John O’Donnell, MD.
What on earth are you going to do with a major in philosophy?
Dr. John O’Donnell majored in philosophy and chemistry at WVU. After graduating in 1978, he attended WVU medical school and received his MD in 1982. In 1999, he earned an MBA. Today, O’Donnell is the Medical Director and a board certified psychiatrist, with a special interest in addictions, at Summit Hospital in New Jersey . He also has a small, private practice in New York City .
John O’Donnell came to WVU from South Charleston , WV , with an interest in philosophy and a plan to become a physician. Although he claims to have been a terrible student in high school, he was already reading Plato and Bertrand Russell in his spare time. During his years as an undergraduate, O’Donnell found ways of satisfying his intellectual needs and blossomed. After completing the science requirements for his chemistry major, he decided to take a few philosophy classes, just for the fun of it. He took symbolic logic and mathematical logic with Dr. Virginia Klenk. These classes were followed by an independent study in the Philosophy of Science with Dr. Klenk and classes with Dr. Henry Ruf and Dr. Ted Drange. O’Donnell remembers fondly, getting himself worked into a philosophical stupor after considering one of Dr. Drange’s paradoxes. For a while, he was nearly convinced that the law of non-contradiction was false. The grip of philosophical puzzles was too much for young O’Donnell. After a few classes, he became a philosophy major. Upon graduation from WVU, he was awarded the Philosophy Department’s prestigious Cresswell Award.
Although O’Donnell misses the time, freedom, and excitement of the good old days of contemplating philosophical puzzles, his current life includes many of the challenges and joys of his life as a philosophy major. O’Donnell is still very interested in philosophy and he continues to read philosophy in his spare time. His current philosophical interests are in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, artificial intelligence, Nietzsche, Daniel Dennett, and Karl Popper. Moreover, his daily life is filled with some of the things that made him tick as a philosophy major. On any given day, whether he is treating patients or acting as medical director, he is problem solving. Although he does not downplay the importance of his scientific background, he thinks that his philosophical skills are vital in his role as a physician. O’Donnell’s day demands that he patiently listens to patients, deals with ambiguity and uncertainty, and makes diagnoses based on fragmentary evidence. He notes that his ability to think through problems carefully and creatively, rather than taking a simple cookbook approach is part of what helps him succeed in medicine. As a philosophy major, as a physician, and as the medical director of his hospital, O’Donnell is always searching for an elegant solution.
His advice to current philosophy majors is to follow your interests and study the things that make you happy. He thinks that a background in philosophy is not only good for a career in medicine but virtually any career. Philosophy majors have special qualities; they are willing to think, they are comfortable with uncertainly, and they can deal with ambiguity. We are an odd lot. Good odd, of course.