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Philosophy or English at uni?

(27 Posts)
ImagoLuna Mon 12-Feb-18 17:43:16

DD is dithering between studying either Philosophy or English at university. She has no idea yet about a future career and isn't therefore sure which subject to apply for at uni.

Someone told her that Philosophy degrees from top unis are very mathematical and whilst she got A* in maths at GCSE, she's not considered a very good mathematician and isn't doing this at A level. So she's a bit put off that she may need to be very mathematically minded if she does Philosophy at places like Oxbridge or Durham/Warwick etc.

However, she's also been told that it's incredibly difficult to get into a good English degree course at top unis, so she's again not sure about this as a subject either.

She also considered Theology at Oxbridge but when pressed, admitted she 's not interested in the religious aspects, (and Oxbridge seems very religious-based) only the philosophical aspects of Theology. Her A level subjects are English Literature, Religious Studies and Pre-U Philosophy.

Today, she asked me what 'people/employers' think about those various degrees as a starting point of study before applying for jobs. I wondered if the collective wisdom of MN could offer opinions about this? Philosophy versus English?

Also, is it better to get a Theology degree from one of the top unis than a Philosophy or English degree from a lower rung Russell group uni?

AllAboutYou Mon 12-Feb-18 18:37:34

I went to a top ten uni and majored in English Lit with my minor in Philosophy for the first year.

I then changed to philosophy only as I loved it.

Unless you are picking “the philosophy of mathematics” then it is not overly orientated around this area. I hated maths at school and also took the same subjects as your daughter for A level.

Philosophy is very different at uni compared to the way schools teach it. You really need to have a passion for it. There are so many job opportunities if you get a good philosophy degree from a good uni (despite what some people say) grin

There’s lots of possibilities in terms of further education too - such as law.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 13-Feb-18 11:35:48

I'm an academic in English Lit. A common difficulty prospective students have is understanding how English at university differs from English at school. A lot of students want to read a book and talk widely about its 'themes' and the way it made them feel. Or they'd rather use books to help them think about philosophical and moral questions. You do this a lot at school (this text is 'about' the problems of mental illness, or 'about' racism).

A lot of early student essays will conclude '... and so the Wife of Bath is a feminist heroine, despite the misogyny of the Middle Ages' or '... the character of Beatrice shows how women struggled to resist the pressures to be obedient and silent'.

This is really not how English Lit at university works. We don't expect to find morals in books. We don't expect to find life lessons or history lessons there. We will expect students to pick up on quite precise details of language and imagery, syntax and rhetorical figures. We'll expect them to learn various critical approaches (Marxist, feminist, poststructuralist, whatever). They will need some sense of historical context, and this will not be 'in the past things were bad, and literature is a way of revealing that' (which is the common misconception I see in first year essays).

Some students really hate this. They just don't want to be picking through texts at this level of detail. And they get frustrated that they're not given much credit for discussing what they see as the 'ideas' in the book, or the 'themes' in the play. What this shows me, as their teacher, is that they're studying the wrong subject. If they want to talk about ideas and themes, they need to find a subject that does that - it might well be philosophy! But it's not going to be English Lit.

I hope that makes some sense and is helpful!

ImagoLuna Tue 13-Feb-18 16:33:44

Thanks for your replies, AllAboutYou and LRD. I've shown them to DD and she's asked me to ask you, LRD, a few further questions, if you don't mind?:

Can you give a few examples of typical Eng Lit essay questions/titles you might give to undergraduates at uni, so she can get a better idea of how they differ from A level essays?

Are Eng Lit degrees really very focused on linguistics?

Do most of the top uni Eng Lit degrees concentrate on early English texts rather than more modern literature?

How familiar are you with Eng Lit courses at different Russell Group unis - and from your 'insider's experience', how would you 'rate' these in terms of the value employers place on an Eng Lit from that particular institute?

DD assumes that Oxbridge degrees will be most highly valued but isn't sure she'd get into either place with her GCSE results, (4A*s, 3 As and 3 Bs). Her school has told her that Eng Lit degrees are far more competitive than many other degrees, despite the fact they think she's heading for A*s or As at A level - is she carries on like she is now.

Final question: would a prospective employer value an Eng Lit degree above a Philosophy degree, from the same university?

