Anyone who majors in the humanities has had to endure a version of that question more than once. As I went through graduate school, people asked the question less and less. By the time I was teaching classes, I had a pretty ready answer (teaching is paying work, you know?). As a professor, the question answers itself.
Of course, being a philosophy professor is not for everybody. The crowded academic job market alone is enough to dissuade the faint of heart. The work is demanding, involving wearing the hats of instructor, researcher, and administrator. To succeed, one has to be flexible, creative, think on one's feet, and be ready to ask hard questions of oneself and of others. As academic institutions rely on more part-time and temporary staff, success often translates into more work without longer-term commitment from the organization. One can invest a whole lot of time and energy without knowing whether that organization will continue to provide support.
Living the life of a professor for a little while, I've tasted some of the good and the bad. I've taught over a thousand students in seven years as an instructor, published on intellectual property, privacy rights, and the ethics of emerging technologies. I've overseen the intellectual development of students, graduate assistants, and junior colleagues, counseling them on their academic and personal lives. I've also had my share of being buried in grading, bouncing from class to meeting to class, and working under a deadline, all on the same day. My faith in my students' potential has clashed with the dissatisfied and disillusioned, and I've vindicated my faith with great student performance. I love to teach the thinkers that are too difficult for students, Leibniz, Marx, Nietzsche, and Nagarjuna, and I've been rewarded by their insights. I've also had that faith dashed by recalcitrant classes and the pressure of other responsibilities, leaving me to figure out what went wrong and how to do it better next time.
I did all of that with a degree in philosophy, and I have to say I did it well. Despite those results and the continued push for excellence, temporary employment with no future guarantees remained the order of the day. Many academics at the same stage of their career are in the same position, and it is a pity how much talent will be lost to the effort of a continued job hunt that must be bolstered by yet more research, teaching, and administration.
Fortunately, one thing I learned in my academic career is that I should not underestimate myself. I've achieved things I didn't think possible. Why limit my imagination and career to one path? My flexibility and creativity serve me well as a professor, and they can serve just as well in a post-academic career. The only problem left to solve, at that rate, is to find the right position for the skills I develop. After a few years in academia, I found myself asking the same old question: What do I do with a degree in philosophy?
Well, it turns out that the question can be answered in more than one way. When the degree includes research in technology ethics, intellectual property, privacy, information security, and free expression, there are opportunities for writing policy in the technology industry. After some months of exploring and interviewing, my academic career is coming to a close. In January I take up a regular full time position working on user policies for Google. The position is located at the headquarters in Mountain View, so we will also be leaving the Netherlands and the friends we've made here and taking up residence near other friends and family in California. I'm excited for the new possibilities that come with this career change, and I'm glad that I'll be able to leave the university and continue to work as an ethicist in such a vibrant and dynamic environment.
What do you do with degree in philosophy? The question is not hard to answer because there are so few options. The question is hard to answer because there are so many. You need imagination, and you need to challenge yourself, but if you do so, you can decide what you will do with it. Just make it something awesome, and the rest follows.