Shell GM William Langin Sheds Light on His Experience in Higher Education

BT: Could you please tell our readers a little bit more about your time at Princeton (i.e. your major, extracurricular activities, etc.) and how, if at all, that shaped your career path? 

Langin: I started at Princeton in the fall of 1995 in the College of Engineering. In high school I had a very strong interest in math, physics, and chemistry, so Engineering seemed to be a good fit. I was also a member of the varsity football team. It was a very exciting season that culminated in our winning the Ivy League Championship. That was a great way to start my time at Princeton.

However, the transition into the rigorous academic requirements at Princeton did not go as smoothly. The work was very challenging for me and I found that I was not enjoying the Chemical Engineering path that I had entered; therefore I decided to re-examine my major. I met and became friends with some of the juniors and seniors from the football team who were geology majors that had good things to say about that department. They spoke positively about the small number of students (typically 10-15 graduates per year), personal contact with professors and the opportunity to work closely with them on research projects, interesting field trips, and strong relationships with other students in the department. In the beginning of my sophomore year, I decided to switch to geology. Over the next few years, I had the opportunity to work closely with great professors such as John Suppe, W. Jason Morgan, Anthony Dahlen, and Hans-Peter Bunge, all of whom are not only world renowned in their respective fields of study but also great teachers and mentors. I was treated as an equal in their research groups, a great experience for an undergraduate. I enjoyed the geology program from the very beginning and I am still very happy with that choice today.

One of the unique aspects of my majoring in geology was the opportunity to complete a certificate in the “Science and Public Policy Program”. That certificate program allowed me to participate in courses from the Woodrow Wilson School, the Politics Department, and the History department, in order to understand how science has influenced the development and evolution of public policy and political situations. We studied various topics such as vaccinations, public health and sewage systems, natural disasters, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. That cross-disciplinary program taught me very early that high-quality science had the potential to impact everyday life and should not be reserved for purely academic endeavors.

In my career at Shell, I frequently draw upon these experiences from Princeton. I aspire to re-create the close camaraderie that I experienced in the Geology department at Princeton. In my technical teams, I stress the understanding of how we apply technical analyses to understand business decisions, a thought process driven strongly by the Science and Public Policy Program at Princeton.

BT: On a similar note, how did your academic path after Princeton (grad school) and career path lead you to where you are today? Would you recommend going to grad school (you had some interesting advice for me and Joanna, and we think a lot of students could benefit from your insights about when to go to grad school)? 

Langin: Opportunities for a career in the geosciences are limited in the U.S. without first obtaining either a Masters Degree or PhD, and my experience at Princeton certainly inspired me to want to continue in that field. The decision to pursue a graduate degree was, therefore, very straightforward for me.

After graduating from Princeton in 1999, I began a PhD program at Cornell in the fall. I chose to start in the PhD program for two reasons: (1) Starting a PhD program and deciding to leave early with a Masters Degree was much simpler than starting in a Masters program and then applying for a PhD program after two to three years; and (2) it was easier to obtain funding for the PhD program than the Masters programs, either through fellowships, research assistantships, or teaching assistantships. I guess it really came down to time and money!

In graduate school, I chose to focus on geophysics which I really enjoyed. My dissertation revolved around studying earthquakes in Tibet and The Himalayas in order to understand the impact of the Indian subcontinent colliding with Asia. In order to complete my research at Cornell, I took several classes that allowed me to delve deeply into some of the key theories surrounding the physics of earthquakes and the numerical methods that we use to locate their origin points. The math, physics, and statistics classes that I took at Cornell allowed me to develop a deep technical understanding of the theories as to how seismic waves are transmitted in the earth and how they could be applied to solve other problems in geophysics.

When I started my career at Shell in 2003, I was placed in the Exploration division, with the task of indentifying areas that had the potential to become new oil and gas fields. The types of rocks in the earth beneath the water in the Gulf of Mexico required that some of the traditional geophysical methods of exploring for oil and gas needed to be altered in order to be more effective. I found that the level of theoretical understanding that I gained from the courses and research that I completed during my PhD program allowed me to make positive contributions to improve our analyses and evaluation techniques which led to higher quality evaluations. Without the strong theoretical grounding that I gained at Cornell, I do not feel that I could have made these contributions. As I was increasingly able to demonstrate my ability to deliver quality projects, additional opportunities to contribute to important projects came naturally. This strong technical foundation has served me well in my career, and I continue to rely on it almost every day. Fundamental concepts from math, physics, and geology can be applied anywhere around the world to support my business decisions and guide my thinking on complex issues.

My personal experience strongly influences my views on attending graduate school. For me, attending grad school was the only way that I could continue working in a field that I really enjoyed. However, it was not the degree itself, but the knowledge that I gained and how I was able to apply that knowledge to make positive changes and business improvements that allowed me to succeed. Therefore, I usually tell people that attending graduate school is a highly individual decision. The people that benefit most from graduate school in their careers make strong use of the skills they obtain, while those that simply expect the degree they earn to “open doors” usually benefit the least and can be left disappointed. So, while the degree you receive may help you get the job you want, lasting success comes from making the most out of the knowledge and skills you obtain in pursuit of the degree.