnings of 80K for men, 53K for women. (I’m shamelessly conflating mean and median here; I don’t think it makes a qualitative difference but I’m open to correction if anyone actually tries a model).

So: if philosophy matched the humanities averages after controlling for gender, mid-career earnings would be 0.7 x 80K + 0.3 x 53K = 72K, substantially above the Humanities average of 64K but well short of the actual figure of 81K.

Alternatively: if the gender gap in philosophy matches the Humanities average, mid-career philosophy men would earn 90K and women 60K. That’s 12% higher than the humanities average. So controlling for gender explains about 1/2 of the result.

(I did a similar analysis a couple of years ago, based on a similar story on DN, and found gender only explained 1/4 of the difference: I think the larger effect here is because I’m using the gender gap for college-educated workers at mid-career, not just the national average gender gap, and the former is quite a lot bigger.)Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Wait. There’s a larger pay gap among college educated workers at mid career? If true that would be a rather annoying data point for certain sorts of people.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

It’s fairly uncontroversially true, I think. Which “sorts of people” had you in mind?Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

I think it places an explanatory burden on people who take the pay gap to be evidence of systemic sexism. Presumably education empowers women, not the reverse; but if the pay gap were evidence of systemic sexism, we would expect it to narrow the more empowered women are, not the reverse.

On the other hand, Google memo types will say this just shows that men and women have different interests, which they allow to shape their choices the less economically precarious their situation.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago

Oh, ok. I took your “larger” to mean “larger mid-career than early-career”. If you mean “larger among college-educated than non-college-educated”, I don’t know if that’s true or not.

But in any case, I’m not sure how the argument would be supposed to go. Educational attainment rates are pretty much even between men and women so the gender gap couldn’t plausibly go away if you controlled for education: it always had to be that men were earning more than women for any given level of education. (Or, in your terms: the issue isn’t whether education empowers women, it’s whether it empowers men more than it does women, for whatever reason.)

Likewise, it’s fairly clear that a large part of the widening gap at mid-career comes from the effects on income of bearing and raising children. But that doesn’t settle the issue, descriptively or normatively: is that because of totally-legitimate different work/life balance choices for men and women at that stage, because of tacit and explicit pressure for women to take on more of the parenting role and sacrifice their career for the kids, because of structural features of the workplace (e.g., maternity provision, attitude to flexible work, attitudes to breast-feeding) that unnecessarily disadvantage women, …Report

Joel David Hamkins
2 years ago

I wonder to what extent the income potential of philosophy majors is simply a reflection of selection bias. The population of philosophy majors, after all, consists of kind of student who majors in philosophy: ambitious, hard-working, cerebral. These might be the students who will make money regardless of their major. If this is correct, then it would not necessarily be a reason to major in philosophy, if you are not already the kind of student who finds that both reasonable and attractive.Report

Anaximander
Anaximander
Reply to  Joel David Hamkins
2 years ago

Of course, the same might be said of any major. For example, the population of engineering majors consists of the kinds of students who major in engineering. Engineering students, too, might make money regardless of their major. However, it is likely that a course of study and training will have some influence on earnings, even if the extent of that influence is not clear and even if there are more influential factors.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Anaximander
2 years ago

But of course it’s not that simple Anaximander. Here are some major differences between a degree in philosophy and a degree in engineering that weaken the “the same might be said of any major” claim:

1. Some degrees, like engineering, are professional degrees that are meant to get you an entry-level job in a profession. People who get engineering degrees are likely to be working as engineers. People who get nursing degrees are likely to be working as engineers. People who get philosophy degrees are not likely to be working as philosophers.

2. Philosophy majors are unlikely to have philosophy be their sole major and are more likely to be dual majors than someone in engineering. This is in part because of how structured an engineering degree is versus a philosophy degree but also because students are likely (in my experience) to have a “fun” major (like philosophy) and then a “career” major like economics, accounting, etc.

This means that the data Justin posted likely does not distinguish between the earnings of those who only have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy vs. those who have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and some other discipline. This makes it impossible to see whether it’s actually the Philosophy degree itself that accounts for their earnings (garbage in – garbage out). You’re less likely to have that problem with a highly structured degree program like engineering.

3. Although we have some evidence about demographic data for philosophy majors , we don’t have good SES data to run it against. As others have already noted, it’s a live possibility that Philosophy majors tend to be more well-off than others. This might explain why the MEDIAN on Justin’s chart is in line with other humanities and social science degrees but why it’s high end tail is so high (again: it wouldn’t be the Philosophy degree that’s doing the work in this instance).Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

My link to an earlier DN post about demographics didn’t seem to post. I’ll link it here again:

http://dailynous.com/2017/12/21/racial-diversity-philosophy-majors-guest-post-eric-schwitzgebel/Report

Anaximander
Anaximander
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

C’s G,
(1) I acknowledge the difference you note, but am not seeing how it’s relevant. That a philosophy major prepares students for a range of professions doesn’t weaken the claim that it influences earnings. What am I missing?
(2) I agree that (any) double majors make the task of interpreting such data that much more difficult. But it would even stranger to conclude that only one of the two majors has any influence than it would be to conclude that a student’s long course of study has no such influence.
(3) I acknowledged other, more influential factors; certainly, SES would be among them. Job availability is another. And so on.
AReport

poor philosophy graduate
poor philosophy graduate
Reply to  Joel David Hamkins
2 years ago

Wait so you’re saying like… correlation doesn’t imply causation… that’s deep.

