Thirty years ago, British Columbia native Jim Mitchell turned down two job offers to teach at university. Though he had spent years studying philosophy and eventually obtained a PhD from the University of Colorado, he decided he didn’t want to spend the next few decades in one spot. So he started a career in the Canadian federal public service, rising through the ranks to become assistant secretary to the cabinet, where he advised prime ministers on the organization of government.
To his surprise – and delight – he found his studies in epistemology and metaphysics prepared him well for dealing with the complex workings of the federal government. Dr. Mitchell, who eventually left government to become a founding partner of Sussex Circle, a consulting group in Ottawa, is not alone in finding that his degree in philosophy paid off.
In fact, there’s a growing realization that people who study philosophy learn skills that are eminently transferable and a good fit for today’s global economy. As a result, those skills are forming the basis for strong, well-paid careers.
Full-time enrolment in philosophy programs at Canadian universities grew 54 percent between 2000 and 2004 – more than double the 25 percent increase in full-time enrolment overall during that period, according to Statistics Canada.
Not only is the number of students taking philosophy courses on the rise, but the job prospects for people with philosophy degrees are brightening. Law schools value philosophy graduates because they’re trained to think critically and to argue their point. Businesses like their ability to approach problems from multiple points of view. And even engineering and other technical fields find philosophy useful in areas such as ethics.
“Philosophy develops communication skills, the ability to organize complex materials, negotiate between different positions and tease out different problems,” says Jeff Noonan, head of the philosophy department at the University of Windsor. “An extraordinary range of jobs require those abilities.”
That’s certainly what Dr. Mitchell found. “I discovered I was really into the kind of thing I had been into as a philosophy student – the theory and practice of something quite complex. My philosophical training was very useful for that.”
He adds, “The moral of the story is that my philosophical studies turned out to prepare me quite well for the kind of work I ended up doing, although I never would have predicted it.”
Philosophy students are filling a wide variety of careers, says Francis Peddle, a professor of the philosophy of law at Dominican University College in Ottawa. His former students are working in international affairs, business, law and public administration. He also gets students from government who come to beef up their skills; one of his doctoral students, who works in human resources for the Department of National Defence, is researching current thought about human capital in the new economy.
Philosophy seems to be a particularly good fit for law. Kate McGillis graduated from the University of Calgary in 2005 with a degree in philosophy and, in a typical career path, was accepted into U of C’s law school this fall.
“I didn’t think I was going to go into law,” she recalls. “But I think philosophy does definitely lead into law very well. You learn how to pick apart an argument.”
Daniel Gervais, a professor and recently acting dean of common law at the University of Ottawa, agrees that there’s a closer fit today between law and philosophy. “That’s not only because philosophy teaches people to build arguments, but also because the field of law has changed the way it thinks of itself,” he says.
“Law sees itself less and less as a technical field involving application of rules, and more and more as social science that’s influenced by what we call philosophy of law. For example, with globalization, law is forced to examine itself in relation to other countries and to universal values, says Dr. Gervais.
Business schools, too, are interested in philosophers. Last spring, the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia launched a one-year master’s program in business management designed for graduates of non-business programs – such as philosophy grads.
“If there’s a value proposition – as we might say in business – to a philosophy degree, it’s the ability to analyze from a systematic framework that you can apply to many things,” observes Dale Griffin, associate dean, academic programs, and professor of marketing at Sauder.
“There’s definitely a thirst in business for people who can think creatively, analytically and outside the box,” he adds. “It’s novel in our experience to reach out to a wider sector. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this works when we bring in philosophers critically asking questions.”
One philosopher who has done well in business is Gordon Cheesbrough. A University of Toronto graduate, Mr. Cheesbrough is the former president and chief executive of Altamira Investment Services, one of Canada’s largest mutual fund companies. He’s now managing partner of Blair Franklin Capital Partners, a financial advisory firm – and the chair of the advisory board for arts and science at U of T.
“I think the value of a philosophy and liberal arts degree overall is learning critical thinking and the ability to work with concepts,” says Mr. Cheesbrough. His three children have studied liberal arts, and his youngest is completing a degree in philosophy and political science at Trinity College in Dublin.
Mr. Cheesbrough “stumbled” into business after university when he took a training program at McLeod Young Weir. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I went to university.” But he came out of a philosophy program knowing how to look at problems critically and from different angles. He was immediately able to apply that to business. He even found a practical application for his university studies about postwar Japanese Shintoism: When McLeod Young Weir opened an office in Japan in the 1980s, he was able to understand how the company’s new Japanese clients might be thinking.
The renewed interest in philosophy isn’t unique to Canada. The New York Times recently reported that philosophy department applications in the U.S. have surged, while the Guardian reported that in the U.K., philosophy grads are in growing demand from employers.
Some of the increased demand has followed the introduction of courses in ethics. Luc Langlois, dean of philosophy at Université Laval and past president of the Canadian Philosophical Association, says Laval now offers a course in professional ethics that is mandatory for students in 16 technical disciplines, including chemistry, computer science, geomatics and mechanical engineering, and optional in five others.
“For the last two years, all engineering students have been required to take the professional ethics course,” says Dr. Langlois. “That’s 700 to 1,000 students a year.”
There are other reasons why philosophy is becoming more popular, he says. For one, “I think we’re selling ourselves better.” Laval has done all sorts of things to expand the range of philosophy. The university offers a combined political science and philosophy degree and has created a multidisciplinary Institute of Applied Ethics affiliated with the philosophy department. Laval also created a research chair called Philosophy in the World Today, whose goal is to focus philosophy on the essential concerns of our time, such as how to balance economic development and the environment or how human dignity meshes with advances in biotechnology.
Dr. Langlois thinks philosophy’s rising popularity also has to do with students looking to make sense of the world. In some ways, he says, philosophy has replaced religion in a secular world, providing a framework for people to ponder serious issues.
And, at the same time, people are recognizing that philosophy has a practical aspect. He points to Charles Taylor, the McGill University philosopher who served as co-chair of Quebec’s recent public inquiry into reasonable accommodation of immigrants.
Back at Windsor, Dr. Noonan, the department chair, says philosophy has learned how to market its value in a world where universities compete for budgets and students, and where parents want to make sure they get a return on their investment in their children’s education. “You hear questions from parents,” says Dr. Noonan, “about what their sons and daughters are going to do with the degree.”
Some traditionalists seem taken aback by the discipline’s new profile. But many seem pleased to get some recognition. Dr. Noonan says that for a long time, philosophy was treated as part of the furniture. “People were overlooking the fact that we’re making a vitally important contribution to the scientific and ethical life of the country.”