What Can You Do With a Philosophy Degree?

By Lillien Waller

What can you do with a philosophy degree? Turns out, any number of things, as these five Commonwealth School alumni/ae have demonstrated with their careers in academia, digital publishing, banking, screenwriting, and more. And they agree that the real value of a philosophy degree is learning a way of being in the world with others, asking interesting and often tough questions about who we are and how we live.

Untangle Webs: Stacie Haynes-Roberts ’89

During the financial crisis that began around 2008, many Americans felt as if their financial foundations were crumbling—for good reason. Ten years later, after the dust settled on what turned out to be a global recession, economists estimated that the U.S. GDP was approximately twelve percent below pre-crisis growth trends. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the combination of decreased revenues and increased expenditures between 2008–2010 will ultimately cost every single American about $70,000 in lifetime income.

Stacie Haynes-Roberts ’89 had a unique vantage point in 2008 as a supervisory analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and she makes two key observations about that time: as bad as it was—with the loss of livelihoods and homes and imploding banking institutions—most of us will never know how fragile global economies really were. And the training Stacie received as a philosophy major at Haverford College was crucial to navigating the chaos.

“One of the things I learned, and I think a lot of us were figuring out, was just how difficult it was for any person, or even any segment of the disaggregated financial services supervisory community, to wrap their arms around the entirety of the U.S. financial system,” Stacie explains. “Nobody owns all of it. No single institution owns all of it. I remember one day there was a series of people making connections between one piece of the financial machine and another and another, and saying, ‘Oh my God, if this fails, then this could fail, and then this could fail.’ And people, like light bulbs, would go off at random times during the day, thinking of something else that we had to address. It was so incredibly stressful.”

Her background in philosophy, particularly the critical thinking at its core, was essential to understanding such cascading failure, Stacie maintains, and it has been apt preparation for working and succeeding within the world of banking. She began her career as a financial-planning specialist at Merrill Lynch “making rich people richer”—not what she wanted to be doing long term. For the next thirteen years, she worked as an examiner and analyst for the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, then Boston, and, finally, San Francisco. Stacie is now a senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Washington, D.C., where she and her teams oversee regulatory compliance engagements for large financial institutions such as banks, automotive finance companies, mortgage lenders, money service businesses, credit unions, and consumer products manufacturers.

“I didn’t realize just how desperate we are as a species for critical thinking and just how absent it is,” Stacie says, “and that need has only increased while the presence of that kind of thinking has only diminished. So, my appreciation for that kind of [philosophy] training has only grown since Haverford. And I don’t care whether it’s my professional life or my personal life. It is essential to both.

“How do you get people to work with you? You’re there for their benefit, but they may not see it that way. A lot of that is in relationship building. And how do you do that effectively? You might not think philosophy would have anything to do with it, but the Socratic Method is key.”

Hers is not at all a mainstream perspective on the worth of a humanities degree, let alone a degree in philosophy. But Stacie explains that the foundation of her philosophy training at Haverford College was the mentorship of Professor Lucius Outlaw, Jr. Even before she declared a major, Dr. Outlaw, along with a few other African American professors, held a gathering welcoming Black freshmen to let them know that they were invested in their success at the college. Stacie has carried that ethic into her own work. Dr. Outlaw was Stacie’s thesis advisor and, after the death of her mother, a surrogate parent.

The two remain close, and she holds dear what he taught her: rigor and precision in thought and deed, the importance of embracing Black community, and most crucially, as she succeeds, to bring others along with her.

“Professionally,” she says, “I’ve decided that, as a Black woman with access to people who are not Black, one of the things that I can do is work on behalf of other Black folks or the next Latina or the next Asian person. There’s a way I can see racism. I can see misogyny. I can see homophobia. There’s a way in which I have been trained to see those things and to create space for the people who are othered.”

