If you’re reading this you’re one step closer to a lifetime of high-salary, rewarding, and important work.
There are 1.2 billion cars on the roads now, and within 15 years that number will almost double (1). Even if some of those are electric (and who wouldn’t want a Tesla?) it’s clear that there will be plenty of need for oil and gas in the future.
That’s where Petroleum Engineers come in. These guys bust their asses finding, extracting, and refining oil and natural gas, and if an asteroid is plummeting towards earth it’ll be Petroleum Engineers who fly up to deal with it.
You’re probably here because you’ve heard it’s the best-paid career in America (2). And that’s true. The money is outstanding. But what you’ll love even more than your bulging wallet is the creativity, teamwork, and opportunities for travel and personal growth.
What Exactly is Petroleum Engineering?
When oil was found in Texas in 1914, the discipline of Petroleum Engineering was born. It’s the study of getting hydrocarbons – oil and gas – from the ground and into my car.
For a more vivid introduction I recommend an excellent documentary on the subject that did well at the Oscars. It’s called ‘There Will Be Blood’ and the opening scene made me want to become a Petroleum Engineer. Another iconic scene that made it into the popular zeitgeist is the ‘I drink your milkshake’ scene, in which the protagonist announces he has used his superior engineering skills to liberate the villain’s oil.
What Do Petroleum Engineers Do?
First, find some oil. You can try carrying a stick around until it vibrates in your hands, or you can map the entire surface of the planet (and the ocean floor) looking for likely spots.
After calculating the possible yield and seeing if it’s economical to extract the hydrocarbon, it’s a simple matter to dig miles into the crust of the earth. Simple? Maybe not. Have you seen Armageddon? And that was just a rock in space – imagine doing that in challenging terrain like Oklahoma. (Just joking you guys! Love OK.)
Also on the plus side, you get to operate massive machinery, drive trucks, and if you do destroy that asteroid (comet?) then you never have to pay taxes again.
Petroleum Engineering Internships
Work experience is just as useful to your fledgling P.E. career as your academic results. The easiest way to learn the business is to get in the business.
Get a head start by applying at these well known companies:
- Shell has high GPA requirements, as you’d expect from one of the biggest companies in the USA. The minimum is 3.2 to even be considered. Uniquely, Shell offers an Associate degree through a special internship known as the Operations Technical Internship.
- ExxonMobil, the biggest petroleum exploration and production company in the world, has minimum GPA requirements starting from 3.3. The internships are prized.
- BP hires interns in many technical fields in locations across the USA.
- Marathon Oil is a respected name in the industry and its interns often go on to great things.
- Southwestern Energy Company has some interesting opportunities and is well worth considering.
If you’re looking to travel, do some research on Husky Energy, Encana and Canadian Natural, and Statoil (from Norway).
The Uncertain Future
Nobody knows what will happen in this business, but some things are always true. The oil price goes down and there are layoffs and pessimism. The oil price goes up and it’s whiskies and strippers all round.
All we can be certain of is that oil will remain the number one source of energy for many decades to come. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (3) predict the world’s energy consumption will increase from 549 quadrillion Btu in 2012 to 629 quadrillion Btu in 2020 and then to 815 quadrillion Btu in 2040. What’s going to meet that need? Solar? Sure, some of it.
But let’s get real. The same report states that hydrocarbons will continue to supply the vast majority of the world’s energy use in 2040.
How about another report from the boffins at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. It states:
Fossil fuels will still dominate energy demand in 2040 with a 75% share (compared to about 80% in 2013).
For all the uncertainty that may cloud the sector’s future, one thing is certain. Time and again the oil and gas sector has demonstrated resilience and innovation to adapt to a dramatically changing world. Whatever the future may hold, the oil and natural gas sector will continue to play a vital role in meeting our changing energy needs.
Oil and gas will be the main source of energy for your whole lifetime, and probably way beyond that. Society needs – and will continue to need – creative, intelligent people to get that oil into those cars, and to bring that gas from deep underground into those kitchens.
As older Petroleum Engineers retire, companies are going to pay higher and higher salaries to attract and keep the brightest young minds. The future for anyone just starting out is bright indeed.
Here’s the catch-22 of petroleum engineering education: The best time to start a degree may be at the bottom of an oil price cycle, when students’ first instinct might be to run the other way. (4)
Online Petroleum Engineering Degrees
There aren’t many universities offering online programs. That makes sense since ours is quite a specialized career. So what do you do if you want to pursue a degree but do not want to relocate to where the school is? Well, fortunately, while there aren’t huge numbers of online options, the ones that do exist are pretty great.
