Are you thinking of studying Philosophy?

Image shows a row of busts of philosophers.

Philosophy is arguably the oldest academic discipline in the world.
It introduces students to undergraduate thinking skills in their purest form. It asks fundamental questions that inform virtually every other subject area – consider jurisprudence (the philosophy of Law) or historiography (the philosophy of History). Students of Philosophy address the big questions from the essence of good and evil to the existence of God, or indeed the existence of anything at all.
Philosophy students need to be assertive, eager debaters, as much of Philosophy is concerned with discussion, debating and the construction and dissection of a good argument. Philosophy is also often taken with another subject as a joint honours degree – this can be a language, Theology, or something like Oxford’s well-known Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree. One factor that students may wish to consider is how much Theology they would like in their Philosophy, as this will vary greatly between degrees.

What kind of things can I expect to study?

Image shows Bibles laid on a church pew.
Some Philosophy courses focus more on religion than others.

Though the distinction is said to be eroding, British university syllabi still focus on analytic philosophy in contrast to continental philosophy. Typical first-year modules include Metaphysics, Logic and Ethics. Expect to do a great deal of reading, from the ancients to modern philosophers via the Enlightenment. Modern philosophy is likely to be under-represented in at the start of your degree when you are still laying the foundations for later study.
After first year, the modules you can study will become more varied and you will have more choice. Possible modules might include Mathematical Logic (Cambridge), Feminist Philosophy (Sussex), Global Bioethics (Birmingham) and Indian Philosophy (Liverpool). The focus in compulsory modules is likely to be on mainstream western philosophy, from which you can then diversify in your optional modules.

What do I need for a Philosophy degree?

Image shows a highlighted essay.
Essay-writing skills are vital for Philosophy.

Grade requirements for Philosophy vary widely, and there aren’t any specific subject requirements either. A-level Philosophy is not a requirement; only one exam board offers it, its future is in question and it isn’t taught in many schools. In fact, you may find that taking other subjects may serve you better.
However, at least one essay subject is a must, and two is preferable, if only to prepare you for the workload in terms of reading, writing and research that you will have to adapt to at university. Religious Studies is probably the most relevant subject that is widely taught; some specifications include more Philosophy than others. However, if you are less interested in Philosophy in a religious context, subjects like English Literature and History will also serve you very well.
University-level Philosophy can also be more scientific than you might expect. Partly for that reason, A-level Mathematics might suit you better than you would expect. Modern Philosophy frequently uses mathematical notation, and training in Logic will also be helpful. Similarly, there is overlap between Philosophy and Physics.

What skills will I acquire?

Philosophy students primarily acquire skills in thinking, reasoning and logical argument – and in being able to put their thoughts on paper in a clear and coherent way. Philosophers learn thinking skills to a higher level than almost any other degree, and are able to put forward their own arguments, analyse those of others, and find common ground – a value skill in a wide variety of careers. Philosophers also learn how to present complex ideas in straightforward ways.
Additionally, Philosophy students will gain all the skills you would expect from any humanities degree, such as research, time management and the ability to motivate themselves when working independently.

Will I get to travel as part of my degree?

Image shows a view over Paris.
Philosophy and French is a popular combination.

Philosophy lends itself reasonably well to a year or a term spent abroad, so you may be able to arrange this. There is no travel inherent in a Philosophy. However, Philosophy major with a language minor is a popular combination for many students, and this would involve a year spent abroad.

What careers are possible with a Philosophy degree?

The job market for Philosophy graduates could be better. 10% of recent Philosophy graduates are unemployed, and 20% of those who are employed are working in retail, catering and bar work. This is connected to the fact that Philosophy has very few vocational uses, and has been seen as a degree for students who don’t really know what they want to study (a stereotype that soon falls down in conversation with actual Philosophy students).
Of course, Philosophy graduates do have the full range of careers for which a degree in almost any discipline is acceptable open to them; you can read more about these kinds of careers here.
Philosophy students, like most humanities students, can also take advantage of their flexible timetable to pursue extracurricular activities and part-time jobs to flesh out their CV and boost their job prospects.

Related degrees

Image shows Roman ruins and statues.
Prospective Philosophy students might also enjoy Classics.

If you are thinking of studying Philosophy, you might also wish to consider:

  • Politics and International Relations – with much the same level of discussion and debate, these degree subjects, often taken in combination, relate the ethical dilemmas of Philosophy to real-world issues.
  • Law – similarly, Law involves philosophical discussion, but with a vocational bent.
  • Classics – as so much of modern-day Philosophy is still based on the writings of the ancient world, it makes sense that the study of Classics appeals to prospective Philosophy students.

A final thought on Philosophy

In subjects that deal in hypothesis, opinion and debate rather than concrete facts, it’s inevitably the case that while there are no right answers, there are plenty of wrong ones. This is the case in Philosophy, but possibly less so that in other subjects; Philosophy has been criticised as having been studied for longer than virtually any other subject but having produced very little by the way of definitive answers in all that time. But this means that for students who are keen to challenge ideas, to discuss, to debate and above all, never to take any established fact or norm for granted, Philosophy is the perfect home.

Image credits: banner; Bibles; essay; Paris; Classics.