Philosophy Department

What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?

Lecture given by Dr. Joseph McDonnell, Dean of USM's College of Management and Human Service.

Good afternoon.  I would like to thank Professor Crease and the faculty of the
Philosophy Department for giving me this honor to address you this afternoon.   

Let me first congratulate the graduates (and your parents) and commend you for having the courage to study philosophy.  I studied philosophy at a time when students were not so worried about employment.  I never felt the pressure as an undergraduate to pursue a more practical course of study that would lead to a job.  But today students and their parents are mindful of the pressure to obtain an education that leads to a career. I am sure you have been asked hundreds of times, “what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?”   

When Professor Crease sent me an email yesterday asking for the title to my talk, I had not even thought about a title.  But I wrote back that I thought it might be appropriate to title it, “What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?”  I thought he would not mind the title for a graduation speech but probably wouldn’t want to advertise such a title for freshman orientation for fear it might be misunderstood and there could be fewer students at future graduations. 

I hope you answer the question “what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy” by responding that you intend to lead a thoughtful life.   But as someone who has managed to leverage my philosophy degree into practical careers I want to assure you – and especially your parents – that philosophy does prepare you for the world of work.  I believe a liberal arts education – and especially the study of philosophy -- will serve you well in the long run because it prepares you for positions of leadership. 

For the last 8 years, I have educated students in a business school and have thought hard about the type of education required to prepare students for business careers. While serving as dean, I often engaged members of the business community in a discussion about their hiring practices and solicited their recommendations about the things we might do better to increase the probability of our students being hired by these companies.  The most frequent responses from these business leaders ran along the following lines: “We look for employees with leadership skills.  We want people who take initiative, work well in teams, think critically and creatively, communicate clearly, and put others and the organization ahead of their own interests.”  Ironically, these business leaders rarely said anything about the courses taught in the business school but pointed to skills and values more typically associated with a liberal arts education. 

In the business section of the Sunday New York Times, there is column called “The Corner Office” where each week the reporter interviews a different business leader.   After more than 80 interviews, the reporter recently wrote a book summarizing the qualities that contributed to the success of the occupants of these corners offices.  He described the first habit that these leaders possessed as “passionate curiosity,” an interest in all things to understand why they work that way and what could be done to make them better. 

It strikes me that those educated in philosophy possess this habit of inquiry and the sense of the interconnection of all things.  I do not think that you have an interest in philosophy to the exclusion of other subjects but that your interest in philosophy spurs you on to study and learn about other things.  It is your “passionate curiosity” that ought to give you confidence of your future success. 

When I obtained my bachelors in philosophy, I remember thinking “I am getting this degree today but I really don’t know that much.”  When I obtained advanced degrees, I did not feel more confident.  In fact, I had an even greater awareness of my own ignorance.  It was only years later that I realized that these degree programs are really designed to introduce us to a life of continuous learning. What we gain from our formal studies are intellectual habits that lead us to question, to think, to learn new skills and to gain insights to see things in ways we never saw before.  These are the things that will ultimately lead you to success. 

The measure of your education will be where you take it from here.  If you build upon this experience to begin today a life of continuous learning -- and over a career you will have to learn all sorts of things that you might not even imagine today – but if you begin a life of continuous learning I venture to predict that you will be successful in your career.  

Another habit noted as contributing to the success of these leaders was the ability to synthesize – to get to the heart of the matter-- to ask questions that lead to untapped opportunities.  Again, your study of philosophy has aided you in the art of questioning and synthesizing – so that you can assume the leadership that comes from framing issues for discussion.  

The third quality that distinguished these leaders had to do with working well in teams. Most of you will work in an organization of some kind – perhaps a business, a government agency, a school or university, a non- profit organization of some kind or even an organization that you start.  With a background in philosophy, you are well prepared to grasp the mission of that organization.  A mission is the organization’s purpose, the fundamental reason why it exists.   By following Socrates’ dictum to “know thyself” – to get a good sense of your own talents and interests -- you can determine how best you can contribute to your organization’s mission.   

Peter Drucker, the foremost management theorist in the 20th century, said that the focus on “contribution” is the key to managerial effectiveness.  He said that every manager should ask “what can I do that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution that I run?”  And I am suggesting that the same question should be asked by every one of us – even though we may never manage an organization.  What can you do that perhaps no one else is doing that if done well could make a real difference in your organization?  There is so much wasted energy in organizations because people focus on things that don’t help organizations fulfill their missions. 

As you pursue your life’s work try to find organizations where your talents let you provide the greatest contribution to the mission of that organization.  It is in finding that alignment between your talents and the organization’s mission where I believe you will achieve the greatest success and the most enjoyment.   

The theme of my talk has been how your education in philosophy will help you to succeed but before I close let me say a few words about what it means to be successful. In the MBA class I teach on Leadership, I include in my syllabus each semester a reading more likely found in a liberal arts program than a business course.  It’s my way of giving to business students a sample of the education that you have received. This semester we read Shakespeare’s Henry V to learn about inspirational leadership – to understand how Shakespeare’ Henry motivated others to join him in fulfilling a mission even when the likelihood of its success appeared remote. 

In previous semesters, the class read Plato’s Gorgias, named after a famous teacher of leadership and communication in Athens in 400BC.  Gorgias ran the equivalent of an MBA program – essentially teaching the youth of Athens how to get ahead in Athenian society by learning how to manage people through persuasion.  He taught many of the same principles that we teach in our management courses today. 

The dialogue is about the responsibility of teachers –– to teach about justice as well as the more technical skills students need to succeed and the obligation of students as they become leaders to undertake their managerial responsibilities with a sense of justice.  In the dialogue, Socrates probes Gorgias and his students about rhetoric and its relationship to justice. Rhetoric like business aims to succeed. But as a practical matter doing the right thing is often not the most effective thing.  In the dialogue, Socrates interrogates Callicles, a man who knows how to succeed in Athenian society.  Callicles observes that justice is impotent in the real world and that to succeed you have to align yourself with power – otherwise your life or certainly your careers can be crushed at the whim of the ruthless and powerful. But Socrates maintains that success is not the highest goal, that there are transcending principles like justice that trump success – even though the evidence may not support it.  In reading this dialogue, I want our business students, as they pursue a course of study designed to help them succeed in the real world, to reflect on their own goals and values. Plato challenges the instrumental thinking of business by arguing that there is a bottom line beyond the financial statement’s bottom line where justice rather than success is the ultimate end -- however contrary to experience that may be. 

It’s a good lesson for business students but also for all of us who are motivated to succeed.  And we all want to succeed.  It is your education in philosophy that will help you to keep that lesson in mind. So do not underestimate the value of philosophy and its relevance to the work that you will ultimately pursue. 

I encourage you to continue to learn – to develop the habits of mind that you have practiced during your studies here at Stony Brook and I hope this graduation day will be a real beginning for you.  Congratulations and best wishes.