Picking a College Major: A Reflection, Ten Years Later

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. – Lao Tzu

Lately, I was invited to speak at the Geoinsight.id Podcast and the Indonesian Young Geosientists Forum on the topic of career in energy industry. In both talks, I told a story about how my career interest evolved over time and how the evolution is forging the path that I’m at today.

The audience was mostly composed of students and recent graduates in energy-related majors. They are looking for guidance on their next steps entering the professional world. So, I thought it would be beneficial to put together a post as if I’m talking to my undergraduate self, almost a decade ago.


How I decided to study Geology in 2010

When I was in my final school year, it seems obvious to me what to study next in the university.

I’ve been immersed in the world of Earth Science, thanks to being involved in the Earth Science Olympiad track and represented Indonesia at the world competition. To prepare the Indonesian team competing at the international level, the Indonesia Ministry of Education set up an immersive “boot camp”. The camps spanned around six months in total. Thirty or so students selected at national level were drilled with university-level curriculum on the subject of geology, atmospheric science, and astronomy. Finally, these students were weeded out to the final four, which I was one of them.

When I said drilled, I meant drilled. We’d spend the entirety of the day, from waking up to sleep, to understand three-semester worth of education in a matter of months. The point is, all the intense education gave me a head start plus a full-ride scholarship. I chose geology over meteorology and astronomy because it looked like a more versatile subject that could transfer to energy, mining, environment, hydro, construction, and many other industries.  I have to admit, it’s a decision influenced by practicality. Nevertheless, it was obvious to me in 2010 to get into Geology.

Looking back now, although my personal reasons were precise, the industry outlook was blurry to me.

There is no engineer in my family, let alone geologist, that could tell me a first-hand experience on what is out there after graduation. My parents are both Economics professors and has been in academia their entire life, except for a short banker stint my father took after college. My uncles and aunts are either bankers, government officials, in hospitality, or running a small business.

I remembered my dad hooked me up with his friend’s daughter who studied Geology in ITB, a top tech school in Indonesia, but the context was more about advantages of choosing ITB and not about Geology itself.

My perception of geology-related careers, therefore,  came from the professors teaching us at the boot camp, secondhand stories from somebody’s friend’s uncles, and my own research via the Internet.

Not all college majors are equal

Ten years ago, my teen-self was pretty naive about how career was “supposed to be”. I’d imagine career options was like a branching road that you picked  early and followed through, until you developed a progressively deeper expertise on the subject. Perhaps, referring to my parents being in academia and influenced by reading stories about scientists, skewed my view towards career == specialists. Sure, you might open a restaurant or clothing line or something on the side, but ultimately you are to be [insert linear career track here] for life. Even for business majors, ultimately you’d stick on being in sales or management until you retire.

My thinking at the time can be illustrated like this:

There are two fundamental problems with this way of thinking, which are related with each other. We’ve touched the first one, which is putting specialists on a pedestal.

The second one is about putting all options in the single-level isolated buckets, only intersecting on the edges. While this thinking accurately reflects the college major choices, in the sense that a student can choose either petroleum engineering or marketing program for his/her undergraduate education, the these two programs are not equal in the real world.

Instead, college major choices are more like this:

The reason Marketing degree is not equal to Petroleum Engineering degree is because they serve an entirely different role in the society.

Marketing, like IT, Computer Science, Law, and Business serve as Horizontals – a common set of skills and tools that are universally needed across industries. Whereas Petroleum Engineering, or similarly pilots, doctors, or even astronomy, serves in a Vertical – a specific sector or industry  that needs a particular subject matter expertise. In-betweens is somewhat in the middle, and Geology is a good example, which can span across a few verticals.

As an undergraduate student, the major that you pick will be your starting point. In any case, it’s useful to know what you’re getting into.

Horizontals

If you start in horizontals, you are not tied to a particular industry or sector – your skill set is needed everywhere. You can also deepen your expertise in the horizontal industry that usually aims to create “a better tool”, like the Tech/Software industry. As a Computer Science graduate for instance, you can start your career to help companies create web applications in the healthcare sector, and then you move to tech industry creating software to make other businesses’ life easier, like what Microsoft does.

Horizontals also tends to have as-a-Service a.k.a. outsourcing models: app/software shop; law firm; marketing agency. You’d have clients that needs your skill set for a period of time or for a particular project.

This flexibility to switch industries is an advantage that Verticals and In-betweens cannot offer, especially in the early stage of your career. You can be more proficient in your trade, and at the same time, gain experience across multiple industries.

The downside of this choice is that you could be trapped into a “support” status. In a particular industry, you can be seen as supporting role for the company to do its main job, but not as decision-maker. It is especially true when the core competence of the company is not directly related to your role. If you are in this trap, the way to get ahead is to start picking up the industry knowledge that runs your company’s business. This way, you can recognize actual problems and  offer an innovative solution in the way that somebody deeply entrenched with the industry knowledge might be blindsided.

