Philosophy Students' GRE Scores (Defending Philosophy 3)

In order to take a step towards vindicating the practical value of concentrating on philosophy as an undergraduate student, below are charts on GRE scores, sorted by the subjects students are expecting to study in graduate school (their “Intended Graduate Major”)*. They demonstrate, through quantitative means, that philosophy really does enhance critical thinking and communication skills—or, at least, that legitimately good thinkers are often drawn to philosophy as undergraduates.

gre1

gre2

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Thanks to Kylie, who led me to Stephen Law who led me to Razib Khan, who graphed the raw data which can be found here.

Your Thoughts?

*Corrected from my inaccurate original interpretation that the scores represented the students’ undergraduate majors.

  • Claire

    Well, I feel justified at least. I majored in philosophy with a minor in physics, and although my philosophy requirements were ultra-heavy on the ancient/medievals and very light (1 semester!) on the moderns, I still feel like I got better at mental wrangling & logic.

    I didn’t take the GRE, and my “career” after college has consisted of 3 years of being a legal assistant and the rest trying to keep my small children from licking light sockets. However, I think being a well-educated mother trying to keep small children from licking light sockets must have some benefits. I can accurately answer questions about how electric generators work, why the sky is blue, what happens when our bodies die, plus guide discussions about the golden rule and how to follow evidence to a logical conclusion.

    I still feel like I’m playing mental catch-up with the more intelligent & well-educated people on these blogs though.

  • Eric

    While it may be true that concentrating on philosophy as an undergraduate student, this data doesn’t really show it.

    I notice an r^2 of 0.00 and 0.08 for the first and third scatter-plots respectively – the regression lines drawn are effectively meaningless. While ‘Philosophy’ as a single data point looks good, what is the variation within that point (which is an average score).

    There does seem to be a correlation between the GRE writing score and the GRE verbal score – but that is hardly surprising. I notice also that the data are ‘averages of score by intended graduate major’, so we are looking at a trend of averages which is problematic at best. I have two master’s degrees, one in mathematics, the other in anatomy – in which category does my GRE score fall for graphing this data (or, we could go by my two undergraduate degrees if you wish)?

    Also – the numbers of students in each major (whether you look at their intended graduate major or what they are majoring in as an undergraduate) vary widely, there does not appear to be any attempt made to deal with this statistically.

    Students may take the GRE multiple times, how is that factored into this data? The points for each ‘intended major’ are shown as squares (and imply that they are sharp), but what is the variation by major? Should those dots perhaps be better shown as elongated parallelograms – each having its own slope?

    It also looks like this data is combined over a three year period – cherry picking? What is the year-over-year variation?

    Finally – you claim having Philosophy as a(n undergraduate) major will lead to improvements on the GRE (if you are intending to pursue a graduate degree in Philosophy). But the data don’t mention what people’s undergraduate degrees were, so this data does not support your thesis.

    Note – you say, “sorted by the majors students are working on completing at the time they take the exam,” but the table says, “by Intended Graduate Major” which is not necessarily the same degree that the students are working on as undergraduates.

    So, while I don’t disagree with philosophy as a major, I am not terribly impressed by this argument in favor of philosophy over any other major.

  • Robert B.

    Frankly, that looks less like “philosophy is awesome” and more like “philosophers wrote the GRE.” :-) That is a really improbable-looking margin.

    Then again, apparently we physicists are better at language and writing than every other quantitative discipline, and better at math than mathematicians. So maybe I shouldn’t make fun.

  • Brandon

    I guess I thought everyone knew that most people in philosophy are pretty sharp. Is there someone that’s been arguing otherwise?

    On the graphs, it says “intended major” – does this refer to the graduate discipline that people are heading to, or is it a misprint?

    On an irrelevant note, I was entertained by seeing that I did better on each section than the average from any discipline!

  • mouthyb

    Thank you for the pick-me-up! It’s nice to know where I score, in terms of other GRE scores by major.

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    So of course you recognize that correlation does not equal causation, since you qualify your claims with “or, at least, that legitimately good thinkers are often drawn to philosophy as undergraduates.” But if that’s the correct explanation for this data, how is that, “vindicating the practical value of concentrating on philosophy as an undergraduate”?

