Petroleum Engineer: Job Description, Duties, Salary, and Other Requirements

FT Contributor
A petroleum engineer working on her laptop in an oil field.
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In the United States, we consume about 391.4 million gallons of gas each day. All we have to do to access this crucial natural resource is pull our cars up to gas station pumps and hold down levers until our tanks are full. Ease of access helps us travel to work, the grocery store, and even across the country, and we owe it all to petroleum engineers.

These are the workers responsible for designing and developing methods for extracting gas and oil from below the Earth’s surface. Discovering locations, designing oil rigs, and ensuring oil is being efficiently produced are all challenges that petroleum engineers face on a daily basis.

Petroleum engineering is the highest-paying engineering job in the country. However, it’s a male-dominated industry and a career that requires frequent travel and close attention to problem solving, so it’s not a dream job for everyone. With this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about petroleum engineering, which will help you decide if it’s a career path you’re interested in pursuing.

What Does a Petroleum Engineer Do?

Petroleum engineers are responsible for finding ways to get gas and oil from the Earth, as well as analyzing older wells and making changes so they’re more productive. A petroleum engineer may be asked to:

  • Create plans to drill in oil or gas fields and design solutions for recovering the gas and oil.
  • Develop strategies for injecting chemicals or gases into oil reserves to force out more gas and oil.
  • Design equipment that can be used to extract gas or oil from offshore and onshore oil reserves located deep under the Earth’s surface.
  • Check that oil drilling equipment is installed properly and functioning correctly.
  • Schedule maintenance performance for oil and gas drilling equipment as needed.
  • Conduct analysis to find out how oil or gas wells are producing with the use of surveys and testing.

While petroleum engineers may work in offices at times, most of their time is spent at drilling sites observing equipment and planning oil drilling solutions. They’re required to travel frequently and visit oil rigs to solve productivity issues and ensure the equipment is running efficiently. Sometimes these oil rigs are set up in foreign countries, so petroleum engineers frequently travel abroad to complete projects.

Average Petroleum Engineer Salary

The salary that a petroleum engineer earns depends on the job location, specific job title, years of experience, education, and other factors. However, petroleum engineering is generally known as the highest-paying engineering job in the industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, petroleum engineers earned an average salary of $137,170 in May 2018. If you used extensive student loans to earn your degree, obtaining a high-paying job like a petroleum engineer after you graduate can make it easier to get out of debt.

The highest-paid petroleum engineers are those who manage companies and enterprises or who are directly involved in gas and oil extraction. Work schedules are usually full-time, but additional hours may be necessary when traveling or working on a large design project. Overtime may also be required if there are emergencies or malfunctions with oil drilling equipment or rigs.

Petroleum Engineer Education, Licenses, Certifications, and Training

Petroleum engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering or another engineering field, such as chemical, civil, or mechanical engineering. Experience is crucial and graduates who completed internships or gained work experience through cooperative-education programs are usually preferred by employers.

Some employers may require petroleum engineers to hold graduate degrees to enter the field. A graduate degree is also required if you wish to work in certain research and development positions in the industry or if you plan to teach postsecondary classes in petroleum engineering at a college or university.

While obtaining a graduate degree can get you into excessive student loan debt, landing a job as a petroleum engineer also means you’ll earn a substantial salary. If you remain diligent, this paycheck can help you pay off your student loans quickly.

Petroleum Engineer Job Outlook

Petroleum engineer employment is expected to increase by about 3% from 2018 to 2028, which is slower than average when compared to other occupations. The slow job growth in this industry may be attributed to alternative fuel sources and the growing electric-powered automotive industry.

Fluctuations in gas and oil prices also directly affect the job outlook for petroleum engineers. When oil prices are high, companies are more apt to expand their search for these resources and hire more engineers to ensure equipment is producing efficiently.  

However, when gas and oil prices plummet, these companies are less likely to spend their own money to hunt for additional oil reserves or invest in existing equipment to improve its performance. Most job growth in the industry is expected in mining support activities, since oil and gas companies frequently contract work to these professionals.

Should I Become a Petroleum Engineer?

Since petroleum engineering requires foreign travel and long hours, it’s not a fulfilling job for everyone. To be a petroleum engineer, you must have advanced people skills and feel comfortable communicating and working closely with professionals in the field from all over the world. You must also enjoy tackling large amounts of technical data and statistics to create solid conclusions that lead you to designing efficient and safe equipment for drilling.

Petroleum engineers must possess advanced analytical skills since they’re tasked with troubleshooting equipment or editing designs to increase productivity. If you have sharp problem-solving and math skills, they’ll be useful when creating plans for oil drilling equipment in newly discovered environments.

While a petroleum engineer is the highest-paying engineering job, it requires extensive education and training. However, if you’re excited about scoping out new oil sources, creating plans for oil rigs, and changing components on existing oil rigs to increase productivity, a job as a petroleum engineer may be right for you.

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