TIA for your insider's advice, LRD.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 13-Feb-18 17:17:18

Ok, well, some of these I can answer helpfully, others not so much! grin

- I don't know that essay titles actually help much. We set quite a variety of types of question. Say for example: 1) Discuss structure in Sir Gawain; 2) 'Piers Plowman is an exercise in false starts'. Do you agree?' 3) How does Chaucer represent women in two or more poems?

I honestly don't know if knowing possible essay titles tells you much, though.

- I didn't mention linguistics in my earlier post? Some English degrees contain more focus on language and linguistics than others (Oxford, for example, offer an English degree that includes lit and language components). She'd need to look at the syllabus information at each university and compare them. But, I wonder (excuse me) if you're misunderstanding what I was talking about when I said you'd be expected to focus on precise details such as syntax or imagery? That's not linguistics. It's close reading, which is a key skill for English Lit. We aren't so interested in describing how languages work - we'd be interested in what the literary effects of these details were.

- No, most courses let you look at a wide range of literature. Some do very little early stuff, and some do most of it in translation. I don't know about everywhere, obviously. Off the top of my head, Oxford is somewhere that does focus a lot on the early stuff; Cambridge has a mandatory medieval paper, but it's fairly late medieval and quite easy to read. But in general this is info she'll want to check for the universities she's looking at anyway - no sense me trying to summarise. The prospectus should say.

- I'm familiarish with 3 Russell Group universities, but I have absolutely no clue what employers think! grin Sorry. That's a question for employers or university careers services.

- She could apply to Oxbridge (yes, those GCSEs are on the low side, but if she feels like it, it's only one slot on the application, and why not?). But to be honest, lots of places run really excellent English Lit courses and I think what's most important is that she gets a good fit with her interests. For example, there would be no sense in her applying to Oxford if she really doesn't like the course! Or if she hates the idea of mandatory medieval English, erm, she might want to avoid it. She should look at the course descriptions in the prospectuses and see which ones look exciting.

- Again, no idea about how employers view degrees.

Sorry, I feel as if that was a lot of 'not sure and look it up'!

danTDM Tue 13-Feb-18 17:24:57

I did Philosophy at a top RG uni, it was brilliant. I enjoyed it more than my friends who were doing English, I think. The logic part is hard, but just opt out of that if you are bad at maths (I am utterly hopeless, no A level for sure, but still scraped logic)

Great degree and 8 hours a week I seem to remember!!! grin

More interesting IMO. Never held me back at work, not at all.

danTDM Tue 13-Feb-18 17:27:30

PS I was offered combined Eng Lit and Phil and I really thank my lucky stars I chose single Hons Phil. Honestly!

Archfarchnad Tue 13-Feb-18 17:48:48

Unlike dan, I did do a joint honours in English and philosophy (RG uni), and really enjoyed it. It also allowed me to avoid the logic course which was compulsory for Phil single hons.

LRD, that's an interesting assessment of the difference between school and uni Eng lit. I experienced school analysis as being very much about the text itself in isolation, whereas uni courses were largely about a particular period and how the literature of that time came about, fitted in with, and perhaps changed society. Any close textual analysis was usually done with the social context in mind - but that might just have been my uni. We did have one or two courses on language analysis too, and also chose two -isms out of a possible five (I think it was Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, postmodernist analysis etc).
It was also really rather influenced by particular lecturers' research interests, which could often skew courses in rather offbeat directions.
With respect to philosophy, the received wisdom (told to me by a Phil lecturer of many years) is that Phil graduates either end up achieving very little and doss around, or they really use the flexible thinking that philosophy can teach you to become a damn successful entrepreneur. I'd like to think I'm somewhere those two extremes though!

Archfarchnad Tue 13-Feb-18 17:49:39

...somewhere between...

danTDM Tue 13-Feb-18 18:05:41

Despite my dreaded logic though Archie I suspect my single hons, well, I KNOW, my single hons, was a hell of a lot easier grin you must be a lot cleverer!

I became a marketing director for an international company abroad and travelled the world, friends variously are all successful in hugely different fields. I think the actual uni has a lot to o with it TBH.

