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 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.
Petroleum engineers develop extensive knowledge about the world of oil production, and many become industry analysts. A number use their economics skills—all oil production is a cost-benefit analysis—to enter companies as in-house economists. The largest number of refugees from this profession, however, enter environmental companies, are hired by the EPA, or become consultants to professional oil organizations. Digging oil wells can be a dirty business, and some respondents mentioned that after a few years of seeing what actually goes on at a site they wanted to change the direction of their lives.