By Craig W. Van Kirk, Professor/Head of
Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, USA
N EW GRADUATES IN PETROLEUM ENGINEERING ENJOY A WIDE VARIETY OF career opportunities. Job
placement is 100 percent by graduation, with most students in this field remaining satisfied with a BS degree for their
entire careers; those who earn Master’s and PhD degrees also enjoy 100 percent job placement.
A career in this industry may begin anywhere—a small town in the Rocky Mountains, a large U.S. city, or a remote location in
any oil, gas, and geothermal producing area of the world. Most petroleum engineers are employed in the exploration for and the
production of oil and gas. Others pursue related careers in geothermal energy production, environment protection, and hazardous
waste remediation and disposal.
Most jobs involve a combination of office work and the use of expensive, computer-oriented, state-of-the-art technology, plus
opportunities for trips to the field to supervise projects that the petroleum engineer has designed. All three activities are performed
by engineers working for major, fully-integrated international oil companies; smaller independent operators; specialized companies
that provide services for the producing companies; or consulting firms in oil and gas or the environmental arena. Graduate degrees
are useful for those who want to work in research or in specialized consulting.
New jobs exist in some surprising fields. An example is the current research being conducted by the Colorado School of Mines’
Petroleum Engineering Department, in government-sponsored projects to transfer earth drilling technology to space drilling on the
moon or mars, using lasers for oil and gas drilling on earth, and ice coring in the Antarctic.
Typical career paths begin with the new engineer working for a well-established corporation for training and exposure to the
company’s businesses. The entry-level engineer will work on integrated multidisciplinary teams, later moving into middle
management or other positions of team leadership. Many engineers then accept upper management within the same company, or
begin work with a new company or consulting firm. Still others decide to create their own enterprises. In this industry, it is common
that one’s career path will include a variety of assignments in many locations around the U.S. or the world. (Overseas assignments
are readily available for all who are interested.)
To be successful in the petroleum industry, it is best to have a solid educational foundation in petroleum engineering—and
today this means possessing the requisite interpersonal skills. Teamwork and communication are essential for success and
satisfaction. Top professionals enjoy working with integrated multidisciplinary teams on meaningful projects with significant
consequences, such as deciding whether or not to spend $1.0 billion on an offshore platform and, if so, where to place it and how to
Additionally, continued lifelong education is a must. Staying current with technology and news can be achieved easily by
reading professional publications, or attending graduate school or short-course training. The Society of Petroleum Engineers in
Richardson, Texas provides many professionals with assistance in these areas.
Several worldwide trends ensure that the strong demand for petroleum engineers will continue. The ever-increasing population of the
earth, combined with the growing thirst for energy in the developing countries, is putting significant upward pressure on the demand
for oil and gas production. This increasing demand for energy, and the simple fact that oil and gas resources are limited, places the
petroleum engineer in a strong position now and for many years to come. Oil company expenditures for exploration and production
are rising fast, as are budgets and salaries for petroleum engineers. The number of job openings also is rising.
The ever-increasing integration of multidisciplinary teams of professionals—including petroleum engineers, geologists,
geophysicists, and others—is another trend shaping the future of the industry. Joint ventures and partnerships among companies, and
outsourcing of projects are opening new opportunities and new ways of doing business. These business trends are accelerating
simultaneously with technological advances in the areas of computer simulation of underground oil and gas reservoirs, geophysical
seismic techniques, horizontal drilling, and offshore drilling and production.
There are numerous areas for significant professional career growth for petroleum engineers—from drilling technology to the
design of exotic fluid systems to inject in reservoirs to increase oil recovery. Salaries for petroleum engineers are, and will continue
to be, among the highest paid of all professionals. (Starting salaries in May 2006 for BS students in petroleum engineering averaged
approximately $69,750 per year.) Additionally, more jobs are available than there are professionals to fill them.
An education in petroleum engineering has proven to be an excellent foundation for careers in fields such as law, medicine, and
business. For graduates who did not study petroleum engineering, it is common practice to pursue graduate programs in PE.
In sum, these trends, in combination with others, indicate that both the short and long-term demand for petroleum engineers will
be high; PEs will be provided with expensive tools, and they will be expected to design significant projects in a global environment.
In many ways, the atmosphere for petroleum engineers today is exciting and satisfying. ■