"If you are an economics major you probably won't be re-reading Milton Friedman in twenty years. That's not true of philosophy." That was just one of the many reasons for studying philosophy given by the panel of five alumni that met in Robbins Library on March 31st. Organized by Head Tutor Cheryl Chen, the alumni panel presented the 22 undergraduate students in attendance with an opportunity to hear from former philosophy concentrators at every stage of their careers, from those just starting out to recent retirees.
A consistent theme among all the panelists was the versatility and practical value that philosophical training has outside of the academy. Theodora Skeadas '12—a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton working on issues of cyber security and counter-terrorism—noted how the philosophical habit of uncovering and questioning one's deepest assumptions regularly informs her work on the question of what drives young people to join extremist groups. She likewise credited the department with developing her ability to "articulate arguments clearly and concisely," abilities that are highly valued by the members of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Secutrity for whom she regularly consults. Prior to joining Booz Allen Hamilton, Skeadas's interests in justice and political conflict—interests that shaped her senior thesis, directed by Frances Kamm, on the ethics of war—led her to work with refugees outside of Ramallah and, later, with an NGO in Morocco.
Skeadas's sentiments were echoed by Paul Harris '71. Harris, a former CEO for John Hancock where he managed a $6 billion transportation portfolio, observed that, while it may have been his joint concentration in mathematics that opened the doors for him into the world of investment management, it was his philosophy concentration that proved the more regularly useful of the two. "After September 11," Harris said, "when United Airlines went into bankruptcy and I suddenly found myself in negotiation with the airline over repayment of our investments, it was the abilities I learned and developed in the philosophy department that I drew on. The ability to enter into and consider other points of view, to anticipate objections, and to prepare counter-arguments proved invaluable in the process of arriving at a reasonable settlement between John Hancock and United Airlines."
Victor Wu '16, a joint concentrator in Philosophy and Social Studies and a research associate at Harvard Business School, praised the department's graduate Teaching Fellows for making him a better writer. "TFs in the philosophy department don't put up with BS in papers," Wu said. "From course to course there is a consistent focus on helping you to clarify what it is that you are thinking that simply isn't found elsewhere."
Perhaps most notably for those in attendance, all five of the panelists pursued and found work in fields other than philosophy. In addition to those already mentioned, Dillon Plunkett '13 is currently pursuing a PhD in psychology at Harvard while Matthew Hegarty '82 works in cybersecurity for Philips. Nevertheless, each was emphatic about the value of studying philsophy and its usefulness in both work and life. As Hegarty observed, "Throughout your life you will run into many people who are dogmatic in their beliefs. And philosophy is a very useful tonic against dogmatism."