Pulling In Undergraduate Majors

A philosophy professor writes in asking for suggestions about how a philosophy department can attract undergraduate majors.


She has in mind not just curricular choices—though tips there are welcome—but also advice on events, activities, services, and facilities. She writes:

Some things we were wondering about: Do departments find a designated lounge helps increase majors? Do departments have outside reading groups with faculty? Do departments somehow encourage majors to work with / help out students just beginning to study philosophy? In general, we’re trying to figure out what might make majoring in philosophy actually fun and not just interesting and rigorous, etc. And then does making it fun increase majors? 

We’re stumped on this, and uncertain about what works in other programs.

What has worked (or not worked) for your department? Thanks for sharing your experiences and suggestions.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Some experience
1 year ago

I my last job, our department supported a philosophy club for undergraduates, and it had many different formats over the years, depending on our students at the time. Once, it was very small, but drew in keen students wanting to apply to grad school and law school, and they helped each other, reading each others’ papers, etc. Then it became a very casual social group; but this was very useful, especially for non-traditional students who were finding it difficult to connect with others. They watched philosophy themed movies together, and did other social events. Then, a particular undergrad took a strong leadership role and made it a discussion group. It was very well attended, but it did not persist after that student left. He was unable to mentor as successor. Each of these formations had their advantages and disadvantages. We also had a reading group with undergrads and faculty. That was successful, as long as a few faculty members were involved. But a lot depends on the students at any given time.Report

Daniel Weltman
1 year ago

The more you can get philosophy courses or courses taught by philosophers in front of students, the better, because most students have no desire to major in philosophy until they are exposed to it. So, try to get (e.g.) an engineering ethics course required for engineers; volunteer to teach general education courses that are not owned by any particular department; etc.Report

Amy Berg
1 year ago

The APA’s Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession put together a Department Advocacy Toolkit a few years ago that might be worth taking a look atReport

1 year ago

This may be obvious, but focus on hiring, supporting, and training good teachers.Report

Jeremy Proulx
Reply to  Matthew
1 year ago

Good point. Many students decide to major after a positive experience in a course. Making sure students get the support they need to see that philosophy os something that they can contribute to and be successful is really important. Teachers who are overworked, underpaid, and not adequately supported by their institutions are much less likely to be able to do such things with consistency.Report

Bill Vanderburgh
1 year ago

Two places I’ve worked had what amounted to student lounges. They were great for a small group of students who tended to spend all their time there. But then that group became a deterrent for other students to go there, because they felt like outsiders. On balance, I’d say it was net-zero for recruiting but an excellent experience for the small group of majors who used it a lot.

As for other ways of attracting new majors:

  1. Get involved in Orientation, if there is a way for you to give a presentation or host a Philosophy Cafe or similar. Make sure you send your young, most engaging professors.
  2. Meet annually with advisors of new students to make sure they know what they should be telling students about your major. Point out that Philosophy is an excellent second major, and is an excellent major for both pre-law and pre-med.
  3. If you can, get the Admissions reps to sell or at least mention the philosophy major when they are out on visits to high schools. You really have to be willing to give up control of your message/image in such cases.


Reginald King
1 year ago

How to rake in philosophy undergraduates? I’ve always understood the optimal strategy here to be broadly the same as the strategy for pulling in grant money. For example, to get grant money, you dress a theoretical project up as an applied project (stressing societal relevance, applicability to issues of social concern, etc.) and then – hey presto – when you deliver the research, it’s a theoretical project (with a tiny smidgen of lip service to applied issues). Same thing for undergraduate recruitment! Dazzle undergrads with a bunch of applied things (self-driving cars, uploading consciousness to a computer) and then — surprise – the curriculum is formal semantics, metaphysics of grounding, etc (with one applied option course). I’m exaggerating here a bit. But kind of not really.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Reginald King
1 year ago

Come for the trolley problems of self-driving cars – stay for the subtle considerations of what well-being and modality are like.Report

