The Career Trajectories and Workplace Skills of Philosophy and Language Majors

A new study looks at the jobs and skills of college graduates, including those who major in philosophy, finds that choice of major “isn’t as deterministic of our work as we might believe,” and aims to help students understand how their education has prepared them for the job market.

The study, “Degrees at Work,” by Clare Coffey, Rob Sentz, and Yustina Saleh, and published by the data analytics firm, Emsi, sorted college graduates from a database of over 100 million people by group, putting together those who major in philosophy and languages—“Two degrees that aren’t career-specific or as tied to the world of work (and are therefore the ones that get a vast bulk of the criticism [for being impractical])”.

Not surprisingly, philosophy and language graduates “go into a broad array of jobs”:

The top five first jobs are in the fields of education (17% of language and philosophy grads go into education jobs), journalism/writing (10%), sales (10%), marketing (7%), and service-oriented non-profits (6%). 

The following graph shows how the popularity of different types of jobs changes over time as graduates in philosophy and language move from their first to their second and third jobs. (It lists types of jobs on the left, listed in order of popularity as first job.)

from “Degrees at Work” by Coffey, Sentz, and Saleh

So, for example, when it comes to the first job taken by philosophy and language graduates, the fourth most popular type of job is in marketing. When it comes to their third job, though, marketing is the second most popular type of job. Legal and regulatory services moves from 10th to 6th.

Education remains the most popular category across job changes for philosophy and language graduates. This contrasts with social science students and business students, for whom sales is the consistently most popular category, communications students, for whom journalism and public relations is the most popular category, engineering students, for whom industrial and mechanical engineering is the most popular category, and information technology students, for whom software development and programming is the most popular category.

The authors then looked at the job skills associated with these positions to determine what skills philosophy and language graduates tend to have, determining that the chief skills are in educational product design, public relations, digital marketing, and non-profit administration.

The following graph breaks down the more specific skills in these categories and shows their prevalence among students who graduated with degrees in philosophy or a language:

from “Degrees at Work” by Coffey, Sentz, and Saleh

The authors see their work as helping students who have not taken an instrumentalist or vocationally-oriented approach to their education appreciate how their types of education nonetheless prepare them for employment. They write:

In order to help these graduates—especially those from the social sciences and humanities areas—chart intentional, effective career paths for themselves, we need to help them better understand where their educational background has taken them, and boost their confidence in the value of their labor-market foundation. Graduates from these programs need to see themselves as acquiring skills—directly related to the world of work—just like IT and engineering grads. This clarity will help them communicate their own value, find areas where they are likely to succeed faster, and pursue skills that enhance and complement what they acquired in college.

You can download the whole report, which is also discussed at Inside Higher Ed today, here.

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4 years ago

I am baffled as to what this report thinks it is showing, even after reading the report. They show that philosophy and language majors go into a variety of fields and then switch among those fields more often than other types of majors.

How is that not a bad thing? Yes, these majors go into a variety of jobs. That is exactly what you would expect of someone with a degree but only generalist skills–they are at the whim of market demand and get less autonomy in choosing their career. In so much you can conclude anything from this weak, field-level data, that seems like a bad result for philosophy and languages.

The authors don’t seem to have a reasonable prior. In their introduction, they say they are providing a reality check for those who think, “An English degree … dooms you to a life in your parents’ basement struggling to pay off thousands of dollars in loans on a bartender’s tips.” Those are jokes. No reasonable person thinks that English majors end up as bartenders for the rest of their lives. The worry is that they will have to take something in a random field that only vaguely fits their interests and skills. Other data does quell some of these worries, but I am struggling to see how this report doesn’t just make it worse.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  IGS
4 years ago

I haven’t read the report, but the summary given in the blog post doesn’t seem to me like it intends to make the conclusion you think, nor do I think it supports the conclusion you draw. I think at this very bird’s-eye-view level, we can’t answer the questions you’re concerned about, regarding whether people enjoy their jobs, whether their interests fit their work, and whether they have autonomy or control of their career.

It looks to me like this report aims to show just what particular range of fields these graduates do go into (it’s not just a random cross-section of fields, and it’s not the same as the overall pattern of employment) and figure out what skills relevant to this particular pattern of employment seem to be broadly shared by graduates in these fields. It doesn’t seem to gather the information you would want to figure out whether or not these graduates are satisfied with their career paths, which seems to be what you are interested in.

Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
4 years ago

I agree with you that the report shows the range of fields that graduates go into, and I agree with you that this is the only thing that can be concluded from the study. I wasn’t trying to suggest otherwise. The introduction to the study emphasized the connection to the defense-of-the-humanities debate to frame their results, though perhaps I should have noted that Justin did not emphasize it here.