How I Actually Use My Two Philosophy Degrees (That I’m $70k In Debt For)

By | Thursday, September 03, 2015


I studied at the University of Waterloo in Canada for both of my degrees in philosophy (’05 BA, ’12 MA). There comes a point in every philosophy student’s career where they stop justifying their educational choice to others, and start some serious soul-searching. The thing about majoring in philosophy is that you don’t do it out of interest; you have to *L-O-V-E* it.  You think about it when you wake up, you breathe it during the day, and it keeps you up late into the night. You also have to resolve the existential angst stemming from your choice of major and the fact that the job title of “philosopher” has more or less died off in the modern era. If you are not bound for a life of professional academics, you will need a strategy to enter the workforce and an encyclopedic command of what Socrates said won’t quite pass the muster as “relevant experience.”

Right off the bat, I have a confession. A chap by the name of Kierkegaard once observed that life is lived forwards, but understood backwards. I can look back at my life so far and connect dots that, at the time, I couldn’t see. Most of the time, I had absolutely no clue what the right thing to do was work-wise. I was making it up as I went, and putting on a false confidence to those who had questions or doubts.  (If you feel the same way, you are not alone!)  Remember, even if you feel like an impostor, faking it until you make it is totally a viable strategy if you play things smart.

Anyway, I was thankfully insulated from the economic downturn of 2008, and because I didn’t have a post-graduate work plan, I chose to continue my studies into master’s work. I had originally thought I would work towards a PhD and teach full-time.  However, instead, I slowly burnt out. It took two-years longer to complete my MA than expected, and I realized I wasn’t cut out for the academy. So, when I finished school, I was roughly $70K in debt with two very expensive pieces of paper and a 100-page thesis on the ethics of bystander first aid rescue.  

Thankfully, while I was in school, I was also availing myself of the opportunities you can find while living in the University community. You see, a common misconception, that is thankfully falling out of favor, is that a degree in a relevant field is the only thing you need to work.  However, anyone who has tried to find work knows that the marketplace of job-seekers is saturated with degrees. You need to stand-out among your peers. One way to do this is through experience. 

While at school, I participated in a number of activities and extracurriculars, but the key defining experience was from joining the campus first aid team.  Not only did I meet and work with amazing people, but I gained valuable leadership and management experience. The experience was so pivotal, I changed my thesis topic to write about the ethics of first aid!  From that experience, I got my first academic job as a research assistant in the UW Gambling Lab. With my working knowledge of anatomy, I was hired onto a team that pioneered the techniques we used to collect data in the field. The lab would send us to casinos to recruit slot machine players, and we would collect data measuring heart rates (think EKG) and physiological excitement while playing slots.  

Beyond the gambling lab, there were a number of other experiences that helped me along the way. I volunteered in my community with a cancer support center, where I recorded the minutes for the Board of Directors. I also volunteered with the local Community Foundation on projects such as program evaluation and managing a video production project. While in grad school, I won a karaoke contest at a bar and was hired as a host. After a few years, the head of security suggested I become a licensed security guard, so I was hired as a bouncer. Both of these roles really helped me learn how to talk to people. It was an important skill-set I learned, along with confidence, attention to detail (spotting fake IDs!), and conflict resolution.

Here is where all of this weird experience comes together. Two years ago, I applied for a research assistant job in the Engineering Department of a local College. They were looking for a secretary who had some research exposure and relevant experience in office administration, which I had no formal qualifications in. Instead, I demonstrated that I could learn and develop new systems on the fly with little direct supervision (casino field work), research data and think critically about problems big and small (philosophy), I could take accurate and detailed meeting minutes (cancer resource center), am capable of learning new skills for project-based work (community foundation), and I could talk to busy industry leaders to work on a common goal having only just met them (bouncing).  Because I consistently added value to the department, the Dean kept trusting me with new work, which is how I extended my year contract. It led my boss to create a new full-time position in the department, which I started in mid-August.

The road out of a Humanities degree is bumpy and unclear. The most valuable lesson I learned, so far, is that when the obvious path seems out of reach, there is always a back road you can take. Make no mistake, it takes some hustle and self-reflection. You never know which opportunity will pay off, but you have to explore and take those shots. There are two pieces of advice I give to students: first, while grades are important, don’t waste the opportunity to explore things outside of class. Arguably, you learn more things that will help you in the workforce, rather than just the content of the lectures.  And, next, surround yourself with good people. People who care about you, who support your efforts for self-improvement, and who are willing to help you in your career. The opportunities I’ve gotten happened because I knew someone, who knew someone, who was looking for a solution to a problem that I could provide. Sometimes, it takes a little mental sweat to connect the dots. But really, what other degree is better at gaining insight from madness than philosophy?

Ryan is a recovering philosophy major hailing from Waterloo, Ontario.  You can find him on Twitter and on Instagram, where he posts his amateur attempts at cuisine and way too many pictures of his dog.

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