Dr. Steven Moser

Preconceptions by Dr. David M. Holley

Beginning this December, I’ve asked faculty in the college to serve as guests contributors to the college blog.  David M. Holley, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion begins this series.

Steven R. Moser, Dean

Holley, David (8-2014)Surprising facts can overturn your preconceptions, but only if you let them. Sometimes we deny or ignore things that don’t fit into what we already think. Here is a surprising fact:

A study reported in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago compared salaries of people between ten to fifteen years after leaving college. The comparison involved a ranking of salaries according to undergraduate majors (considering only people without a graduate degree). Out of a list of 50 undergraduate majors, philosophy majors had the 16th highest salary. Degrees such as engineering and computer science were ahead of philosophy in the mid-career salaries ranking, but philosophy was ahead of business majors such as management, accounting, and information technology. Starting salaries for philosophy majors were lower than for many of these fields, but eventually philosophy majors were making higher salaries.

When you have a surprising fact, the explanation may not be simple. There could be many factors at work. One factor that comes to mind is that there are fewer philosophy graduates than graduates of many of the other fields to which they were compared. It is also relevant that philosophy majors on the average tend to be pretty bright, so we can’t attribute the advances in salary only to the fact that they studied philosophy in college.

Even so, it seems startling that a college major we wouldn’t associate with making money leads to this kind of result. So how can it be explained? I think the most obvious explanation is that philosophy majors are pretty good at learning new things and that some of the skills they developed are helpful for succeeding in a variety of fields. If you can learn to read and understand a complex philosophical text, you can probably learn to digest the information in business reports. If you can find the logical flaws or questionable assumptions in a defense of a philosophical position, you should be able to recognize the weaknesses of a new administrative proposal. If you have formed the habit of looking at things from a variety of perspectives, you may be able to come up with novel approaches to an organizational problem.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of technical knowledge. People who do advance in their fields have to acquire quite a bit of that. But anyone who thinks that you can learn what you need in college to be successful seriously underestimates the importance of learning on the job and being able to adapt to the unexpected. When we think of preparing for something other than an entry-level job, we need to be thinking of things like the capacity for being creative and analytical and adaptable.

One of our recent philosophy graduates who went on to a major law school in another state wrote back that he knew hardly anything about the law when he arrived, but that did not matter because his philosophy major had taught him how to think. That’s the sort of thing we like to hear, and faculty in our department hear something like it often enough that we’re inclined to think there is some truth in it.

Most people don’t choose philosophy as a major because they think it will help them earn a high salary. I would be startled if someone came to us acknowledging this kind of motivation. But when I think of the kinds of things we teach our majors to do, it seems clear to me that the skills they learn can be adapted to many types of work, and sometimes a byproduct of doing a job well is financial success.





– Dr. David M. Holley, Chair
Department of Philosophy and Religion

Dr. Steven Moser
Steven Moser is the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of Music at Southern Miss. Previously serving as Senior Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Letters, Dr. Moser is a 2007 fellow of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Management Development Program and has served in various leadership roles at Southern Miss since 2002.

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