Probe Perennial Questions: Jessica Moss ’91

“How can you tell that you’re not dreaming? How can you tell that you’re not spending your entire life in a computer simulation?” Jessica Moss ’91, professor of philosophy at New York University, often hears these questions from first-time philosophy students. “I love it when people find out that this thing they’ve been doing all along—asking questions their parents have told them to stop asking because they don’t have answers—is a real thing that you can study. And it’s a thing that people have been doing for thousands of years.”

Jessica studied philosophy for the first time as a sophomore at Commonwealth in Mr. Kaplan’s course. The class read Plato’s Meno, a dialogue between Socrates and his student on the nature of virtue. It was one of several great reads that semester, and she describes the dialogue as having been intellectually intense but nonetheless satisfying. “I felt like I could make connections and understand what was going on, and I felt excited by the ideas,” she recalls. “[Meno] had some of what I liked about reading literature, but it also had these puzzles that would get under my skin, and I was hooked. Ever since then, I’ve loved Plato.” The experience showed Jessica why someone might want to study a subject that is thought by many to be esoteric but is mostly about exploring the perennial questions we ask ourselves.

Now a specialist in ancient philosophy, Jessica’s research looks at epistemology, ethics, and psychology. All roads in the Western tradition lead back to the ancients, but they still have much to tell us about the way we live now, particularly as it concerns the need for critical thinking and the ability to distinguish between knowledge and belief. Think so-called fake-news media or even the proliferation of AI—anything that relies on how something appears to us. “A lot of my work has focused on this idea, that runs very strongly in ancient philosophy, that appearances are very powerful,” Jessica explains. “But you have to be careful with them. A lot of our decisions, but also our emotions and desires, are influenced by how things appear to us, where that can include things appearing good or bad. For example, tasty treats appear good and hard work appears bad. And I think both Plato and Aristotle were really perceptive psychologists who thought that there is actually a whole part of our psyche that’s taken in by appearances without being able to question them at all, and that part is the source of our emotions and our desires. But we also have this other part that can reason and reflect and criticize. And that’s the part that they think we should trust and need to strengthen. I’ve been interested in how that gets picked up in modern psychology.” Her work, she says, has recently taken a turn from explaining or interpreting what Plato and Aristotle meant toward relating their ideas to contemporary philosophy “and thinking about analogies between knowing a person and knowing a fact, and believing a person or believing a fact or claim.”

The study of philosophy has many rewards, and Jessica wishes everyone could take the time to ponder its questions. She does outreach work in high schools and a local detention center and often encounters the preconception among students that philosophy won’t be for them. While that may be true for some people, for many others, something clicks. “If you can just get people to see what the question is, then a lot of times they think, ‘Oh yeah, I think about that all the time,’ or ‘I find this fascinating,’ or ‘This is getting under my skin.’”

Asking questions—some of which don’t have evident answers or evident means to achieve answers—is an activity that human minds do naturally, Jessica says. “The questions can’t be answered by science or history or even observation. You just find out by thinking. I feel really lucky to have been able to turn it into a career.”

Mess with Expectations: Fred Barron ’65

This is the one about the philosophy student who becomes a successful television comedy writer…

As a writer/producer, Fred Barron ’65 helped launch Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Caroline in the City, and Dave’s World, as well as the HBO miniseries Sessions with Billy Crystal. Following a bout with cancer, Fred relocated to the U.K. in 2000, where he created the BBC One series My Family, bringing the American writer’s table to British sitcom production—which, even today, rarely airs multiwriter television shows. The series ran for eleven seasons and was considered a favorite sitcom of the early 2000s.

But there’s before this and after this. Long before his career in television, Fred attended the University of Wisconsin and majored in philosophy because, as he tells it, “it was great learning how to argue and seeing things from different points of view.” He went on to pursue graduate study in philosophy, until his girlfriend Jeanne, now his wife of more than fifty years, reminded him who he really was. “She said, ‘Don’t be crazy. You’re funny. You’re not a professor: You’re a writer.’ And that was the first time someone—other than myself—called me a writer. Who was I to question? I dropped out, Jeanne transferred to BU, and we moved back to Boston.” Fred worked as a freelance journalist for publications like the now-defunct Boston alternative weekly The Phoenix, which served as inspiration for his first film script, Between the Lines.

