I’ve defended an affirmative answer on this blog in the past. Of course, there’s a lot to unpack in the question. What does “useful” mean in this context? Does it mean “Will it help me get a job?” If so, what kind of job? An academic job? A non-academic job? When we ask if a philosophy degree specifically is useful, are we asking if the content of a philosophy degree is useful or if the skills acquired during its completion are useful? We should be clear about the difference.
I would still say that a philosophy degree is useful, but with a few caveats. The content of philosophy, for example, isn’t particularly useful with respect to finding a non-academic job. The fact is, nobody outside academia is going to pay you for knowing a lot about German philosophy (and even within academia, they probably won’t pay you much). However, several sectors outside academia will pay you for thinking critically, synthesizing information, and making abstract ideas concrete. In other words, the skills are useful; the content, not so much.
Of course, one can acquire those same skills majoring in subjects other than philosophy. In fact, depending on the person, other disciplines may be better at inculcating those skills. For example, if you’re bored by the content of philosophy, you’ll probably be less receptive to learning the skills. I learned from my teaching experience that it’s actually quite difficult to teach subject-independent critical thinking. I actually found it easier to teach critical thinking in my intro to philosophy class than I did in the generic critical thinking class. Perhaps this is because the former used specifically philosophical examples whereas the latter tried to be too general. This leads me to question how much any subject fosters generic ‘critical thinking skills’ that will have broad applicability in the workplace. I don’t think philosophy enjoys any unique advantage in this regard.
Yes, philosophy majors do well on tests like the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT. But there’s not much evidence that studying philosophy causes students to do well on those tests as opposed to merely attracting students who are inclined to do well on those tests in the first place. It’s the old treatment effect versus selection effect. The evidence offered simply doesn’t support the causal claim. Also, my anecdotal evidence from teaching, for what it’s worth, indicates that students who do major in philosophy are smart to begin with and probably would be successful with or without a philosophy major.
All of this is to say that philosophy departments tend to overstate the usefulness of a philosophy degree. I understand that they need to sell philosophy to students, but if a student isn’t already smart, studious, and disciplined, then it’s not likely that studying philosophy is going to be very useful. I suspect that professional philosophers know this already — they’re too smart for the ‘correlation = causation’ fallacy — but they’re driven to justify their existence to the university administrators who control the purse strings. So they overstate their case.
These practices raise significant questions about the ethics of advertising philosophy as developing critical thinking skills or leading to higher wages. Marketing the degree in this way may lead to false expectations. At the very least, more empirical research would need to be done and the claims should at least be qualified. I don’t expect philosophy departments to be held responsible for every mistaken inference a student might make (caveat emptor, after all), but since philosophers value clarity they should be especially wary of making claims that could be easily misinterpreted by the general public.