Considering a Major in Philosophy

If you are thinking of majoring in philosophy, you should try a variety of courses and teachers before you declare your major, which you would normally do in the Spring Term of your Sophomore year.

If your first course in philosophy was some course other than a 100-level course, you should take one now, since they are more typical of what most philosophy courses are like than an interdisciplinary First-Year Seminar or logic is likely to be. They also aim specifically at developing basic philosophical skills in a way that these other courses don’t. So the sooner the better.

The major contains four core or required courses: Ancient Philosophy, Modern Philosophy, Ethics, and Logic (although students with appropriate background in mathematics may substitute Philosophy 281 (Advanced Logic) for Philosophy 210 (Logic) upon demonstrating that they have mastered the basic materials of 210.) Beyond the core requirements, we divide all our other 200+ level class into “Practical Philosophy/Value Theory” and “Theoretical Philosophy.” You are free to take whatever courses in these fields you want, although you must take at least one from each field.

You must also take two 300-level seminars over and above meeting the Theoretical/Practical distribution requirement.

Declaring a Major in Philosophy

If you are seriously considering majoring in philosophy, one question you may have is “What can you do with a philosophy major?”

The answer is, “Pretty much what you can do with any major from a liberal arts college such as Carleton.”

The point is that a B.A. in anything is seldom sufficient preparation for a specific career in that field, nor does it preclude any specific career. If you don’t major in philosophy it’s less likely (though still quite possible) that you’l wind up as a Professor of Philosophy.

Still, for most of the kinds of careers that do not require advanced study, a B.A. in philosophy is as good a credential as anything. And, with the obvious exception of advanced study in some other academic field (microbiology, say), this also holds for careers that do require advanced study, such as law and medicine. (For these latter careers, of course, it is necessary to complete more-or-less prescribed “pre-law” or “pre-med” courses; but these are not majors, and there is no reason why a philosophy major cannot be combined with such courses.)

Majoring in Philosophy

If you do declare a major, you should look ahead and plan carefully. As a small department we cannot afford the luxury of offering our required courses for majors more than once a year, and there is no guarantee that they will always be offered in the same term each year. Tentative curricular plans are made by the Department two years ahead, so if, as you declare your major as a Sophomore, you need to know what will be offered in your Senior year, you can get a pretty good idea by consulting with the Chair.

As a Junior major, your main task will be to finish several of the Core courses in no particular order (though the sooner you finish Logic, the better). Non-required courses  are not necessarily offered every year, and a section of 395 offered one year will almost certainly not be offered the next. (This is also true of most of the non-core 200-level courses.) So you would do well to consider the total picture of your two years as a major and perhaps fulfill one of these requirements in your junior year, or just take a course not being offered in your Senior year that you want to take and that counts towards the total number of credits required for the major

As a Senior, your main task is to complete the Senior Thesis (399), 6 credits in the Winter Term (regular grading method), followed by the Senior Colloquium (400), 3 credits in the Spring Term (graded Distinction, Satisfactory, or No Credit), the Department’s Integrative Exercise, popularly known as “Comps.”

Off-Campus Study

While the philosophy department does not run any off-campus study programs, philosophy majors routinely spend a term, or more, off-campus as part of Carleton and non-Carleton programs. Learn more about going off-campus as a philosophy major.

Other Academic Commitments

It is not uncommon for Philosophy majors to major in some other field as well. Philosophy majors have declared double majors in such field as Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. The main impediment to double-majoring, aside from doubling the generally demanding task of doing just one major, is the need to do “Comps” in both areas, typically but not necessarily one of them in the Junior year; any major in which you are prepared to do that will be one in which you have had a lot of experience early in your Carleton career, if not before.

At least as common as double majors are combinations of Philosophy majors and interdisciplinary concentrations. Currently, faculty in the Philosophy Department are members of Environmental and Technology Studies (ENTS), Cognitive Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. Other faculty have been active in Medieval Studies and American Studies. Beyond these, with the appropriate background and careful planning virtually any concentration can be combined with a major in Philosophy.

After Majoring in Philosophy

Something on the order of 20% of Carleton philosophy majors go to graduate school in philosophy and (mostly) on to academic careers. Almost as many go to law school. The rest spread themselves around in an amazing variety of occupations — medicine, architecture, journalism, business, technology, the ministry, social work, secondary school teaching, et al.

The sort of careful analytic thinking that a philosophy major fosters is one of the chief skills necessary for success in law school. Various studies seem to show that philosophy majors are disproportionately successful as law students, and law school admissions committees look favorably on philosophy majors with good academic records. But, of course, there’s nothing that makes the philosophy major a uniquely suitable preparation for law school.

Going to Graduate School in Philosophy

The decision to go to graduate school for the Ph.D. in philosophy is a much more difficult one from the point of view of one’s future than is the decision to major in philosophy as an undergraduate at Carleton. This flows from the fact that an academic career is the only career for which the Ph.D. in philosophy is a direct preparation, together with the fact that the academic job market in philosophy has for at least the last 30 years been a buyer’s market. So you must proceed towards the Ph.D. with no guarantee that at the end you will have the sort of career that, in all likelihood, you envisaged when you started.

In light of this fact, you should not go to graduate school in philosophy unless you genuinely want to study philosophy for its own sake.

But, of course, you still need to think about what you’ll do with the rest of your life and recognize that an academic career is by no means guaranteed. Here are some things to consider:

  1. The academic job market in philosophy has not changed over the last several years: there are still many more applicants for academic jobs than there are jobs. There is, moreover, no reason to suppose that a dramatic lowering of the ratio of applicants to jobs is in prospect.
  2. People with graduate philosophical training who do not wind up academics do not typically wind up with unsatisfactory careers. There are many jobs (in government, in the foundation world, in publishing, for example) which people with graduate training in philosophy hold and for which that training is relevant preparation, even though you wouldn’t have said to someone, “If you want that kind of a job, you must get a Ph.D. in philosophy.”

If you decide to apply for admission to graduate departments in philosophy, there are many sources of information. First, it is crucial that you talk to faculty members in the department, and the more of them, the better. They can help you select programs to apply to, prepare your applications, and advise you on getting the best letters of recommendation.

The best source of information is Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet Report (a ranking of graduate programs in philosophy in the English-speaking world). While a small minority of philosophers have problems with this ranking of departments (or with rankings in general), there is nothing else that is even close to being as valuable for prospective graduate students.

You can also refer to the American Philosophical Association’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy,  available in the Departmental Library in Leighton 306. This is a scrupulously non-judgmental fact book (as it had to be if the notoriously fractious APA was even to consider publishing such a book), and thus fairly uninformative.

The best source for detailed information on a given department is usually its website.

If you are planning to apply, you should take the GRE’s early in the Fall of your Senior year, perhaps even before the Carleton term begins. It’s a good idea to find out even before the end of your Junior year when the places you are anticipating applying to want you to take the GRE’s. (There is no GRE test specifically in philosophy.) If your overall academic record is suitably strong, you should definitely consider applying for Rhodes, Marshall, Mellon, or Fulbright awards.

Any member of the faculty will be happy to advise you; each will know different things about different graduate programs in different areas. Also please keep the Chair informed of your plans, so that we know exactly who is planning to apply where. This information can be very important for those who are writing recommendations.