It is more likely that being a philosophy major is correlated with coming from high income families and that coming from high income families is correlated with having a higher income than people who don’t come from high income families. This makes sense given that we don’t live in a meritocracy where everyone has equal opportunities and access to the resources that enable one to secure well paying jobs.

I think that well paid, high status people like to think that we do live in such a meritocracy and that their success is the result of Pure Merit (ambition, hard work, being ‘cerebral’…) rather than gross privilege.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  poor philosophy graduate
2 years ago

Do you have evidence for the claim that being a philosophy major is correlated with coming from a high income family?Report

Johnson
Johnson
Reply to  sahpa
2 years ago
A.
A.
2 years ago

If someone studies engineering, becomes an engineer, and then makes a 100k entry salary, there is a very clear and direct relationship between the major and the job. It is very unlikely that this student would have gotten the job without the engineering major. On the other hand, if a student majors in philosophy and becomes a project manager and makes 100k as an entry salary, then it is far less clear that the philosophy major has much to do with the job and the salary. Unlike in the engineering case, it is pretty plausible this student could have gotten the job they did with a wide range of majors, not just philosophy. Also, I’m curious, what “wide range of professions” does a philosophy BA prepare one for…name, maybe, 3? (and please don’t say “any profession where you need to think critically”…if only it was this easy.)Report

Anaximander
Anaximander
Reply to  A.
2 years ago

I agree that that path from an engineering major to the profession is a clearer and more obvious one. Even in this case, of course, much will be due to the “kind of students who majors in” engineering, SES, and the like. My claim is simply that there’s no reason to DENY that the philosophy major plays a role. Indeed, it’s much more reasonable to suppose that it does play a role, however minimal. Of course, it remains logical possibility that the major actually suppresses the earnings of students that would ‘otherwise’ earn even higher salaries. Still, I don’t see the warrant for skepticism that the major has an influence on earnings on the grounds that this can be attributed to the ‘kind of student’ or on the grounds that the path to employment and earnings isn’t ‘obvious.’Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

Come on guys. It’s quite funny really; clearly there are a bunch of fairly obvious reasons why this is not a slam-dunk demonstrating the economic case for studying philosophy and it’s appropriate to look at the methodology etc. of any statistical data, but surely it should be somewhat welcome to people who work in academic philosophy that there is some empirical basis for thinking that employers outside academic philosophy value philosophical education, insofar as this will help in attracting students to the discipline.

For the record – A) I’m not a philosopher but studied philosophy at university and work in a business where we hire lots of graduates; we don’t have specific degree requirements and value philosophy at least as much as any other discipline (with the exception of some more specialized parts of our intake for which an applied maths/computer science background is valuable) and B) for the avoidance of doubt, I personally completely deprecate the ‘economic’ justification of education and would love to live in a world in which lavishly publicly funded universities were cross-disciplinary communities of scholars pursuing and spreading knowledge, and training their successors, and in which it was universally acknowledged that the purpose of a successful economy is to support universities, rather than the other way around. But we don’t, so we need to play the game.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
2 years ago

Responding especially to Rollo Burgess, Here’s how I would use this data in our departmental propaganda : We are not saying that studying philosophy will make you rich. We are saying that you probably don’t need to worry that studying philosophy will make you poor.Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
Reply to  Charles Pigden
2 years ago

Worked for me 😉Report

Matt T.
Matt T.
Reply to  Charles Pigden
2 years ago

Yes, this is precisely how I have been using this data since it was first published in the WSJ a few years ago. I have a presentation built around the “Would you like fries with that?” meme, which I give each semester in Intro classes at my SLAC. We try to emphasize in our curriculum that philosophy builds the kinds of skills that hiring professionals are looking for (again, using widely-available data) around critical thinking, analytical problem-solving, communication, etc., and this study fits nicely with (though obviously does not prove, in any sense) that narrative.Report

Kartik
Kartik
2 years ago

Key here that they’re talking about Bachelor’s degrees. You wouldn’t see this trend if we were talking about those with graduate philosophy degrees.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
2 years ago

I left philosophy after receiving the PhD and can’t find anything to do but retail. So, I’d love someone to tell me what these BA’s in philosophy are doing where they are making butt loads of cash. I can’t think of any real world job that Philosophy qualifies you to do. Can someone tell me one? I’ve had this discussion with loads of people and no one has ever been able to mention one serious thing – No movie director isn’t a serious option!!! At any rate I remember people throwing around this PayScale data a few years ago. At the time the big thing to cite was that mid career salaries were like 80k a year for philosophy majors. Some people did some investigation and found out that this data was based on the surveys of 12 people. Yes, that was the sample size.Report

Josh
Josh
Reply to  Postdoc
2 years ago

Quite frankly, this data is cause for concern considering it is most likely measuring salaries of individuals who are doing a job that has no correlation with the major of Philosophy. For example, if someone with a BA in Philosophy becomes the manager of a restaurant making 65k/year, that salary should have no bearing on this chart because being a manger of a restaurant has no correlation with having a BA in Philosophy. But they just take the salaries of people who have that degree, they do not look at the jobs they are doing and whether or not they correlate at all with the major.Report