    I’d also add that the “smart people drawn to philosophy” jibes well with my personal experience. In my experience, undergraduate philosophy classes are stupid easy if you can write well and argue well. That’s a huge part of why I ultimately majored in philosophy.

  • fastlane

    ‘Quant’ indicates mathematics/logic scores? I would guess that based on the ‘hard’ science types very high up on that axis.

    So, why would you emphasize written/verbal skills over the logic/quantitative/mathematic skills, which are, arguably, more relevant to critical thinking and logic, in most areas?

    I’m sorry, but other than ethics, modern philosophy seems (and these charts seem to bear that out to some degree, with the problems noted by others) to be centered on using big words to obfuscate instead of clarifying, and there’s little in the field of ethics that one couldn’t derive from studying history, civilization, and the humanities, as opposed to explicitly philosophy.

    I like a lot of your writing here, but a lot of this ‘defending philosophy’ comes across as equivalent to defending theology, as a field of study. If the contributions of philosophy were clearer, more tangible, or more accessible, maybe it wouldn’t need to be defended as a field of study. Even most art majors don’t require an educational defense.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I’m not defending theology, I’m defending the value of not a priori ruling out legitimate philosophical investigations into conceptual consistency in basic questions of metaphysics.

      Theology is saying there is something legitimate about trusting religious sources of authority (“inspired” prophets and texts, etc.) Philosophy is eschewing all of that and just analyzing philosophical concepts. Some of those concepts are ones that are homonymously called “god” but they are not what religions are really worshiping or what fundamentalists or other laypeople are talking about. They are what philosophers for centuries found valuable to use as part of raising still unresolved questions like “what are the natures of necessity and contingency?”

  • JNS

    I agree with Chris Hallquist that the “or, at least…” in the first paragraph is incredibly significant!

    Eric, parts of your argument are better than others. I agree with you that the original post should be corrected to clarify that these are intended graduate majors, not undergraduate majors. People who plan to do advanced work in philosophy are presumably the minority of philosophy undergrads, many of whom attend law school or leave off their schooling altogether after graduating. Likewise, it would be nice to have sampling error spheres around the points, although this seems a relatively minor issue given that there are presumably at least thousands of data points for even the smallest graduate majors over three years of GRE administration. However, your points about the R^2 and slopes of the regressions are irrelevant — the argument here is not at all about one GRE score predicting another, but rather about philosophers being smart or well-trained or something. That is, the whole argument is about the relative position of the philosophy point in the cloud, not the correlations among variables.

    • Eric

      “Likewise, it would be nice to have sampling error spheres around the points, although this seems a relatively minor issue given that there are presumably at least thousands of data points for even the smallest graduate majors over three years of GRE administration.”

      Actually, it is the size of those samples that makes such error ellipsoids more important – even better would be to plot each individual’s scores and color code the point with their intended major – then we could see both density and overlap (is that high average for philosophy a result of a tight group with really high scores, or a scattering of low scores balanced by a few *really* high scores? Plotting averages loses a *lot* of information. Also – plotting averages is not the same as plotting the ‘raw data’.

      “That is, the whole argument is about the relative position of the philosophy point in the cloud…”

      Exactly – and why showing the thousands of ‘Philosophy’ points as a single ‘average’ is misleading. We aren’t even told what kind of average it is, nor what the variance is – no statistical conclusions can be drawn from this data without that information. (Certainly, if some of my students tried an argument like this, they would get a poor grade on their homework.)

      “However, your points about the R^2 and slopes of the regressions are irrelevant…”

      Well – OK. I notice that people love to use Excel to draw regression lines, even when those lines are meaningless. While the regression wasn’t used here, it was used by Razib from whence the graphs came. It’s really a pet peeve of mine to see the improper use of regression.

    • JNS

      Actually, it is the size of those samples that makes such error ellipsoids more important – even better would be to plot each individual’s scores and color code the point with their intended major – then we could see both density and overlap (is that high average for philosophy a result of a tight group with really high scores, or a scattering of low scores balanced by a few *really* high scores? Plotting averages loses a *lot* of information. Also – plotting averages is not the same as plotting the ‘raw data’.