Oxbridge or RG a must for Philosophy, I'd say.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 13-Feb-18 18:06:36

I get the impression school teaching does more context now than it perhaps used to. But it does it in a way that I find a bit odd - I think you're expected to drop in a few broad points, so students tend to arrive thinking that you're using the text to make a broad point about the society.

TheOnlyLivingBoyInNewCross Tue 13-Feb-18 18:15:29

As a secondary English teacher, none of the things that you are saying that you do at university sounds unfamiliar to me as an A Level teacher, LRD. However, we are somewhat hamstrung by the assessment objectives and question styles of the A Level! It’s difficult to avoid talking about the themes and concerns of the texts when the question requires them to compare, for example, the ways in which The Duchess of Malfi and The Merchant’s Tale present marriage... But at the same time, we are expected to look at imagery and syntax and so on, as well as critical approaches to the text. We’re not totally terrible at what we do grin

Archfarchnad Tue 13-Feb-18 18:43:56

LRD, The Only, it's entirely possible that school teaching now involves more background context - I did my A-Levels back in the Stone Age 80s. Can you at least take source texts into ALevel exams now instead of wasting your time learning hundreds of quotations?

Hah, ha, love the idea that I must be cleverer to do a combined course. It was probably a bit more work because you had to be familiar with the main ideas in two fairly (though not entirely) distinct subjects - but like I said we then had more leeway in cherry-picking which courses we took.

Oh yes, now I remember, doing a joint course also allowed me to get out of the Old English option, which in retrospect I really regret.

LRDtheFeministDragon Tue 13-Feb-18 19:58:06

I don't think teachers are terrible at all!

I am aware that a lot of teachers aren't terribly happy with the way they're currently being required to teach.

I suspect it may also have to do with the expectations students bring to university. Here on MN I quite often see well-meaning people advising that prospective university candidates must show they are 'passionate' about literature and must have strong likes and dislikes. So naturally you end up with students who confuse lit crit with book appreciation and think, if they enjoy book-club style discussions of books you love, they'll also enjoy English Lit and they'll leave behind all the boring bits from A Level.

ImagoLuna Tue 13-Feb-18 20:43:34

Thank you for all these really helpful replies. DD is very grateful, as am I.

LRD, that's all very useful to know and gives DD a better idea of what Eng Lit might involve. We know an older student who was studying Eng and seemed to be doing a lot of Linguistics but I think that might have been an option choice rather than compulsory.

DanTDM, can I ask where you did your single honours Philosophy degree? It sounds like you had a really good time and then a great career too.

Also, Arch - where did you do your Philosophy and English degree? DD has considered combined subjects but wasn't sure if this would be difficult to do if there were clashing deadlines etc across the years for pieces of work and even lectures clashing too, not to mention the feeling of doing two degrees at the same time. Did you end up feeling that your degree had helped you in your career?

I also did my A levels in the (very) early 80s and remember learning hundreds of quotes in the hope I could use them in the exam, as we couldn't bring in text books in those days. I quite like the fact that I can even remember some now, despite my shorter term memory being pretty dire these days!

Piggywaspushed Tue 13-Feb-18 20:58:26

I went to York. Great English degree and lots of options to combine with other subjects, including Philosophy: students who did joint honours had exactly the same workload.

I don't think either of those subjects open up or close down any particular postgraduate opportunities. They are both popular degrees and respected by employers. Most of my friends are now teachers, writers, academics, in publishing, lawyers.

My closes friend, who did Philosophy and English now works at a university . She's quite high up but I never really understand her job!

Piggywaspushed Tue 13-Feb-18 21:01:09

The main thing about an English degree : do not underestimate the amount of reading you'll have to do!!

I'd also look at the assessment styles of different unis as they can differ considerably.

I actually didn't read a book for about two years after finishing as I was a bit fed up of it!! And I love reading!

TheRagingGirl Wed 14-Feb-18 10:01:48

Someone told her that She's been told

I think this is the problem grin the rumour mill.

The best thing she could do is to go to the Department websites of the subjects she's interested in, at the Universities she's intetested in, and have a browse of what modules etc are required for each programme. Once you get past all the glossy recruitment guff, and get to the working bit of university Department websites, there's lots of information.