After interviewing director Joan Micklin Silver at the Cannes Film Festival, Fred met her again at the Boston premiere of her film Hester Street. “Joan had liked the article I’d written from Cannes and invited me to dinner,” Fred recalls. “Since Joan was the only person I knew who had actually made a successful low-budget film, I asked if she would read my screenplay, Between the Lines. A week later, she called to say she wanted to make it as her next film. Just like that. “I always wanted to be a writer, since I was six or even earlier, so that was never an issue. But what kind of writing? What would it be? How would I express myself?” Fred explains. “My writer’s voice hadn’t developed. I didn’t have a good descriptive sense. But dialogue? The back and forth of conversation? Maybe that’s the reason I was drawn to philosophy: I loved arguing things from different sides, and I ended up using that in the comedy. The basis for all my comedy was that you mess with people’s expectations.”

The comedy-drama Between the Lines, starring Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, and Lindsay Crouse, was released in 1977. The film received critical praise and is now considered an indie classic. It also put Fred on the radar of MTM Enterprises. “It all happened very quickly,” he says. “I was out in L.A. doing publicity for Between the Lines when James L. Brooks, who created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and his head writer, Treva Silverman, hunted me down and for whatever reason took me under their wings.”

For the next thirty years, Fred wrote for and created some of the most memorable sitcoms in American television. His last project before retiring allowed him to cater to his love of “outsider art.” He wrote and co-produced the feature documentary Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, about a former enslaved person who started drawing in his eighties, which had its world premiere at the Smithsonian in 2020 in conjunction with the first retrospective of Traylor’s art.

When asked how he reflects on his television work, however, his answer is both surprising and self-aware. “The world since Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, is so different, as far as what white male writers sitting in a room thought was funny. Yes, it was funny the way Copernicus said that the planets and the entire universe go around the sun; he was wrong, but he got part of it right. I think the shows were funny. They were wonderful. But they weren’t sufficient. There were so many other voices out there, newer voices. And I look at the assumptions we made for jokes, and it just feels a little embarrassing. We’re better than that now. We’ve improved.”

Solve the Biggest Problems: Alexander Lee ’06

What if our current assumptions about how to protect the environment are incomplete or just wrong? What does it even mean to hold space for new thinking—on climate change, for example, or species conservation—as the human impact on the planet only intensifies? Alexander Lee ’06, associate professor of philosophy at Alaska Pacific University (APU), has built a career grappling with these questions and more. A specialist in environmental philosophy with a focus on applied ethics, Alex combines his academic background in philosophy and earth sciences with his love for the outdoors not only in order to think but to do.

Philosophy isn’t just an intellectual exercise, says Alex, who points out that most philosophers are deeply invested in whether the questions they examine might be applicable to real-world problems. Environmental philosophy, in particular, is a branch of the field in which solving real problems is precisely the point. “It really matters if we can shape a better understanding of what it means to have a true belief, what it means to understand wrongdoing or harm to others. These questions have huge implications for how we live our lives,” Alex explains. “Environmental ethics is a way to take philosophical theory but try to use it in the service of an applied field. And for me, I went down that route really because I became passionate about both philosophy and environmental problems.”

Alex’s passion for philosophy began at Commonwealth, where he took two ethics courses with then-Headmaster Bill Wharton, and continued at Dartmouth College. He didn’t think he would ultimately major in philosophy, but while he was cultivating his interest in the earth sciences, he filled all of his electives with philosophy courses—resulting, accidentally, in a double major. At that point, he knew he wanted to pursue environmental science but he also wanted to learn more about the philosophy of science and ethics. Graduate school at University of Colorado, Boulder, enabled him to combine these interests and learn to apply philosophical thinking to environmental issues.