      Well, good grief. According to ETS, about 675,000 people take the GRE every year. That means, for a three-year pool of test takers, we’re talking about roughly 2,000,000 data points. Good luck making any sense whatsoever out of a plot with that many individual points!

      Furthermore, phds.org lists 144 graduate programs in philosophy. If we suppose that each program admits an average of 5 unique students per year, and that every single person who takes the GRE with the intention to go to graduate school in philosophy will be admitted somewhere, that gives us 720 students per year, or about 2100 for the three-year data pool. ETS says that the standard deviation in the qualitative reasoning score is about 120 across all test-takers; for intended philosophy students let us suppose that this standard deviation is replicated. Then the standard error for the estimated mean reported above would be about 2.6. If instead the standard deviation were a literally incredible 400 on a scale that only has a range of 600, the standard error would only rise to 8.7. In other words, the means reported in these plots are certainly stable enough to be informative.

      Let’s now move to your concern about “a few really high scores.” Given that the GRE is bounded, there is rather a lot we can say about this. Suppose a maximally polarized situation, in which every single intended philosopher got either the top score of 800 or the bottom score of 200. How many philosophers would have to get the maximum score to produce the average that we see in the data? Turns out that the answer is 1361 out of 2100. So no worries about a few high scores distorting the results.

      (Certainly, if some of my students tried an argument like this, they would get a poor grade on their homework.)

      Too bad for your students! I’d hate it if my teacher routinely deducted credit based on objections that aren’t coherent mathematically…

  • fastlane

    Or philosophy students being good at the verbal part of the GRE….*shrug* I don’t think it proves much beyond that, as presented.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    I understand now. Philosophy courses are “teaching to the test.”

    “If you sign up for Phil 206, Metaphysics and Epistemology, we promise you’ll raise your GRE percentile by at least 10. And then if you pass Phil 318, Aesthetics, we guarantee your acceptance at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople grad school.”

  • http://deathbytrolley.wordpress.com Ron Brown

    I’ve got a lot of respect for philosophy. I wish it were required coursework throughout junior high and high school and that it was injected into coursework in most disciplines throughout the curriculum (e.g., math, science). Furthermore, it is an excellent means of promoting intellectual curiosity and sharpening critical thinking, and I imagine it would also promote a more politically engaged citizenry. Public education in philosophy so as to promote curiosity and critical thinking would make society a better place.

    I’m also not surprised that philosophy students do relatively well on the GRE. I can see how education in philosophy could promote improved critical/analytical thinking as well as vocabulary. Given that tests are an important part of socio-economic progress in many fields, this is a pratical application of philosophy. As is improved reasoning in the service of improved communication and reasoning in other areas.

    Having said all of that, I would be very guarded in saying that taking philosophy is a smart career move. For some people it could be – e.g., people aspiring to be lawyers who have reason to believe they’ll get into law school. But like many popular undergraduate degrees today – e.g., Psych (my undergrad, which may well be the most useless), anthropology, sociology, etc. – in today’s market little in the way of career prospects is offered. And it makes sense because these students haven’t really earned much in the way of specifically monetizable skills. They can’t analyze markets or business systems, they can’t fix things, they can’t improve the health of someone, they can’t trouble-shoot or develop computer systems, they can’t design or build anything, and worst of all, they’re a dime a dozen. Whatever value they do have, there are countless others that have the exact same value, which means that the value becomes devalued. I wonder if undergrads in many of the sciences offer much better. With just an undergrad, can you really get much more than a lab-tech job? However, a science undergrad will often pave the way to more economically viable post-masters degree jobs.

    There are economically/professionally useful undergraduate degrees today. The most useful would probably include engineering, pharmacy, business/commerce, actual sciences and statistics and economics with strong foundations in statistics and econometrics. Most other undergraduate degrees do not equip a graduate with skills that are sufficiently monetizable and valued to get a person a job out of undergrad that has much to do with what they studied in university and that would lead to a long-term satisfying and economically viable job.