Here are a few reasons why you might consider doing an online program versus studying on campus:
- You would like to continue working your full-time job while completing the degree online
- You are not able to relocate for a number of reasons including family and work
- You are not interested in living in the area of your school
Sometimes called distance learning, getting a P.E. degree online makes a lot of sense for many working professionals. As an online student, you will still enjoy many of the benefits that are offered to regular students. This includes job placements, industry-specific software training, and more. Lectures will be recorded so you can easily access it when you’re available, as long as you meet your deadlines.
University of Southern California
One of the leading universities that provide an online program for petroleum engineering is the University of Southern California (USC) through its Viterbi School of Engineering’s Distance Education Network. As an online graduate program for the engineering field, it is currently ranked #4 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and its online delivery platform is considered one of the best in the country.
The university currently offers the basic online petroleum engineering degree, as well as two specialized degrees with one that includes Geosciences Technologies and Smart Oilfield Technologies. The course curriculum is similar to that of an on-campus student, but online students are given the extra flexibility to finish the degree in a longer time frame.
Viterbi’s platform offers students a variety of ways to complete program content online including through Skype and Cisco WebEx, as well as a number of online collaboration tools so that students can participate in online lectures and classes. All course assignments can be done online, but tests and examinations will need to be scheduled at regional testing centers. USC currently does not offer online bachelors in petroleum engineering.
University of North Dakota
For those interested in a receiving a Bachelor of Science in Petroleum Engineering, the University of North Dakota’s College of Engineering & Mines offers an excellent online program. It is accredited and will take 6+ years to complete depending on your ability to take courses every semester.
The objective here is to allow students to continue with their existing career while committing to a curriculum of online courses as well as periodic on-campus visits to participate in required labs and examinations as determined by the university. These visits are pre-planned with the student and are usually scheduled during the summer period to have less impact on both work and study requirements.
Courses are the same as on-campus students and all materials are accessible online with the necessary software tools. In addition, college lectures are recorded and can be viewed via the internet either live, or as a recorded webinar at a later, more convenient schedule. Online students have the same requirements to qualify for their degree, but do have the flexibility to discuss with their instructors time frames for completion of their courses and assignment. The University of North Dakota does not currently provide its master’s program online.
Here’s a case study written by someone who went through the program.
Texas A&M University
Another university that has the option of distance learning is Texas A&M University with its Masters of Engineering. The program follows a track which does not require a researched thesis. If you want to pursue a track with a thesis, this will yield a Master of Science degree but it is not available as an online degree due to on-campus research requirements.
Texas A&M’s online petroleum engineering program can be completed four years, but the student is also allowed the flexibility of up to seven years depending on their ability to devote time to complete the course material. The degree follows the exact same curriculum as an on-campus student, but all materials are available online for access, study and completion of assignments at times convenient to the student.
The course outline is designed with the working petroleum engineer in mind so that the course work builds on his or her experience to make the degree more valuable and educational. There is a requirement to complete one project report under the guidance of a senior faculty, and this can be based on issues faced by the student in their current work environment. One unique point of this program is that it requires no on-campus visits by the student as all requirements can be fulfilled online. Texas A&M University, however, does not provide their Bachelor of Science online.
As they’re swamped with requests, you have to send in your application before they’ll read your resume or cover letter.
Specializations in Petroleum Engineering
There are three main disciplines in this complex and diverse industry.
The first discipline relates to fuel reservoir detection and management. The people involved in this aspect are known as Reservoir Engineers and their primary responsibility is to find potential hydrocarbon storage regions and analyze their potential fuel output.
They do this by working with geologists to analyze the rock formations to formulate a fairly accurate estimation of the size of the hydrocarbon deposit, and therefore, its potential revenue. If it is determined that the reservoir size is substantial enough to validate commercial extraction, it is then necessary for them to look at the financial aspects of how to access these deposits. Based on this information they can provide a cost benefit analysis which gives confirmation on whether or not to proceed with the development of the potential reservoir.
In the case that it is determined that it is feasible to move forward, the Reservoir Engineers will work on an optimal strategy for the access and removal of these hydrocarbons. The strategy seeks to ensure revenue is maximized, removal costs are minimized, and reservoirs are managed effectively, while ensuring that the operations at the site are performed efficiently.
The second discipline is focused on the extraction process which requires drilling a well into a reservoir, and the people who focus on this area are known as Drilling Engineers. These engineers focus on the technical aspects of how to best access the fuel in the underground reservoirs.
They do this by taking the analysis and recommendations provided by the Reservoir Engineers and develop a detailed extraction plan as to how to perform the necessary drilling operations. The scope of this work includes determining the best equipment for optimal drilling, as well as in many cases, designing new equipment for the specific challenges related to the reservoir.