I'd imagine the "Philosophy is heavy on maths" comment is to do with learning logic (Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell etc). Which I did in the Philosophy courses I took - but it's really not that difficult.

And as for English: look, if she's looking at the English courses consistently rated in the top 10 or 20 across league tables across a few years (so you see how departments move up & down), then she'll get an excellent education. There's no single "best" English department - but the consistently highly placed departments in research & teaching (top-level research IS REALLY important for an English programme) will all be excellent. WE're very lucky in this country.

So again, it might be about digging into programme structures & content.

Look at compulsory or core modules not options. You cannot guarantee that a very specific research-led seminar course in, for example "Pacific Literatures of the British Empire" will run every year.

Reallycantbebothered Wed 14-Feb-18 15:25:16

Dd did Philosophy and Film MA at Scottish Uni... (not RG other Unis are available but in top 30 UK Unis)
She had originally wanted to get in to film/ TV production - was manager of student TV at Uni , but realised how misogynistic this industry still is unfortunately
she only got C at GCSE Maths.....didn't hold her back! ( she did a levels in RS, English, Geography and Drama)
Then did MSc /TESOL at top RG Uni and is now teaching English abroad and loving it .....
She plans to do a PhD when she returns to U.K. in couple of years

ImagoLuna Wed 14-Feb-18 15:47:21

Again, many thanks to everyone. DD thinks she'd prefer Philosophy over English but a relative told her that the Philosophy department where he went to uni (Cambridge) was very closely allied to the Maths department and this put her off somewhat.

She's already doing some of the more Logic based topics for Pre-U Philosophy and thinks this is going OK but one of her teachers has said that Philosophy at uni is for people who are analytic, precise and concise and that DD is more naturally inclined towards bringing in ideas from extra reading etc that suggests Theology would suit her better.

She just isn't into Bible/Christianity/learning Theological languages however and prefers the idea of Philosophy.

She's been going through various uni courses for Philosophy, English and Theology and looking at the compulsory core topics. She's interested to hear of anyone's recommendations for their university, if they studied English or Philosophy or possibly Theology - although she realises each person has a unique experience of course. So if anyone else could recommend - or otherwise - their course of study, then it'd be good to hear more.

Reallycantbebothered Wed 14-Feb-18 17:17:23

My dd did Continental Philosophy at Dundee , and loved it as she used her knowledge from A levels in RS and English, especially liked the ethics modules
She got a 2:1 and easily got onto the MSc at Edinburgh ( did joint honours & dissertation with Film studies, but could have done this with English is she'd preferred )
The degree structure at Scottish universities is very flexible

ClassicHummus Wed 14-Feb-18 17:26:00

I graduated in Philosophy at Durham in 2015 - it's absolutely not hugely mathematical and I would advise her not to let that put her off! There was a compulsory first year formal logic module (as is standard of all Philosophy courses), and although my friends who were doing joint honours Philosophy with Maths found it really easy, those of us who were less 'maths-y' were absolutely not disadvantaged - it's not remotely like A Level Maths and so I wouldn't worry about that.
Overall, I absolutely loved my degree and had the best time studying Philosophy for three years, and it's a hugely transferable degree if she's not yet sure on future plans. Very happy to answer any other questions!

Piggywaspushed Wed 14-Feb-18 18:24:22

I can definitely see the appeal of each. I am puzzled by the appeal of theology to someone who doesn't want to do key constituents of it and wonders what the outcome of studying philosophy would be? I am a bit ignorant of theology degrees but surely career paths are generally pretty narrow from that one, comparatively?

I sense the real driver here is the cachet of the 'top uni'?

Piggywaspushed Wed 14-Feb-18 18:28:35

This is not btw to say there aren't lots of career paths for Theology grads :I am just confused by your DD's logic and reasoning (excuse puns)

TheRagingGirl Wed 14-Feb-18 21:07:01

You know, everything you say about her interests makes me wonder why she’s not considering History. There’s huge scope for thinking about ideas, but also playing with them and with textual interpretation that’s not such a central research method in Philisophy.

But I’m biased. I did a degree in English and a degree in History with a year of Philosophy in the History degree.

Loads of scope In a History degree, and hugely employable. Although so are English and Philosophy- don’t believe the neo-liberals who talk down Arts and Humanities degrees.

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