    In terms of post-graduate education, continuing in philosophy probably has a massive diminishing returns curve. It’s not like you earn any more marketable skills beyond the undergrad by going to grad school. At most, you add some fancy letters behind your name, show that you’re somewhat ambitious and that you were among the stronger philosophy students. You don’t learn to use statistical software – perhaps the one saving grace of going beyond a Psychology undergrad, in terms of career prospects. In some ways, going on in philosophy may hurt you, because you may be deemed by the jobs that you are qualified to do to be overly qualified; and you yourself may not like any job because you’re outraged that you spent all this time and effort busting your butt in philosophy only to be doing a job that has nothing to do with philosophy that pays you poorly and that you probably don’t like.

    And I’m sure philosophy students come to see this as they spend a year or two in a post-grad program. This, of course will add to their stress when it comes to publish-publish-publish because if they don’t become tenured profs, they realize that their odds of getting a job that is worth the efforts they’ve made and that they value and/or has anything to do with philosophy is about as slim as the average philosophy grad student getting tenured, which is very slim.

    I love philosophy and wish it were a bigger part of our culture. And I myself felt the great pain of realizing that my undergrad wasn’t nearly as useful as I thought it would be – though fortunately I just finished a healthcare masters, so a handful of years later I’m seeing light at the end of a tunnel that had several very dark periods. I think it’s important that people going into any school program realize what they are getting into, the good and the bad. Philosophy has a lot of good, but its students should not be surprised when dismal career prospects await a sizable chunk of them.

  • Kevin

    Considering that the key advice in GRE prep books for increasing your score on the Verbal GRE involve increasing your vocabulary, I’m not sure how this test shows what you think it shows. Knowing the definition to a lot of words does not equal to critical thinking skills. Also, the math scores are not exceptional, so no brownie points there.

  • mouthyb

    I assume everyone knows that the verbal portion also includes reading comp and logical equivalencies? Or at least mine did.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    Add me to the graph! I study Philosophy of Education and Human Development, I was an undergraduate major in Philosophy of Education (as far as we major in the UK – slightly different system), and I’m a 750, 750, 6 =P

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    I assumed that “intended major” meant intended major as an undergraduate since there are no “majors” in graduate school. You are just in a department for one thing, not “majoring” in that thing while taking a large number of other classes in which you are not majoring.

    I thought the “intended major” language, on that account was misleading since it did not make clear that the GRE is being taken pretty late in the undergraduate career and so the philosophy major is pretty well advanced by then and so could be assumed to be in the process of being completed.

    And, as to the concerns about correlation and causation—as already noted, I explicitly pointed out that the issue could just be already smart people liking philosophy and the weight I gave this data from the start was that it was a “step towards vindicating”. It’s a step. It’s not utter and complete vindication then undermined by the correlation/causation worry.

    Finally, a concern has been raised that all philosophers do is obfuscate conceptually. These tests show abilities with true logical analysis and true grasp of distinctions between the meanings of words, with objective measures. The philosophically trained people demonstrate superior abilities with these things. They prove the opposite of obfuscating muddlers.

    This is not to deny that sometimes philosophers can still get quite confused or muddled or obfuscate, etc. when getting into the hard philosophical work characteristic of the discipline. But that’s not because we are especially bad thinkers hiding in a discipline which caters to our weaknesses as critics are implying to me. It’s because even for great logic choppers and conceptual analyzers, clarity is hard to achieve and involves careful work. That’s why it is impressive and valuable when philosophers get it.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      This is not to deny that sometimes philosophers can still get quite confused or muddled

      Lies! This never happens!

      In all serious. I’ve been a perpetual student of many disciplines (my undergraduate work was highly multi- and inter-disciplinary, and included training in sociology, psychology, history, literature, and the theory and practice of theatre) and I have found the study of philosophy to be one of the most fulfilling and valuable of all the fields I have had the privilege to delve into. The requirement to think precisely and carefully, to be modest in one’s assumptions, to be thorough and meticulous at every stage of the argument, to constantly self-criticize, while addressing some of the central questions of import to human living – all this helps build a battle-tested mind, ready for any field of intellectual endeavor.