Reply to  Reginald King
1 year ago

Although I’m not in Philosophy per se I agree that the technical aspects of actual academic philosophy and the primary focus on language, linguistics, logic, grammar etc. can be fairly alienating to people who aren’t in the field. While I do agree that “social justice” issues are appealing to anxious young people, in the end I feel it’s disingenuous and prevents many students from taking the major seriously.Report

tiger roholt
1 year ago

At Montclair, we run a weekly event we call Philosophy for Lunch. We have recruited majors and minors through the event (but not in huge numbers). Students have also enrolled in our courses after attending the event. In addition, the event has raised our department’s profile on campus. FWIW, I think this sort of recurring event can be community-building and rewarding. • We created the event when we started our new department in 2015 for the purpose of conveying to the university community what philosophy is. A weekly event enables us to promote examples of philosophy each week to the campus. • But the event is time-consuming to plan, promote, and run. My (amazing) colleagues and I take turns. We also occasionally help advanced majors plan and run sessions. • How does it work? Each week, we create a short handout that consists of passages that are centered on a particular issue, theory, argument, perplexity, etc. At each session, we read and discuss these short passages (beginning with a short introduction, and adding clarification/elaboration along the way). The challenge is to plan a session that a wide range of attendees can follow and will find interesting. The handouts help us to keep the sessions somewhat rigorous, helping us to avoid descending into unstructured conversation. We have run more than 100 sessions. http://www.montclair.edu/P4LReport

Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

One thing that I think people often underestimate – it’s important for these things to seem easy and natural for the students to get involved with. If you have a lounge, it makes a big difference whether it’s an open space with big windows next to the front door of the building that people come in and out of every day on their way to and from class, or whether it’s behind a small door on the back corner of the top floor. If you’ve got a philosophy club, it makes a big difference whether it’s the sort of organization that someone who had fun in a class once can drop by and have more fun talking, or whether it feels like you have to know everyone first before you can have a good time.Report

1 year ago

I don’t have a philosophy club or anything like that (in my experience the philosophy club typically caters to people who already are into philosophy) but I believe I have done a fairly good job our expanding our program (the provost actually noticed and complemented me on it, if you can believe that). Two main strategies:
1) Your best teachers need to teach your core intro sections (introduction to philosophy, ethics, critical thinking). If you are the best teacher, then you need to teach intro, even if you are really really sick of teaching intro.
2) Getting philosophy classes embedded into popular majors. Some students will get interested in philosophy and at least take a couple more classes and perhaps even minor or double major. So I got Critical Thinking into the computer science program, Death and Dying into the nursing program, and Business Ethics into the business program. This has made my numbers look quite good, even through the pandemic; I may even get another faculty line out of my efforts.Report

Alan White
1 year ago

Put faculty with genuine enthusiasm as well as top-notch expertise in front of students. It got me in the discipline and set the model for how I tried to teach as well. It cannot be faked, and it does draw out similarly-attuned students in a kind of Stevensonian agreement-in-attitude about fields of study. This of course is not just true for philosophy–it’s how all professors can be effective in drawing students to majors.Report

Om B.
1 year ago

Market it as a useful and doable dual major! A lot of students want to do philosophy courses, and gaining a second degree will definitely increase their incentive to declare it as their second major. Our university has a lot of CS, Math, Statistics, Physics and a few other majors doing Philosophy as an escape from their other super-technical and less intellectually expressive courses (including me). Maybe try creating a special dual degree curriculum with more electives for upper-division courses, while still giving students the essential course experience of virtue ethics, logic, metaphysics, epistemology and so on.Report

1 year ago

Add visual posters and ads.

Ex: “Do you like to argue? Do you care about justice? Well, we got the right class for you. Join us next semester for Philosophy of Law!”

Jingles might help.Report

1 year ago

My suggestion is to put links to Philosophy Major scores on the LSAT/GMAT/MCAT/etc. somewhere easily seen on your main page. Like in the second paragraph or something—not burried way down the page. The links are helpful because they give students something they can take to their parents and say, “hey, I know you don’t like philosophy, but look at these scores for law school, etc…..” There are lots of students wanting to go to law school (and medical school at my university) and they are naturally interested in programs that will help them succeed in this regard, and I think it’s not too hard to make a good case for a philosophy major/minor/courses. Then, once you’ve got your website sorted out so that this information is easy to get, do everything you can to drive people to your page. A while back we took out an ad in the school paper once a year (Did you know Philosophy Majors excel at law school? For more info see our website), put up flyers around campus, and find ways to forward this information to people in positions that advise students. Find the pre-med and pre-law advisors and send them your links with a nice paragraph. Also you can just announce some of this stuff in your classes to students briefly. At my school there used to be a “pre-law group in the Diplomacy School” and I would walk across campus once a year and leave flyers in their student mailbox. We’ve done this and it’s worked. The law/med/gmat/etc. route isn’t the only one, but it’s something practical students and families can understand in concrete terms.Report