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Philosophical Conundrum

Fall $year.value. | By Kristal Arnold. Photo by ©agsandrew2013/Shutterstock.com..

Hank Childer's
Hank Childers (BA ’71) is a musician in his spare time and owns a recording studio.The decision to study philosophy usually starts with an argument.

Photo by Robert Block, courtesy of Hank Childers.

The internal debate takes many different forms, but rarely reaches the depths of, “What is a job?” or, “Is money real?” For many, the question is, “What happens next?”

The answer just might be, “What do you want to have happen next?”

Philosophy is more about the means than the end. The end—an eventual career path or course of future study—is enhanced immeasurably, even if a student hasn’t specifically defined what that end will be.

Purdue graduates in philosophy, for instance, have transitioned comfortably into a diverse job market. Their varied career paths range from law and information technology to the FBI and an assortment of business pursuits, and include companies such as J.P. Morgan, Starbucks, and Wrangler Jeans.

I Think Therefore I Am…Able

Philosophy is not a technical subject designed to fill a specific need in the job market. Those who choose it, however, argue that the ability to do any job is improved with an improved mind.

“I think that there is something to learning how to think better, and how to express those thoughts, and how to question your own thoughts,” says Hank Childers (BA ’71), senior director of enterprise information and analytics at The University of Arizona. “And these capabilities transfer well to almost anything.

”Beyond the anticipated career path of teaching, there are boundless professions ahead for philosophy graduates. According to an extensive 2013 salary study conducted by PayScale, philosophy graduates start slow but pick up fast in their careers. Graduates studying philosophy start with a $38,300 median salary, which is in the lower half of the results. They earn their way by mid-career to a $72,600 median salary—a 90 percent increase.

If a career isn’t the immediate post-undergraduate plan, a 2012 study from the Educational Testing Service shows that students who choose philosophy as their intended graduate major have top scores on the GRE. Students in this group scored highest in the verbal and analytical writing category and in the top five on the quantitative portion, compared to students in all other intended graduate majors.

Stephen Jaffe (BA ’64) headed to Purdue with an eye on an eventual career in brain science. Philosophy was a congruent course of study, he says, because it allowed him to expand beyond the scientific into a deeper understanding of how the mind works.

“I went into philosophy to broaden my knowledge of mind, behavior, and so forth, and then applied it to neurology,” says Jaffe, who has 45 years of medical experience and is now the Magale Professor of Neurology at Louisiana State University School of Medicine. “It was very helpful to get the background of previous philosophers and thinkers on the subjects: What is mind? How does it relate to brain? So much of neurology is on the border between science and science fiction, so it really helped.”

Jennifer O’Brien (BA ’93) started at Purdue with medicine in mind but added philosophy to her studies, ultimately planning to practice medical ethics as her career. She began her doctorate in philosophy at Rice University, but after two years of coursework she became discouraged with the economics of the medical debate. “In philosophy you study the right and the good, but not the right and the good for the number of dollars in a patient’s insurance plan or wallet,” she explains.

Photo by Andrew Hancock

Inventing a New Direction

For many students, the choice of a degree path is deeply rooted in building the best square peg for a future square hole.

Purdue philosophy student Aaron Trembath is testing that idea. His path is more about creating many different-shaped pegs while cognizant that the holes are ever-changing and difficult to predict.

Trembath, a philosophy and communication major from Sheridan, Wyoming, is president and CEO of NanoBio Interfacing Systems, a company that produces tracking sensors for human enzymes. NBI’s business plan won the undergraduate division of Purdue’s Burton D. Morgan Business Plan Competition in February 2013, which came with a $20,000 prize. He also developed and tested WalkThrough, which provides 3-D modeling from home blueprints. That business plan was a finalist in the same competition in 2011.

By applying philosophical principles to entrepreneurship, Trembath has reshaped his initial belief that jobs aren’t automatically waiting for a philosophy graduate.

“I realized my view of education up to that point was myopic: I had to get myself ready for a job that someone else had made,” he says. “But then it occurred to me, if you can identify a need in the market and a way to fill that need and communicate that effectively, there are investors interested in investing in problem solvers. It seemed like a natural extension.”

Trembath plans to complete his studies this semester and may continue with one of his entrepreneurial ventures, move on to law school, teach, get into communication and strategy consulting, or come up with another idea he has yet to perfect.

“Philosophy and entrepreneurship don’t really have a home,” he says. “But if you put them together, there’s no reason you can’t make one for yourself.”

Photo by Andrew Hancock.

She instead took a philosophical mindset into the business world, nimbly moving from project management to technology to finance. She now serves as publications program manager for the Commercial Banking and Investment Bank divisions at J.P. Morgan, managing staff in Chicago, Louisville, Dallas, and Bangalore, India, as well as colleagues from her home base in Seattle. The diverse geographical locations of her team members force her to hire staff she can trust to deliver a clear, concise message.

“I ask our human resources department to include applicants with philosophy degrees in their screening, because I know they understand logic, they know how to write, they know how to present an idea or opinion or thought, they know how to ask questions,” O’Brien says. “When you know the way they’ve learned to process information and present themselves, then you can let them loose a lot more quickly.”

The Unexamined (Work) Life Is Not Worth Living

A philosophy education helps students develop such practical skills as critical and evaluative thought, articulate and persuasive expression, and problem seeking and solving. Students are offered a background on key historical figures and theories that pervade business, communication, education, mathematics, medicine, political science, science, religion, and many other fields.