      One of the primary reasons I chose to write my doctoral dissertation on free thinking and the development of intellectual autonomy is because learning to think philosophically (in a broad sense) is so closely linked to key Humanist values, and to real human freedom in general. Trying to dismiss the worth of philosophy as a discipline, from my perspective, makes as much sense as attempting to dismiss mathematics – it says more about the lack of understanding of the critic than the practice being criticized.

    • JNS

      I assumed that “intended major” meant intended major as an undergraduate since there are no “majors” in graduate school. You are just in a department for one thing, not “majoring” in that thing while taking a large number of other classes in which you are not majoring.

      I thought the “intended major” language, on that account was misleading since it did not make clear that the GRE is being taken pretty late in the undergraduate career and so the philosophy major is pretty well advanced by then and so could be assumed to be in the process of being completed.

      These are mistaken assumptions, and should be corrected in the original post. If you look at the original data for these graphs, which you linked above, the heading is “Scores by Intended Graduate Major.” This usage, in which the department a graduate student wishes to study in is described as that student’s “major” is standard bureaucratic terminology for ETS as well as many universities’ admissions bureaucracies — although not in normal everyday academic discourse. For another example of this specialized usage, look here.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Okay, I’ll correct it. Thanks.

  • Lynn Wilhelm

    I’m wondering why the verbal scale only goes up to 600 on each chart.
    I suppose it’s because philosophy folks didn’t get any scores higher than that.

    By the way, I just took the revised GRE with a new scoring system. They’ve changed the score range to 130-170 with 1 pt increments. So now I feel really bad saying my total scores were 325. I aced the verbal, but choked on some of the quantitative parts. But it’s been a long time since I’ve taken a math class. My vocabulary definitely helped that verbal score.

  • SAWells

    If you wanted to impress people with what philosophy can do for your thinking skills, I don’t think this little exercise in “let’s confuse correlation with causation” was a good move.

    • SAWells

      Specifically, you should never have put those italics in “philosophy really does enhance critical thinking skills” when the data do not show that.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Correlation does not equal causation but it is sometimes the first evidence of it. All I said was that this was a step towards proving the causation. I did not confuse correlation with causation but specifically drew attention to the way that the evidence may only make a more modest point. None of this is canceled out by choosing to italicize the word does. My remarks contained sufficient qualifications. I made no sweeping generalizations. It is sweeping prejudice however to dismiss this data as being at all relevant and implying it could give no possible causal connection but only indicate correlation. As things stand,these charts are three data points which give a bit of evidence of correlation that is compatible with causation if not proof of it.

    • SAWells

      The data you offer might conceivably indicate that philosophy is done by smart people*, but that is a world away from saying that philosophy makes people smart, so it would perhaps have been wiser for you not to open this particular can of worms in the first place.

      *Though if you look at the data it shows far more clearly that philosophy is done by people who are good with words; confusing verbal facility with intelligence is a problem with all fields, but one to which philosophy is particularly vulnerable.

  • Pi Guy

    Wow. Some really cool stuff here: graphs, stats, and multiple interpretations of the implications. Of exactly what is a bit unfocused. Here’s my take:

    I went to college on the 11-year plan. Graduated HS in 1983 and earned undergrad degree in physics Jan 1995 (long story but there were a lot of Jolly Ranchers and llamas involved). By that time I was five years-married and father of a 2-year old daughter. So, I worked full-time as a gymnastics coach (yes, seriously) as I worked my way through school. Sometimes carrying a full-time credit load, more often taking two or three classes a semester, I clearly spent lots of time, uh… at school so I also ended up one course short of a minor in both math (a core 200-level course) and philosphy (an upper-level elective). My GRE scores were, circa 1995, apparently pretty typical and I managed to work in 4 semesters of grad school (physics, eyeing something in the solid state arena), 24 credits total. Just the basics, really.

