Should I study philosophy at university?

lightbulbs symbolising philosophy
There may not be many jobs as philosophers but philosophy is a well respected academic subject that allows you stretch yourself intellectually before choosing from a wide range of careers.

A philosophy degree could be perfect for you if you have questions about life. ‘Ever since I was little, I've been thinking about how I should live my life and the big questions about existence and what makes things how they are in the world,’ says Charlotte Banks, a second year politics, philosophy and economics student at the University of Oxford.

Science, medicine, environmental and political issues, humanitarian aid, data gathering, religion and community all raise philosophical questions, as do art, culture and literature. As you progress through your degree you could delve into areas such as government policies, climate change, world poverty, medical ethics or how IT companies gather data.

Is a philosophy degree worth it in terms of careers? There are relatively few jobs that require a philosophy qualification but you’ll learn skills that can be applied to a range of careers. A degree in philosophy is relevant wherever ethical decisions, reasoned arguments and clear thinking are needed, and it can help when tricky life choices arise.

Philosophy degree entry requirements

The grades and subjects you’ll need to study philosophy at university vary depending on the course. Universities typically don’t require any specific subjects in your A levels, Highers, or IB, though a few express an opinion as to what may be helpful. For example:

  • The University of Cambridge considers maths, or an art-science mix, or an essay-based subject to be good preparation.
  • The University of Warwick considers subjects with a higher proportion of assessed written work to be better preparation for a philosophy degree than practical subjects.
  • The University of Southampton prefers one of more of the following (though they are not essential): philosophy, history, English, religious studies, classical civilization, government and politics.

A typical offer might be BBB or ABC at A level, rising to A*AA. The equivalent Scottish Highers could be AABBB; Scottish Advanced Highers, CCC.

No philosophy experience? No problem!

Don’t be put off considering philosophy as a degree subject if you’ve never studied it before. Joe Mahon, a University of East Anglia philosophy and literature graduate who now works as a teacher in North London, says: ‘Anyone who has ever wondered why it is they're learning something, or how it is they're learning something, or what learning is – that's doing philosophy – they're already philosophers. When you're gazing out of the window, when you're daydreaming, you're probably doing philosophy.’

You can use the University of Edinburgh’s reading list for would-be philosophy students as a starting point.

And take a tip from Sophie Haldane, whose secondary school education in Glasgow had never touched on philosophy. She attended a Uniq summer school held by the University of Oxford, where she later gained a place.

‘If you're thinking about studying philosophy there are a lot of online lectures and podcasts, which are good because when you're reading, it's hard to make sense of it all,’ she says. ‘I watched some YouTube lectures on video before I came, especially the ones where they interact with the audience, and that was especially useful.’

Types of philosophy degree

Philosophy students usually gain a bachelor of arts degree (BA) but you may see the degree listed as a bachelor of science (BSc) award, particularly if science modules form part of the course. Philosophy can be studied alongside one or more other subjects, known as a joint honours degree. The list below is a small sample, but you could combine philosophy with:

  • history
  • mathematics
  • French
  • physics.

Philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) is a combination highly regarded by all types of employers in many fields of industry, business and finance. PPE was studied by well-known Labour politicians Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband, broadcasters Evan Davis and Ian Katz, and acclaimed economists Stephanie Flanders and Tim Harford.

Philosophy degree modules and topics

As a philosophy undergraduate you will start year one with compulsory core subjects such as:

  • ethics, values, logic
  • reasoning and the nature of argument
  • texts from specific philosophers, ancient and modern, such as Plato, Aristotle and Sartre.

The choice of modules and topics you can cover in addition is vast, varying according to the university, what interests you, and the focus of your degree, especially if you’re studying for joint honours.

Optional philosophy modules might include:

  • free will
  • democracy and international relations
  • biomedical ethics
  • crises of the 21st century
  • philosophy and the environment
  • European, Chinese or ancient philosophy
  • the female perspective.

Joint honours could lead to modules you would never dream were a thing – Durham University’s education and philosophy undergraduates can study Harry Potter and Age of Illusion, for example.

