What it’s like to study Philosophy in university: reflections of a philo undergrad

What comes to your mind when you hear of the word philosophy?

You might think of people using the word to mean their beliefs and attitudes that guide how they act and behave in daily life. But what about philosophy as an academic discipline?

Tell people that you are studying philosophy and you get a range of reactions.

Some will go WOW. Some will question the usefulness of such an academic discipline.

Others might remember this meme from 2015:

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What is Philosophy?

In philosophy, we study and ask questions about life and the universe. We grapple with issues concerning the nature of reality, morality, and truth, among many others. We also ask questions about what knowledge is, what justice looks like, and whether god exists. And these questions have remained pertinent and relevant for thousands of years, and even in the present day.

You might be surprised to learn that many academic disciplines we now see in the university were historically part of philosophy. Natural philosophy included what we now know as the natural sciences (mathematics, physics, and chemistry, to name a few). The study of ideas about society, economy, and language, became sociology, economics, and linguistics as separate academic disciplines.

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At its core, philosophy is about critical inquiry, systematic argumentation, and the use of reason to analyze issues and challenge assumptions. These skills you develop in philosophy are transferable and applicable not just in your career, but also in your social life and personal growth. Furthermore, philosophy can complement and augment learning and research in other fields, such as Physics, Computer Science, and History.

Academics

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some topics and questions you might encounter in an undergraduate philosophy course:

  • Philosophy of language: What is the nature of linguistic meaning? How is language related to thought? What is the relation between language and the world?
  • Ethics and Moral Philosophy: What is morally right and what is morally wrong? What is good and what is bad? Is there really something that is right/wrong, or good/bad?
  • Political Philosophy: What is political authority? What is justice? Which political arrangements are good/right/just?
  • Metaphysics: What is the fundamental nature of reality? (including questions like: What is there?) What is causation? What is the nature of space and time and do they really exist?
  • Epistemology: What is knowledge? Is knowledge possible?
  • Logic: the study of rules governing reasoning and the forms of inference; study of proofs, paradoxes, and fallacies; the study of formal systems used to characterize reasoning and inference
  • Philosophy of mind: What is the nature of mind and consciousness? How is the mind and consciousness related to the physical brain?

  • Philosophy of Religion: What is the nature of ‘God’? Does ‘God’ exist? Is it reasonable to believe in miracles? Is there life after death?
  • History of Philosophy and Comparative Philosophy: Asian and European philosophical traditions including Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Existentialism, Phenomenology, etc.
  • Philosophy of (natural) Science: What is the nature and basis of scientific knowledge? What counts as a good scientific explanation? What is the role of values in the (natural) sciences?
  • Philosophy of the social sciences: What is the role of values in the social sciences? How is social reality constructed? How can the social sciences be objective? How are causal inferences made in the social sciences?

Curriculum and Assessments

Like the usual undergraduate, a philosophy student undertakes an average of 5 modules each semester. Learning is facilitated through assigned readings of philosophical texts (classical texts, journal articles, and book chapters) and classroom discussions in either lecture-tutorial or seminar-style settings. The reading for each week is usually 1 or 2 chapters of a book or articles from academic journals. Lessons conducted in lecture-tutorial format are usually for modules at the introductory levels due to the larger size of the cohort. Seminar classes are the norm as you progress to modules of a higher level and which involve more in-depth study of a subfield of philosophy.

Learning is assessed in the following ways:

MCQs: For modules at the introductory levels, you would often come across multiple-choice questions (MCQs) being incorporated as part of the assessments, sometimes as weekly quizzes to test your understanding of the readings and apply them to hypothetical scenarios, and sometimes as part of the semester’s final exam.

Term paper: Depending on the module and on the lecturer teaching it, you may be given a set of questions to choose one to respond to, or you may be given the choice of coming up with your own topic to respond to. Usually written in an essay format, these papers typically range between 1000 words to 2000 words, or with a limit of between 2—5 pages.