These include drilling in various climatic conditions such as deserts, sub-zero ice sheets, as well as under-sea reservoirs. The Drilling Engineers supervise the entire drilling process, monitor it for safety and cost effectiveness, and ensure that all equipment is managed efficiently and are regularly maintained so as to not effect production operations.
After the Drilling Engineers have delivered a producing well, then it is the job of the Production Engineers to manage the removal of the hydrocarbons, and deliver it for production by pipeline for processing into the various fuels required to fulfill different energy requirements.
Once again, these engineers are responsible for designing the necessary equipment to optimize the extraction of the fuels from the reservoirs, and monitor the actual output to determine ways for improvement. They are also responsible for monitoring the throughput of the fuels to ensure consistent delivery, as well as detect potential problems so as not to slow down the production process.
Other General Information
Another important aspect of petroleum engineering is the way in which technology has infiltrated many areas of the field. This is due to the fact, as mentioned earlier, that the fuel extraction process has become increasingly complex and demanding ever more versatile solutions while ensuring cost effectiveness. This has resulted in many areas in which manual analysis and review are done, to give way to more sophisticated technology oriented solutions which aid petroleum engineers in their job.
These include development of detailed statistical and modeling applications through which Reservoir Engineers can input a variety of geological data for more effective estimation exercises of reservoir size and potential output.
They can then use highly developed simulation systems to analyze optimal extraction areas to better determine effective access strategies, so that they can recommend the best areas to begin drilling operations.
Drilling Engineers, on the other hand, can leverage high level Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools to develop new and effective equipment for the various conditions that they need to drill wells in. The advantage from this is that they can reduce the time to test and experiment with equipment prior to development, and thereby improving the chances of output from their drilling operations.
Finally, Production Engineers can access detailed forecasting software that analyzes reservoir throughput as well as depletion levels to better manage the extraction process. This way, they can optimize the amount that can be extracted while ensuring that the reservoir is effectively managed so that a reliable output can be assured for a longer timeframe. This is important to ensure an effective return on business investment so that a profit can be realized from the operations.
Which Specialization Is Right for You?
Now that you have a better understanding of what petroleum engineering is, how hard it is, and what some of the sub-disciplines are, you can determine if the field is right for you. If you’re great at science and math, and enjoy critical thinking and analytics, then this may just be your calling!
The Petroleum Engineering Curriculum
Bachelor’s level programs are structured to cover both core and elective requirements. The core petroleum engineering curriculum first addresses the foundation requirements which cover science, mathematics, and technology in a multidisciplinary team environment. This will develop the necessary qualifications and skillsets prior to the core petroleum engineering courses. These are usually known as the general education requirements and typical courses will include advanced mathematics, geology, computer science, chemistry, physics as well as humanities and communication skills.
The second set of core requirements is focused on developing the key disciplines involved in petroleum engineering as defined by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This includes a focus on experimental analysis, complex problem solving and developing an appreciation for the environmental, health and safety, ethical and social issues that need to be addressed in the field.
The first component generally includes engineering fundamentals with courses that cover such areas as applied mechanics, fluid and rock engineering, thermodynamics, reservoir engineering, oil recovery techniques, well simulation and testing, as well as production.
There is also the core resources track that covers such things as sustainable energy management, subsurface fluid mechanics and environmental management. Students are then given the chance to choose electives in fields of interest that can include 3D structural modeling for reservoirs, geological formations, seismology and tectonics, as well as carbon sequestration techniques, energy optimization and renewable energy.
Additionally, there are classes on economic costs of field development and hydrocarbon projects, financial feasibility analysis, as well as computer programming and simulation modeling for detailed analytical review. All these courses are conducted in a classroom and laboratory setting with opportunities for research, as well as site visits to drilling field operations, petroleum research facilities and geological study sites. Most programs also offer internship opportunities at oil & gas companies to build better real world knowledge and augment classroom principles.
At the graduate level, a Masters of Science in Petroleum Engineering can be obtained once a bachelor’s degree has been obtained. However, most universities will recognize bachelor’s degrees in other engineering disciplines on the condition that the student commit to additional coursework, specifically to cover the fundamentals of petroleum engineering.
Core Petroleum Engineering Classes & Electives
The master’s program classes generally include two levels with the first being considered a core requirement for all students. This includes courses such as well test and log analysis, reservoir engineering, multiphase flow fundamentals, reservoir flow modeling, equilibrium thermodynamics and advanced differential equations.
Then there is the second level, which includes elective courses. These can be selected based on the student’s stated preferences and research interests. Common areas addressed include crustal fluids, enhanced recovery techniques, well appraisal, geostatistics, reservoir modeling and optimization, geophysics and geothermal studies, as well as environmental management techniques and renewable energy options.