    Since a few years after earning the BS (stayed in gymnastics a few more years during grad school; I liked doing it very much, just not really Daddy/Hubby/Home Owner-with-physics degree sorta money), I’ve spent my money-making time as a HS science and math teacher, a consultant at a small company that developed and managed databases and web sites, a modeling and simulation analyst in chemical and biological defense, collecting unemployment for 7 months (gov defense cuts ~2008 hurt), most recently landing a job in IT for going on three years. I supplemented much of that earlier-on, lower paying era of my IT job by getting a part-time job at the local gymnastics club. I had loans for my undergraduate degree and paid them off. I now hold a new student loan that was part of my retraining so that I could get back into the workforce pronto. >>> Simply put: I’ve never had time to *Occupy Wall Street*. I don’t even grasp the most basic premises of their positions and, thereby, feel compelled to prejudicously ignore their complaints. My support for rejecting their philosophy follows below. <<<

    Risking jack-thread (OK, I suppose we've long since crashed through that boundary), I've presented all of this simply to note that, at least anecdotally, via correlation, causation, or a combination – which we might call learning or, dare I say… education – having a relatively high ratio of quantitative-to-verbal GRE scores seems correlate with being able to be make money doing any number of different and seemingly unrelated jobs . Whether or not I’ve actually applied my physics-specific knowledge in any or all of those fields, or even whether or not the subject matter has value or utility (which I think it does but, then, I think that water is wet so what do I know?) is almost irrelevant compared to the fact that, by choice or circumstance, I’ve always been seemingly pretty employable, even in hard times. I worked really hard to get off the dole as quickly as possible and found work in a field rather quickly outside my supposed area of educational, at least, expertise.

    One last thing: I need to caveat this statement because it could seem hurtful on its face but I feel that ALL fields of study are intersting and, if important enough for someone to be willing to investigate thoroughly or even not-so-much, relevant. I’m by no means an expert but I can play guitar and piano and rarely go a day without at least a few snatched moments of pickin’ or ticklin’ but I can’t make a living at it. I read fiction and non-fiction and follow a number of different online news sites and blogs regularly but am unable to find gainful employment commenting. I have lots of ideas about how to fix the economy, get educators to present and students to acquire science-only in science classes, get religion out of the public sphere, and generally shape the world in way I deem best. I just can’t seem to develop enough following to, again, earn a living at that despite any practical intellectual applications my skills could bring to the table politcally. (Probably worth noting here that this is more likely due to the fact that I’ve got not merely skeletons but graveyards in my walk-in and am, colloquially speaking, not right in the head. I probably couldn’t get elected dog catcher at this point…). Having hopefully convinced all that I support all and am genuinely intersted in many sundried disciplines of the mind and body, please accept what follows as something that I notice in the data and is not in any way meant to characterize anyone’s intelligence or integrity, I forge ahead…

    I *hate* when someone says “Oh, I’m just not a math person.” The reason being that I believe the speaker’s attempting to shape a narrative which holds that, although they’re freely acknowledging that they are not so swell at math stuff, by virtue of a perfectly implemented false dichotomy-fuled conclusion, it’s plainly obvious that they must be a verbally-skilled person. But that’s a difficult argument to support with this data set.

    Verbal scores for English majors (~560) are clearly higher than for Physics majors (slightly <540) where a ratio of scores with the higher in the numerator yields ~1.04 – which presumably implies that English majors verbal skills are statistically better. On the other hand, Quantitative scores for English (560) and Physics (740) majors yield a high-to-low ratio in the 1.32 neighborhood.

    ***One might infer that this indicates that there's little discernible difference between the verbal skills of Physics and English major in the real world (by which I not-at-all subtly mean to imply "workplace"). Their language and communication skills are fairly comparable. On the other hand, English majors specifically and Liberal Arts more generally would seem to be signifcantly overmatched quantitatively compared to their Physics- specifically and science/math/technology-eduacted peers. Their mathematical and reasoning skills are not comparable by a fairly wide margin. I suggest that this is directly related to both employability and earning power. ***

    [snark]On the upside, I can only imagine that all the anti-capitalist, unemployed, over-indebted engineering, economics, computer science, nursing, accounting, math, and chemistry majors, due to their solid communication and surpassing quantitative prowess, are successfully setting up amateur electronics, gaming hints, and counting change guilds to contribute their support to the cause of the 99% of us who aren't Math People.[/snark]