Crude oil is a fossil fuel usually found deep beneath the Earth’s surface. It’s been used for thousands of years but didn’t boom until the 19th century. American’s first oil well was set up in 1859, and the first internal combustion engine arrived in 1872. The petroleum industry has never looked back.
Today we use crude oil, or petroleum, to make fuel for vehicles, generate heating and electricity, and as an important material component of many chemicals and products. Even our paved asphalt roadways are made using petroleum. It’s a highly valuable commodity, which is why Petroleum Engineering is a critical career field for the modern world.
The four main types of Petroleum Engineers are Drilling Engineers, Completions Engineers, Reservoir Engineers, and Production Engineers. Petrophysicists are also an important subset within this field. Broadly-speaking, Petroleum Engineers use existing technologies and develop new ones to assist in the extraction processes for both crude oil and natural gases. Drilling operations can occur on land or offshore, using large equipment and a variety of techniques. Petroleum Engineers collaborate with geoscientists as they determine the most effective ways to safely reach those hard-to-get resources. They review site surveys, perform tests, and ensure the proper equipment is selected, set up, and maintained correctly.
- Ensuring operations are performed safely and efficiently
- Discovering new techniques to mitigate environmental impacts
- Working in an industry responsible for keeping cars on roads and power in buildings
- Opportunities for travel!
Petroleum Engineers work full-time, and perhaps significantly more depending on their specialty and role. Some may put in 50, 60, or more hours a week if there’s a big job or lots of travel required. Extraction sites and refineries are often in remote locations away from cities. Engineers working on offshore oil rigs may arrive via helicopter and sometimes have to live on-site.
- Review and assess potential sites using surveys and well tests
- Make recommendations; plan work involved in complex drilling and recovery ops
- Estimate costs associated with necessary work, and compare to potential revenue gained from extracted resources
- Assist with selecting or designing equipment needed for the job
- Ensure equipment is correctly set up, operated, and well-maintained
- Oversee elements of production to ensure efficiency and effectiveness
- Be “on-call” when problems arise; analyze problems and find effective solutions
- Collaborate with geoscientists to ensure the work can be done safely
- Assist in devising ways to maximize recovery
- Keep processes on-schedule and ensure production goals are met in a cost-efficient manner
- Comply with state, federal, and international codes and standards
- Conceptualization skills
- Ability to facilitate teamwork under stressful or adverse conditions
- Able to focus in noisy or hectic environments
- Compliance- and safety-oriented
- Critical thinking
- Environmentally conscious
- Highly realistic
- Initiative and “can do” attitude
- Organized and precise
- Strong leadership and communication skills
- Math (algebra, geometry, calculus, stats) and physics
- Strong computer skills
- As noted by O-Net, Petroleum Engineers may require knowledge of software, tools, and languages such as:
- Scientific and analytics - SAS, MathWorks, PHDWin, and Well Flow Dynamics
- C++ , Oracle Java, Python, R
- Database/query - Landmark Graphics TOW/cs, Microsoft Access, Oracle, SQL
- Development environment - Eclipse IDE
- Financial analysis - GEMS, ARIES, QUE$TOR
- Multinational oil companies (BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil)
- Mining support
- Oil and gas extraction
- Petroleum and coal manufacturing
A day in the life of a Petroleum Engineer can have lots of variety! You might find them working in nice climate-controlled offices, outside in scorching heat at a drilling site, navigating through the hub of a refinery, or facing inclement weather on a rig in a stormy sea. Duty may call an engineer to travel to foreign countries for trips or even to live abroad long-term.
Big oil means big business, and engineers are expected to know their jobs inside and out. However, they’re not working alone, but rather with teams of other workers devoted to a common goal. Strong leadership and teamwork traits are required, and egos must be kept in check during times of frustration and adversity. Long hours and challenging conditions can drive up stress levels, but engineers are always expected to stay rational, objective, and clear-headed.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that one of the largest factors related to this field’s job outlook is the price of oil. When prices go up, companies may strive to expand and take on new engineers to assist. When prices fall, job outlook declines with it. The Fuse recently cited a study finding a 60% enrollment drop for Petroleum Engineering undergrad students over the past three years. However, this drop seems to be an overreaction. Currently business is doing well. As Dr. Lloyd Heinze of Texas Tech notes, “Any industry that uses raw materials is significantly influenced in price by governments.”
While many engineering professions create new things out of raw materials, Petroleum Engineers are in the business of obtaining raw materials first. Most were probably very practical growing up, realistic problem-solvers able to get along well with others. They’re hard workers, eager to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. In fact, chances are they went out of their way to seek opportunities to do so!
Creative yet highly practical and analytical, future Petroleum Engineers most likely loved gadgets and figuring out how they function. They could have been interested in finding activities that put both their minds and bodies to work. Further, they might’ve been keen to travel or experience work-related adventures in the field, offshore, or in other countries. As a lucrative sector to work in, it isn’t uncommon for workers to be attracted to these careers purely for the income potential.