Mentorship from School Faculty
In addition, a mentor from the faculty is assigned to the student to design his or her coursework to meet his or her specific study and research requirements. Research areas include advanced geomechanics, unconventional oil and gas, shale oil and gas, horizontal and multilateral wells, drilling mechanics and natural gas engineering to mention a few.
These research projects include both on campus, as well as off site visits at relevant research institutes and development sites. This research requirement for the Masters in Petroleum Engineering at most universities can be achieved by following one of two tracks of courses.
First track includes the research and defense of a scholarly thesis. The research for this thesis should be original and address either new areas of development in petroleum engineering, or new alternative techniques which could yield better improvements in the design and development of extraction and production processes.
Second track focuses primarily on course requirements without the need for a thesis. However, instead of the thesis, a research project has to be developed to supplement course requirements in order to achieve the required competencies for achieving the master’s degree. This research project can be taken in an area of study chosen by the student which addresses a particular problem in the field.
In both cases, depending on the interests of the student, they can choose to further their education by pursuing a Doctorate in their chosen field of study or research. If their goal is to focus on the academic and research aspects of petroleum engineering, then a Doctorate would make sense.
Combined Bachelors and Master’s Degree
Some universities also offer a combined program which typically allows a student to obtain both a bachelors and master’s degree in Petroleum Engineering. This typically happens on a reduced time frame which is usually five years rather than six years.
Generally, this involves transitioning during bachelor’s level to master’s level courses around the sophomore year, and mentoring by a faculty member to design an effective petroleum engineering curriculum. The curriculum is designed to incorporate the core fundamentals of both the bachelors and master’s degree programs, while providing options to focus on research and study electives earlier in the program. This way, students can choose their bachelor electives with their master level program requirements in mind, which will ensure a more productive study program and an accelerated time frame for achievement of both degrees.
The combined program is very challenging and is taken up by those students seeking an aggressive schedule to complete educational requirements, so that they are better prepared to take on key positions in petroleum engineering.
In fact, prospective companies look favorably at such students as they will have a greater comprehension of the key fundamentals and mechanics of the field, and will be better resources to utilize in their projects. This results in their placement of these candidates at a more advanced level in the organization with greater responsibilities as well as salary.
As you can see, there are core competencies that are part of both the bachelors and masters curriculum that all aspiring petroleum engineers will have to complete sooner or later. If this isn’t exciting enough for you, then you will have an opportunity to choose courses, or electives, that are more aligned with your interests.
Our Ranking Factors Explained
Below are the main factors in determining the top ranking petroleum engineering program in the US. While there are other factors that we could have included in our ranking based on available public data, we believe that these are the most important in determining how reputable a program is.
Total Petroleum Engineering Degrees Awarded (P.E. Degrees Awarded)
This is based on the total number of petroleum engineering degrees awarded. It is a combination of bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. As the most important ranking factor, the more degrees that a school awards, the more established an institution is. That means more faculty, more resources, and more opportunities.
Graduation Rate (Grad Rate)
Graduation rate is based on the entire school’s graduation rate.
This is not representative of only petroleum engineering as that data is not available, but it serves as an indication of how good a school is in terms of ensuring that students earn their degree. This is the case with the rest of the ranking factors below.
Retention Rate (Ret. Rate)
Retention is defined as a student that enters a school and stays for at least a second year. Often times, schools not are not reputable will have low retention rates due to the fact that many students end up leaving after just a year. It is assumed that schools with higher retention rates, have higher quality programs to keep students engaged.
Percent Admitted (% Admitted)
Calculated based on the admission rates of incoming undergraduate students, it acts as a gauge for how competitive a school is. A school with a low percentage of admittance tends to be much more competitive and difficult to get into due to its prestige. Prestigious schools are typically known for their exceptional quality of education and faculty.
Student to Faculty Ratio (S:F Ratio)
Important to many students, the student faculty ratio for the whole school is calculated based on how many students there are to how many faculty. The lower the student to faculty rate means that the class sizes will be much smaller and students will be able to get more attention from their professors.
The default rate is determined as a percentage of students who defaulted on their school loans shortly after graduation. It is assumed in our ranking that the higher the default rate, the lower the quality of the institution.
If students are unable to find jobs after they graduate and end up defaulting on their loans, then this does not speak very highly of the school.
For many students, the cost of attending a university can play a big part in their decision. We have determined that the more reasonable cost a school is more favorable to students. Therefore, the net price, or cost of attending the school, has been factored into our rankings.
While there are only a few schools that currently offer distance learning (also known as online degrees) for petroleum engineering, we see this as a positive. We like the flexibility that these institution offers, and believe that many students can benefit from this. As such, schools that offer online classes are seen as favorable in our ranking.
(4) Houston Chronicle