How to Become a Petroleum Engineer

With the price of gasoline going up and people grumbling about the cost of filling their tanks, one might come to see oil and gas as an expense rather than a source of wealth. However, for some people, fossil fuels can be the key to a very lucrative career. Petroleum engineers, are one such class of people who work in the fossil fuel industry, and they earn amongst the highest pay of any engineers, averaging well over $100,000 per year. In fact, the lowest-paid petroleum engineers earn almost $70,000 per year, while the top ten percent earn over $170,000. In addition to the great pay, the job features plenty of opportunities for traveling, working abroad and career advancement.

Petroleum engineering is primarily concerned with the extraction of oil and gas, and includes three main specialties:

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Reservoir Engineers, who make estimates about the quantity of oil and gas in a particular reservoir, help plan strategies for maximizing recovery and submit reports to agencies concerning the economic viability of wells. Geology, physics and chemistry are important tools for the reservoir engineer.

Drilling engineers are tasked with getting to the product so that it can be pumped out. They plan and implement well programs, work with drilling contractors and look out for the safety of personnel while choosing which equipment and techniques to use for a particular drilling job. Geology and mechanical engineering are particularly relevant areas of study for the drilling engineer.

Production engineers oversee the process of production of oil and gas from a working well. In addition to selecting proper pumping equipment and measuring flow, they also treat the product to make it suitable for transport to a refinery. Mechanical engineering and chemistry feature in this specialty.

So what does it take to become a petroleum engineer? For starters, it helps to have a good background in math and science before applying to a university. Engineering and its associated disciplines are challenging material, but a bright, motivated student with talent in math and science can come to master it with concerted effort.

Obtaining a petroleum engineering degree, the next step in becoming a petroleum engineer, requires a rigorous course of study that, following ABET accreditation guidelines, includes training in:

  • mathematics through differential equations, probability and statistics, fluid mechanics, strength of materials, and thermodynamics
  • design and analysis of well systems and procedures for drilling and completing wells
  • characterization and evaluation of subsurface geological formations and their resources using geoscientific and engineering


  • design and analysis of systems for producing, injecting, and handling fluids
  • application of reservoir engineering principles and practices for optimizing resource development and management
  • the use of project economics and resource valuation methods for design and decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering, a student may want to start thinking about what particular branch of the job suits him. Graduate programs offer the opportunity to specialize further in the discipline, and the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), the main professional organization for petroleum engineers, has a student member program that connects students with mentors who can provide career advice. The SPE also offers discounts on textbooks, scholarships and training in cutting edge technologies.

Petroleum engineering is expected to have average job growth over the next decade, but this is not really an accurate gauge of job opportunities in the field. In fact, a very considerable wave of retirement is underway, and young petroleum engineers will be highly sought after, which has led to an increase in the number of schools offering a petroleum engineering degree. The industry is already facing a shortage of engineers, and new graduates should have very little trouble finding work. Additionally, the increasingly difficult nature of extraction as major, easily tapped oil fields age and deplete, will require more highly trained personnel than the older reservoirs.

Although the profession may eventually fade away as new sources of energy are brought online, petroleum still provides us with 70% of the energy humanity uses, and is expected to be the major source of energy for at least the next 50 years. Those who obtain a degree in petroleum engineering can count on a long, lucrative career with plenty of job security. They can also expect to see a great deal of the world as they travel, meet people from different societies and culture, and live a colorful life. For prospective students who are interested in engineering and and also have an adventurous streak, becoming a petroleum engineer is a very attractive option.