- Petroleum Engineers need a bachelor’s degree, with petroleum engineering being the obviously-preferred major
- Programs should be accredited by ABET
- Some companies will also hire workers majoring in Mechanical, Civil, or Chemical engineering
- Graduate degrees are sometimes required for higher-level positions or R&D
- 91% of Petroleum Engineers hold a bachelor's degree; 7% hold a master's, per O-Net
- Internships, co-ops, and other practical work experiences are treasured by employers
- A license isn’t needed to get started, but there are state licensure options to consider later in one’s career
- Professional Engineering (PE) licensure leads to greater scopes of responsibility
- A PE must pass two exams:
- Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) - to be certified as an Engineer in Training (EIT) or an Engineer Intern (EI)
- Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam
- Society of Petroleum Engineers offers its Petroleum Engineering Certification (PEC) for qualified members
- The National Petroleum Management Agency offers Certified Petroleum Professional - Levels 1 through 5
- Consider a dual bachelor’s/master’s degree! Many universities such as the University of Oklahoma and University of Houston feature accelerated dual-track programs
- Programs should be ABET-accredited, which is a requirement for later PE licensure
- Does the institution offer scholarships or diversity-increasing STEM pathways?
- Remember, they’re going to screen you, so screen them, too. Scope out the faculty bios and program awards pages. Education is expensive so get your money’s worth!
- How modern are their facilities? To be competitive in the job market, you’ll need training on current technologies and trends
- Look into the school’s partnership to see who they’re affiliated with and how those connections can benefit you for internships or post-grad career opportunities
- Always consider what perks schools offer graduates! Do they post job placement stats? Does the alumni network offer career-building mentorship and networking?
- Lay a rock-solid foundation in high school by taking plenty of math and science, including algebra, trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, and physics
- Technical writing and strong reading comprehension are very valuable skills to develop
- IT-skills play a major role in this industry. Review the Skills Needed on the Job overview above for a refresher on which software programs and languages to study
- If possible, knock out some lower-division community college classes in high school, but make sure credits will be transferable or you could be wasting time (and money)!
- The earlier you can decide what area you want to specialize in, the better. Reviewing the different types of Petroleum Engineers can help you select the right classes to take
- Gain practical experience through internships or apprenticeships
- Volunteer to lead or manage school activities involving teams and large projects
- Find relevant professional organizations to join, from your school and our list of Recommended Resources in the Landing the Job tab
- If you do an internship, stay in touch with your supervisor; the majority of jobs these days are found through networking!
- Bookmark the career pages of the largest companies:
- BP Careers
- Chevron Careers
- ExxonMobil Careers
- Shell Careers
- Sign up for job alerts on
- Velvet Jobs
- Connect to a recruiter through your university program. Many schools serve as pipelines for companies waiting to hire grads
- Polish up your resume and interview skills, using your school’s career center
- Tailor your resume to match each job posting; don’t simply recycle the same old wording
- Investopedia cites that “total revenues for the oil and gas drilling sector came to approximately $3.3 trillion in 2019.” However, there are only a handful of Big Oil companies to work for, so...
- Do your homework on the companies. Know their histories, where they operate, what their visions and missions are, and what they need from you, the applicant
- Read common interview questions to expect. Glassdoor lists real questions that workers report being asked! You can also read Quora posts from employees in the sector
- Let management know you’re interested in a long-term career and want to understand their internal routes to promotion
- Learn the goals and milestones, and ask for help making a plan to achieve them
- Remember, pay scales vary depending on roles as well as geographic location
- Pay your dues and work hard in entry-level positions. Learn everything you can from senior engineers you work with
- If given formal training at your company, strive to impress the boss with your attention-to-detail and eager approach to learning
- Demonstrate company loyalty, leadership, problem-solving skills, and the ability to make well-informed decisions based on solid research
- Knock out your professional exams (FE and PE) and advanced certifications
- Work on your graduate degree when the time is right, and make sure the program and coursework will compliment your long term career goals
- Get the advice of working professionals before deciding to do an MS or MBA
- Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
- American Association of Drilling Engineers
- American Association of Petroleum Geologists
- American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers
- American Petroleum Institute
- BP Magazine
- BUE Library
- Independent Petroleum Association of America
- International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC)
- National Society of Professional Engineers
- Oilfield Basics
- Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
- Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE)
- World Petroleum Council
- Introduction to Petroleum Engineering, by John Fanchi and Richard Christiansen
- Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources: Exploitation and Development (Emerging Trends and Technologies in Petroleum Engineering), by Usman Ahmed and D. Nathan Meehan
- Petroleum Refining: Technology, Economics, and Markets, by Mark Kaiser, et al.
- Introduction To Petroleum Exploration And Engineering, by Andrew Clennel Palmer
Petroleum Engineering remains a relatively small field in terms of the number of working engineers in it. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 33,500 Petroleum Engineers (as of 2018) compared to 312,900 Mechanical Engineers. Something to think about!
Aside from job prospects, there are other reasons to consider alternatives before making a decision that will affect the rest of your life. A few similar occupations include:
- Architectural and Engineering Managers
- Civil Engineers
- Geological and Petroleum Technicians
- Industrial Engineers
- Logistics Engineers
- Mechanical Engineers
- Mining and Geological Engineers
- Validation Engineers