Another trap you might get into is one that says “when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Because you’re proficient in a particular tool, every problem’s solution is your tool. A phenomenon I’ve seen on the rise these days is Data Science, which used in analyzing COVID-19 data has drawn criticism on over-generalization without being based on sufficient knowledge in epidemiology. Working alongside with a SME could build up your understanding on how a particular industry works, and this can be practiced early in the university by joining cross-department clubs or running multi-disciplinary projects.

What about the money?

It’s hard to say, because job market is ultimately about the balance between supply and demand.  Usually Horizontal programs are quite common. Every university has one and the class is usually sizeable. Some Horizontals are matched by demand, some seen oversupply, and a few like Computer Science can’t seem to find enough employees; even though it looks like the supply has been catching up lately, thanks to the rise of coding boot camps.

Verticals

Verticals give you a head start on a particular industry or sector. Energy, or oil & gas in particular, is an example of Verticals that I can speak from experience. There is a set of specialized knowledge needed to run a Vertical. Petroleum engineer in oil & gas is one that we’ve talked about, but also fashion designers, aerounatical engineers, and hotelier.

What’s good about graduating in Verticals is that you are easy to be an inside in an industry and understand the full context of how it runs. Depending on the industry, it could translate into a high-paying jobs due to the rare and unique nature of your knowledge.

However, this specialty is also a double-edge sword.

First of all, because you are tied to a certain industry, you are at the mercy of its state. One that has (and kind of always has been) hit hard is oil & gas. The nature of the industry is cyclical, where you can make a ridiculous amount of money at its booms, and be absolutely stranded during the busts. In recent years, the cycle has been amplified. We went from having one of the worst downturn in 2014, to the US enjoying the biggest shale boom in 2016-2018, to now back to even worse downturn in 2020.

Next, you risk of being entrapped into a knowledge niche that could be prone to changes in the industry, or hard to transfer to other industries. Almost any specialized science or industry-specific engineering falls into this category. For every article that said, “this niche profession pays 6-figure salary”, that article failed to mention the number of opening available at any given time, or the fierce competition of getting in.

While the industry-specific knowledge is still valuable, padding it with a Horizontal experience could give you the safety net and edge in case the industry doesn’t work out for you. It could be any Horizontal that you enjoy doing – maybe it’s graphic design, maybe it’s art, maybe it’s a clothing business.  This kind of learning can be done at any point in your journey – whether you’re 18, 28, or 38, but it does help to start early. Even if you end up never leaving your industry forever, the additional skillset could help you draw parallels and become more creative in solving challenges.

In-betweens

In-betweens is basically area of study that are relevant to more than one verticals, but still a small group of them. Geology, as I mentioned is a good example. With in-betweens, you can still have a choice of different industries, and not absolutely tied to a particular one since Day 1.

However, this generalization ends fairly quickly. Once you get into an industry, your knowledge and skills bend towards it. You can still pivot to a “sister industry”, but the deeper you are in the rabbit hole, the more knowledge you need to shelf – potentially forever if you never intend to go back.

Both of my observation for Verticals and Horizontals are true for In-betweens. Depending on which side you err to, you could be prone into the risks or one or the other.

Which is better?

Knowing the difference between Horizontals, Verticals, and In-betweens, where should I start then?

It may sound cliché, but you’ll do yourself a favor if you follow your unique traits and interests.

What I’ve seen happening over and over again is that a highly successful person is usually someone that has an intrinsic motivation onto whatever it is he or she is doing. No, motivation and  is not a personality trait –  words like “I am a self-motivated person” is meaningless. Motivation is a drive – a fire within your heart – that keeps you going because you want to achieve a specific personal goal. My motivation might be different from your motivation, but nevertheless it is what makes us wake up in the morning ready to put in the work. If you could pick an area where you can follow your interest while at the same time expand your horizon and has a good prospect, you struck gold.

Generally though, you’d end up having easier time if you pick your interest that is also seeing a surging demand. In other words, not picking your interest that has been showing slowness in demand (at least not as a major, a minor maybe).

Also, beware of bias when you seek advice. One that I notice is getting prevalent is survivorship bias. People often get lucky, being in the right place, graduate at the right time, or have the access to a network to get ahead. These kinds of “success story” doesn’t automatically translate into absolute breeze in whatever path they take. Take it with a grain of salt; get as much data points as you can.

The Way Ahead

What you picked when you were a teenager would be your starting point, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only path that is “right” for you to venture in. Instead, I want to encourage you to explore your path, especially if you are still in school or in early career.

I was under the impression that specialists is “better than” generalists, which turns out to be not necessarily true. Yes, in academia and research, you progress by getting a PhD, then post-doc in a breakthrough research. However, in business world, you don’t have to be. be stuck in a particular subject forever to create value and be successful.

Competence can be learned and broadened. What is universally true is that you got to preserve and be disciplined, especially when you are crossing to a new subject. You’d find it difficult to learn new things and wondering whether you’d ever be good at it. You might want to give up at times. I’ve been there multiple times, learning Marketing, Oil & Gas Production, Product Management, Full-stack Development, and other new skillsets. It requires effort, but if it moves you closer to your goal, why not?

The future is increasingly harder to predict. The recent pandemic and all the unprecedented consequences of it proves that the only way to survive is to adapt.

You’ve picked your start, but after that, it’s your own journey to steer.

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