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A Day in the Life of a Petroleum Engineer

The subtitle for Petroleum Engineering 101 at Stanford University reads “How to dig oil wells,” and that is for the most part what a petroleum engineer does. He is involved in all phases of oil exploration, from choosing the prospective site through taking down the drilling rig after extracting the oil. This can mean travel, long stays in unusual (and sometimes inhospitable) locations, and uncertain working conditions. “It’s a gambler’s life,” wrote one petroleum engineer, and others agreed. “If you’re into engineering and gambling, petroleum engineering is for you,” wrote another. Those not attracted to both should steer clear of this high-risk field. A petroleum engineer usually works for a petroleum company in various capacities. The typical petroleum engineer works in the field. First, he scouts prospective sites that have a strong likelihood of containing oil or gas below. Then, he takes samples from the site and determines the amount and quality of oil, the depth at which these resources lie, and the equipment that will be needed to properly extract them. The PE then supervises construction and operations at the site and adjusts plans accordingly. Finally, when the well or pocket is exhausted, he supervises the removal of the drilling equipment and the safe return of the land to structural stability, and he oversees the removal of any waste (hazardous or otherwise) left at the site. These stages of work can be quick three-month stints or can be extended to as long as two years. Patience, sound judgment, and maturity are all required features for the successful PE. “You’ve got to be able to see problems before they happen,” wrote one veteran Californian PE, “otherwise you’re right in the middle of them.” Self-confidence is also crucial, as on-site decisions have to be made quickly and surely. Another said, “You have to be able to handle failure” if you want to survive in this industry. Speculative oil-well drilling is somewhere between a science and an art; expect to frequently plant rigs that prove barren or that only yield limited amounts of oil. But despite the frustrations that go with the turf, petroleum engineers seem to enjoy being out in the field, where they can get their hands dirty. One big satisfaction for many we surveyed was that they worked with both their minds and their hands. Some petroleum engineers do work in offices, however, analyzing the reports and recommendations of field engineers and advising corporate decision-makers on whether to proceed. These positions are usually held by veteran personnel with experience as field engineers, drilling engineers, and reservoir estimators. While these people are crucial to the success of the industry as a whole, their levels of satisfaction were slightly lower than those of field engineers; the gambling lifestyle, it seems, is less exciting from behind a desk.

Petroleum Engineering Academic Requirements

Petroleum engineers have rigorous academic requirements. They must hold an undergraduate degree in engineering or earth sciences (geology, geophysics, tectonics, mining, etc.), and the majority of the profession continues on to graduate study. For those who wish to enter academia, a Ph.D. is a must. Only a handful of universities in the U.S. offer programs that focus on petroleum engineering, with coursework in such subjects as geology, geophysics, chemistry, fluid dynamics, and physics. Most PE programs are located in oil-producing states, as are, obviously, most PE jobs. PEs must often relocate within these oil-producing parts of the country (California, Texas, and Oklahoma are big ones) or the world. Many states require practicing petroleum engineers to pass a state licensing exam.

Present and Future Outlook for Petroleum Engineering Careers

Before 1860, oil was an anomaly that sometimes bubbled up through the ground and was useful as a lubricant or for lighting lamps. In the late 1800s, Edwin Drake pumped the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, ushering in the age of oil production. The development and popularization of the automobile in this century provided a steady market of customers for one of oil’s by-products—gasoline—and thus was born the world’s richest industry. Oil wells now reach over 20,000 feet below the ground to drain “black gold” from the earth. The future of the petroleum engineer will be influenced by two factors: The short-term glut of oil (only seen twelve months into the future) and the long-term scramble that oil depletion necessarily brings. In the short term, the demand for petroleum engineers should be weak, due to cheap and plentiful on-hand oil inventories, consistently producing wells, and inexpensive foreign oil alternatives. By the year 2020, however, experts predict that the long-term demand for petroleum will greatly exceed the supply, making it worthwhile for companies to hire many petroleum engineers in search of any valuable undiscovered pockets of oil.

Quality of Life


Two years into the profession, petroleum engineers are working as junior assistants, taking rock samples and sending them to labs for testing. They often collect data and assemble it for more senior researchers. Many take this opportunity to form mentor relationships with these project managers and are exposed to years of experience in short periods of time. Much time is spent on site, and a number of junior members use these early years to gain foreign oil exploration experience. Hours are long; pay is average. In these first two years it’s important to get the state licensing exams out of the way, since they become more difficult to pass the farther away you get from your coursework.


The middle years of the profession are marked by significant responsibility and a lot of risk-taking. Many are assigned lead roles in one phase of oil exploration or development. Future assignments all rely on success in previous ones, so stress levels can be significant. Hours are long, particularly for field engineers. Those who are likely to become back-office consultants begin cultivating connections during these years; many of them attempt to publish in academic journals as an additional credential. Satisfaction levels are high.


Ten-year petroleum engineers have not only been through a number of diverse projects but have also seen the rapid fluctuation of the oil market affect their business. Those who make the transition from the field to the office do so between years six and twelve. Many have changed employers at least once. Salaries rise; satisfaction dips, then levels off.