Philosophy teaching and assessment methods

All the philosophy students we spoke to emphasised how much independent reading and essay writing they had to do. You will also learn through lectures, seminars and classes (in a classroom or lecture theatre with lots of other students) and at one-to-one or smaller group sessions and discussions with a single tutor, known as tutorials.

Depending on the degree’s focus, besides exams and essays your final assessments may depend on:

  • a debate
  • an individual presentation.

Philosophy degree contact hours

You can usually find details of contact hours on department webpages. For example:

  • At Exeter University philosophy students can expect around ten hours of contact time with their tutors and lecturers each week, and should complete an additional 13–26 hours on their own.
  • Bristol University first-year students learn 15% of their studies in philosophy lectures and seminars and are expected to complete 85% independently, with the ratio changing to 9% to 91% in year three.
  • Both the universities of Kent and York expect undergraduates to complete 1,200 study hours over the course of a year, split between self-led and contact time depending on the modules chosen. Both have 30 term-time weeks a year, so that’s 40 hours a week – equivalent to working 9.00 am to 6.00 pm Monday to Friday with an hour’s lunch break.

Joe had about 12 contact hours each week across both subjects, split into seminars. This approach allowed him to stretch out on his own, and he found himself in debates and discussions with law undergraduates.

For 19-year-old Sophie, studying PPE at Balliol College, University of Oxford, first year philosophy classes took up two hours a week, with an hour-long tutorial, plus the extra reading she was expected to do. ‘It's hard to estimate how many hours, because it depends on how long it takes you to read!’ she says, adding that philosophy is not a subject you can speed-read. Sophie had to juggle philosophy studies with politics and economics lectures, managing her time and tutors’ expectations to avoid essay and assignment deadline clashes – skills she can emphasise to future recruiters and employers.

Philosophy degree jobs

Philosophy careers specific to the subject, such as becoming philosophy teacher, a university lecturer, or the author of philosophical books, may be few, but philosophy is relevant to many areas of working life. At entry level, employers like the analytical thinking, problem solving and influencing skills philosophy graduates have to offer. Philosophy graduates can be found in top-level jobs in law, science, journalism, finance, IT, ecology, advertising, film and television, the Civil Service, and within charities, to name just a few sectors.

  • It’s possible (and common) to get a graduate job in area such as finance, management consulting, the Civil Service or sales directly after your first degree, as long as you get some good experience outside of your degree while at university. Philosophy graduates can also apply for many (though not all) jobs in HR and marketing.
  • To work as a lawyer you’ll need to undertake further study after your philosophy degree.
  • Getting into areas such as journalism, charity work, film and television or the more creative aspects of advertising realistically requires a lot of relevant experience, often unpaid; a postgraduate qualification is often also needed for journalism. Don’t expect to go straight from your degree to a paid job in these areas.
  • Entry level roles in IT, ecology and science-based companies are more accessible if you have a joint honours degree combining a specific and relevant subject with philosophy.

Well known living philosophers include Kwame Anthony Appiah, Helen Beebee, Simon Blackburn, David Chalmers, Andy Clark, Helen Steward and Nigel Warburton.

If you want more information about where a philosophy degree might lead you read ‘What careers can I go into with a philosophy degree?’

Philosophy degree skills

You will finish your philosophy degree with a range of transferable skills including critical thinking, reasoning, mental agility, communication and an appreciation of other people’s viewpoints. In addition you will have learned to analyse arguments, develop creative solutions and write persuasively.

‘Philosophy could prepare you for careers in media and journalism, or things that require you to problem solve and think about specific issues and try to find the best solution to them. In our course we have to do ethics in the second year, so for careers that give you a high degree of power, philosophy helps your ability to look at things from different viewpoints,’ says Charlotte Banks, 19, who is studying PPE at Christ Church College, University of Oxford.

Alternatives to a degree in philosophy

Depending on what else interests you, here are some alternatives to philosophy you might like to consider:

  • cognitive science
  • psychology
  • international relations
  • theology
  • sociology
  • informatics.

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