There are also times when the format of the paper differs from that of an essay. For example, in a module on Greek philosophy, the lecturer gave us the option of writing our assignment in the form of a dialogue, where the argument of the philosophical debate laid out in a more conversational form. That was also an area to be creative as we were free to use any setting and characters to flesh out our argument, possible objections, and to defend our argument against those objections.

In philosophy, one of the most important criteria by which lecturers assess our writing is clarity. Definitions are important; we define key terms before starting to make our argument. Jargon is frowned upon as it could make our writing harder to understand. The common test for clarity that has been repeated by many of our lecturers is that someone who has never taken that particular philosophy module, or any philosophy module for that matter, should be able to understand what the piece of writing seeks to express.

Group Projects: Occasionally, there are modules with a group project component where members are tasked with coming up with a presentation or group term paper (or sometimes both). Some require you to explain the concepts and arguments discussed in class, while others require higher-level analysis and evaluation, all of which test the students’ understanding of the material and their ability to apply or even question the basis of such ideas.

Final examinations: This could comprise MCQs or essay questions, or both. Not all philosophy modules have a final exam component; some have a final essay assignment in replacement. Contrary to what most people might assume of exams, some final exams for philosophy are actually open-book. However, having open-book exams do not make it easier for students. The exams are more of a test of your ability to critically evaluate and apply the concepts learnt in the module rather than a test of your ability to regurgitate content like what most students would have experienced in O levels or even the A levels. Open-book exams require higher-order thinking and lecturers have higher expectations of the responses than that of a closed-book exam since the students should be relying less on memory work.

Career Prospects for Philosophy students

Despite commonly-held concerns about what a degree in Philosophy could offer in terms of one’s future career, let me end on a positive note. Philosophy graduates have ventured into careers in different sectors and industries, including diplomacy, entrepreneurship, and filmmaking. Others have gone into banking and finance, policy planning, business, teaching, and writing. Some do go on to graduate school, in philosophy or in related disciplines such as linguistics, business, or law.

We are now living in a world where your academic qualifications and what you major in is of lesser significance to your future career or your employers; it’s the skills you possess that matter more. Therefore, it’s important to look at where your interests, both academic and non-academic, lie.

Seek out opportunities to develop your skills in the pursuit of your interests. Learn something new, go for internships in sectors you are interested in, pick up organizational skills in student clubs/societies, or participate in social initiatives. It is the holistic learning experience that you can create for yourself in university that will make you well-prepared for whatever the future throws at you.

As you explore and gain experience in different areas, you create new possibilities for yourself. You might also realize that the world is much more interconnected than you think. Even academic disciplines are more interrelated than they seem. Interdisciplinarity is gaining traction as we discover useful and interesting insights in the intersection between the STEM disciplines and the humanities and social sciences.

Philosophy is applicable to a wide range of fields. Critical thinking, persuasive communication, and effective reasoning—some of the skills one would develop in the study of philosophy, are not just highly transferable across industries and sectors but are also the ones that remain highly relevant to employers. And while you can develop these skills without being in a philosophy course, few university degrees provide the same learning experience that place huge emphasis on honing these skills.

This recognition of the importance and relevance of philosophy is not lost in the business or technology world, including by executives in Microsoft and a co-founder of LinkedIn. More personally, I have seen examples of how philosophy is relevant in careers beyond academia, such as a senior who interned in a law firm, and another whose job involves data analytics.

So it’s up to us to learn how to integrate philosophy with other strengths and interests of ours.

Because it is then that we open up more options. And our choices shape what we do to get there.

Our choices define our future.

 

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Zhang Quan is an undergraduate reading philosophy at NUS, with additional interests in history, politics, society, and linguistics. He enjoys learning for curiosity’s sake and believes in the importance of interdisciplinarity for a holistic understanding of the world. He strives to contribute to sustainable social impact by empowering fellow youths through writing and education. He spends his time reading, watching anime and Korean dramas, and (over-)thinking. He is in the process of learning new languages and picking up coding.

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