“Let’s look at something like climate change or biodiversity loss or conservation challenges or resource use,” Alex says. “How do we manage these problems in the most ethical way possible? As an environmental ethicist, I have a foot in a very theoretical world: ethics. But I also have a foot in a world where we look at environmental policies, management practices, and management decisions. What can philosophy tell us about these policies and practices, about our behaviors? And how might ethics guide us to build better policies, better behaviors, or help us evaluate different choices we might face when trying to solve a problem?”

His current areas of research circle a number of significant concerns, but one in particular will help shape the book he is writing: the ways in which our environmental consciousness from the twentieth century, which focused on resolving discrete problems—a “find a fire, put it out” approach—might be inadequate for addressing twenty-first-century systems-level problems.

Alex teaches a number of courses at APU, including Environmental Philosophy, The Philosophy of Science and Technology, Environmental Policy, and Critical Thinking and Ethics—a required general education course that helps develop a skill set every student, regardless of major, would find valuable. “I fully believe that, as a society, we disagree on less than we often think we do,” he explains. “And it’s because we’re using different language, and we’re having different conversations, and we’re [basing our opinions] on different assumptions. If we can break those down and understand that, we can find a lot more common ground and make a lot more progress, right?”

Capture Culture: Jesse P. Karlsberg ’99

Having a background in philosophy can provide the clarity of thought and purpose needed to navigate periods of transition—and the rise of digital publishing is no exception. The Internet seemed to signal the imminent decline of print, a zero-sum game in which technology ultimately bested printed scholarship. But to Jesse P. Karlsberg ’99, senior digital scholarship strategist at Emory University, technology offers thrilling opportunities, helping us make research more accessible while also documenting and preserving cultures. In Jesse’s case, American vernacular music books and performance.

“Digital scholarship is the idea that technology impacts research, teaching, and publishing in academia in all kinds of ways,” Jesse says, “and that universities need people thinking critically about that and also pursuing research and innovation in those areas.

“My role is to understand this landscape and how it’s changing. Publishing on the Web and in other digital environments presents opportunities to do things that printed books or printed journals cannot do. It pushes conversations beyond the book—to sharing research data, curating thematic collections, or bringing new light to scholarly editions. It gets people thinking about publishing their data and digitally presenting the sources on which they base their arguments.”

Jesse is the product owner of Readux, developed at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. Readux is an open-access, open-source, Web-based platform that enables scholars, students, and independent researchers to teach, learn from, and engage with digitized historical books. As a graduate student in American Studies at Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts, Jesse was studying shape-note singing, a form of musical notation and sacred vocal music originating in the nineteenth century. He wanted to publish an edition of a historical songbook digitally but realized that tools for digital publishing had a number of inherent deficits that would need to be overcome, deficits that Readux was designed to address.

At the time, digitally published books tended to privilege text over image, so they were often not captured in totality. “I was really interested in developing software that would enable us to harness the affordances that digital environments ought to offer for representing historical texts—centering the image, but not losing what you get by presenting the text and perhaps even the musical information.” Another issue was that, despite the voluminous number of digitized books being produced, “people were starting to realize that digitization didn’t solve any kind of access problem on its own.” Most digital resources were sitting on servers. Even as they were available via library search interfaces, siloed within individual institutions, very few people knew these resources even existed.

With Readux, researchers can annotate digitized books and create and publish digital editions and inter-institutional thematic research collections, as is the case with Jesse’s Sounding Spirit Digital Library project. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sounding Spirit encourages collaborative engagement with southern American sacred songbooks through the publication of scholarly editions and thematic research and teaching collections of digitized works.

A composer and internationally recognized Sacred Harp singer, Jesse is passionate about the preservation of American sacred music cultures. He has sung since his time in Commonwealth’s Chorale and explains that there is something both transporting and grounding about singing with others “in the same space, facing them, vibrating the air, feeling it in our bodies. It’s when I most experience my personhood and my humanity, being a part of society.”

Lillien Waller is a poet, essayist, and editor. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets, and she is editor of the anthology American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry (Stockport Flats). Lillien is a Cave Canem Fellow and a Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts. She lives in Detroit. This article originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of CM, Commonwealth's alumni/ae magazine.

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