Rubio Has A Point: Philosophy Majors Don’t Work In Philosophy
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Rubio Has A Point: Philosophy Majors Don’t Work In Philosophy

Correction: An earlier version of this post did not examine PayScale’s methodology. The three paragraphs that address it were added, and the text has been lightly edited in other places as a result. If the post now reads unevenly, that is why. Short version: I was a bit too hard on Mr. Bump due to my own lack of due diligence. Mea culpa.

At last night’s fourth GOP debate on Fox Business, Florida Senator Marco Rubio lamented, “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” You can watch the full clip from the debate below:

Spirited defenses of philosophy majors were quick to follow this on the internet. Take, for example, Philip Bump of the Wall Street Journal:

Using data from the Web site PayScale, we can look at the introductory and median incomes of both professions. In 2008, philosophy majors started at about $40,000 a year — about the same as what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says first-year welders make.

But over the longer term, philosophy majors make more. Mid-career welders make $22 an hour, according to PayScale, compared with over $80,000 for philosophy majors.

I was a philosophy minor myself, saving my major for just about the only less lucrative option than philosophy: theology.

Of course, Bump is right that by profession philosophers (i.e. philosophy professors) currently make more in the long run than welders.

There is a problem, though, in how Bump is using the data. According to PayScale’s methodology: “Only graduates who are employed full-time, and who are paid either an hourly wage or an annual salary are included. Self-employed, project-based, and contract employees are not included. For example, project-based graphic designers and architects, and nearly all small business owners and novelists, are not included.” Thus, this data doesn’t include underemployed philosophy majors.

Finding data on underemployment by major is difficult, but a USA Today article in 2012 noted that, at that time, “College graduates who majored in zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities were among the least likely to find jobs appropriate to their education level; those with nursing, teaching, accounting or computer science degrees were among the most likely.” Even that doesn’t necessarily tell us whether the jobs they settle for are full-time or part-time, though. It does tell us that they are more likely to end up at jobs that don’t require a degree level as high as their own, however, which is not a good thing.

The PayScale data is also for “bachelor’s only,” so it does not tell us about philosophers as a profession, which requires a graduate education, vs. welders. It also doesn’t tell us about philosophy majors who, for example, pursued a graduate degree in any other subject. What it does tell us is that people who got only a bachelor’s in philosophy and are working full time generally do better than welders, which I concede is a fair point but more limited than what Bump seems to imply. Rubio may be wrong that “Welders make more money than philosophers,” but he may be right to the extent to which he is comparing outcomes of majors as a whole.

Indeed, we can add that, according to Students Review, a website tracking the outcomes of majors, only 35% of philosophy majors, the lowest percentage of all college majors listed, are still working in their field since they began collecting data in 2000.

I’m unsure whether that figure also includes people who never got a job in their field in the first place, but for all humanities majors that is getting harder and harder.

As William Pannapacker wrote in a controversy in the Fall 2012 issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality,

During the last forty years, graduate schools have shifted most of the work of teaching from tenure-track faculty members to a variety of contingent workers, including graduate students, visiting professors, and adjuncts. Such workers are far less expensive than tenure-stream faculty members; apart from graduate students, such workers usually have no health benefits and no job security. Contingent faculty members can be fired — or rather “not renewed” — for any number of reasons, undermining the integrity of the grading process, the autonomy of the classroom, and the processes of faculty governance. In most cases, there is no way to enter the profession without contributing to this process by working for five or more years as a teaching assistant and, in most cases, serving for several more years — if not permanently — as a contingent teacher at multiple institutions. Moreover, the difficulties of that position are compounded by the probability that a humanities doctoral graduate has accumulated substantial debt, perhaps more than $30,000 in addition to any debt remaining from his or her undergraduate education. The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly recounts the woes of recent graduates who are underemployed, burdened by debt, and without prospects for any career path besides ongoing contingent teaching or some form of self-employment. That outcome — the experience of many, if not most, doctoral recipients — is not reflected by what departments say about themselves to prospective students.

Short version: Most humanities majors are lucky if they can even get a “starting salary” in their profession in the first place, and this certainly applies to philosophy. Indeed, traditional tenure-track jobs are disappearing in the humanities.

Speaking of philosophers, one of my favorite, the nineteenth century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, had a few things to say about education:

Even the conventional everyday morality demands that a man should hand down to his children not only the goods he has acquired, but also the capacity to work for the further maintenance of their lives. The supreme and unconditional morality also requires that the present generation should leave a two-fold legacy to the next, — in the first place, all the positive acquisitions of the past, all the savings of history; and, secondly, the capacity and the readiness to use this capital for the common good, for a nearer approach to the supreme goal. This is the essential purpose of true education….

Instead of fulfilling this moral duty, as I have written in the past (e.g. here and here), we have been watering down academic standards and inflating prices through federal loans (and administrative bloat). In general, we aren’t adequately passing down the best of “the positive acquisitions of the past,” and we aren’t preparing students to “use this capital for the common good.”

Rather than people struggling to get hard-to-acquire, high-quality high school diplomas — which in public education are taxpayer funded and take much less time out of one’s life to acquire — and then being set to begin a decent career, we have been shuffling people through secondary ed and into higher ed — often rather than trade schools — and then we’ve been lowering the standards there as well.

As a result, we have decreased the quality of a product (diplomas and degrees), increased supply, and demand has plummeted. The result is graduates with degrees barely better, if not worse, than high school diplomas 30 or 40 years ago, at the high cost of tens of thousands of dollars of debt and four or more less years to get started in a profession.

It’s not rocket science (or philosophy, for that matter), it’s Economics 101.

In Bump’s defense, he ends by saying, “Philosophy majors may make more [than welders] — but if you can’t get a job, that won’t do you much good.” But it seems unfair to cut into Rubio about earnings-by-profession when earnings-by-major is more likely what he meant by his comment.

That said, perhaps the lesson for philosophy majors is to stop at the bachelor’s and look to do graduate studies in another, more lucrative field. Or they could study welding.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.