Childers remembers telling his parents about his choice to study philosophy. Their reluctant acceptance was followed by a pointed response. His mother clipped and mailed him a one-panel comic. “The protagonist was at a big company [U.S. Steel], wanting to know where their philosophy department was,” Childers recalls. “Meaning, there’s no philosophy department at U.S. Steel, so what the hell are you going to do with that degree?” But philosophy taught Childers how to think logically, and he took that education and turned it into a career in a very logic-centered arena—information technology.

“These are hard questions that people in philosophy deal with. Arguably impossible questions that don’t have answers, so what we achieve is a better understanding of the question,” he explains. “We’re not trying to win arguments, we’re trying to understand. It questions your beliefs, and so I think it subsumes the ego in service of the question being asked.”

Learning to reason through your own position is a hallmark of philosophy, but articulating that position is equally important. For example, when O’Brien’s peers present ideas, they often don’t make their pitch until three-quarters of the way into their presentation, when the audience is already tuning out. “Philosophy taught me that if you’re going to say anything novel, you have to state your position at the beginning and then back it up,” she says. “A poorly laid out theory, even if it’s brilliant, isn’t going to be accepted because no one knows what you’re saying.”

Stephen Jaffe trains horses as a hobby
Stephen Jaffe (BA ’64) trains horses as a hobby when he’s not seeing patients or teaching.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Jaffe.

Philosophy also forces a distinction between an idea and the person who conceived it. Purdue senior Aaron Trembath, who has coupled his study of philosophy with a focus on entrepreneurship, has learned to divorce himself from his own ideas. “You cannot let your idea define you,” says Trembath, who has already experienced success with a couple of new ventures (see sidebar). “You let the idea be its own thing that you evaluate. The biggest flops in entrepreneurship occur when the person having the idea refuses to see the warts on the baby.”

Not What We Have but What We Enjoy

There is life beyond the career, and students of philosophy seem bent on living it. Childers plays guitar and owns a recording studio. He says philosophy is the tie that binds his expressive side (songwriter) and logical side (IT work). Trembath helps coach Purdue’s speech and debate team and trains his wards to think critically, drawing on reason, logic, and analysis of assumptions.

Jaffe travels extensively and speaks 10 languages, most of which he learned while in the army for 15 years. “You have less of a chance of getting shot if you can speak the languages,” he says. Jaffe and O’Brien both train animals (horses and dogs, respectively) and credit their philosophical thinking with helping them better understand the animals’ needs.

Jennifer O'Brien hikes in Washington with Mount St. Helens in the background
Jennifer O’Brien (BA ’93) hikes in Washington with Mount St. Helens in the background.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer O’Brien.

Man Must Measure All Things

Philosophy teaches that the established norms ought to be challenged. One of those norms is that education should be measured on a strict return on investment resulting in a specific post-graduate career path. Getting through that internal debate, and the subsequent external pressures, requires the newly initiated to begin challenging norms right away.

So which comes first: the desire to challenge the norms or the mind-expanding education that leads to it? It’s a conundrum.

“You don’t have to be a genius to challenge the geniuses,” Trembath says. “Up until philosophy, my education had been: this is what a smart person says; tell me what they said on this test and you’ll get an A. But in philosophy, it’s: ‘This is what Descartes said; was he right?’ My studies in philosophy taught me it’s okay to challenge the way things are done, in any arena.”

The answer may not matter, in the end. To borrow from Leibniz, philosophers live in the best of all possible worlds.


I follow Ray Kurzweil and the exponential growth of technology. This is leading to advances in longevity, genetics, robotics, nano tech, and so on. We need to focus on the way our lives will change when longevity research leads to people living 150 years or more. How many years do you work to support a retirement of half your life—50 years of retirement? How do you reconcile a biological regrowth of organs and who gets the cures? Do people who were rich for that moment in time get the cures? Wealth is often transientdo you take away the therapy when fortunes decline?

Jon Baumgardner

Great article. I love the last quote by Trembath. It's interesting to me because I grew up naturally challenging norms and established ways of thinking, so I always loved philosophy. In some ways I thought that was what "we were supposed to do" if only we could get past the jobs and the work and the constraints of daily living. It wasn't until my 20s that I really learned that most people don't see it this way. It's unfortunate that employers can't see the value of philosophy (and that philosophy graduates sometimes have lower wages). It makes you question what we really value in our culture.

Michael Oxenrider

Every time someone wants to promote liberal arts in general or philosophy in particular, he or she points out that these disciplines “teach you to think” or “teach you to learn.” People in engineering or business still take classes outside their majors, and there are plenty of opportunities to “think critically” in the engineering or business curriculum. Universities have many clubs and organizations where one can develop “soft skills”...if one wants to do so. Rather than show examples of the top 1% of philosophy majors, how about showing the 50th percentile? I'm guessing the upper echelon goes on to law school or business, and the majority doesn't ask “why” as much as “Do you want fries with that?”


From the editor

Your comments represent a frequent stereotype, but the career stories our alumni share don't seem to support it. You might also be surprised by associate professor of philosophy Dan Kelly's list of the practical benefits of a degree in philosophy: http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/KellyUndergradMajor.html.

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