How to Become a Petroleum Engineer in the US


Do you love math, physics, chemistry, and geology? Are you looking for a highly paid profession with plenty of opportunities? If so, you may be interested in becoming a petroleum engineer. Petroleum engineering is a career that makes a lot of top job lists these days, and for good reason.  It is one of the most lucrative and fascinating roles in the field of engineering and demand is growing year by year.

See Also: How to Answer The Top 10 Engineering Interview Questions

1. What Do Petroleum Engineers Do?

The whole world needs energy. Without it, we cannot drive our cars, power our lights and computers, refrigerate our food, or live our lives.  The job of a petroleum engineer is to develop methods that can be used to extract gas and oil from under the earth’s crust. They may help to develop new wells, or come up with new ways to improve the extraction processes used at old wells.

The primary duties of a petroleum engineer include:

  • Research and development to build new equipment which can be used to extract oil and gas. The goal is to find a method that is efficient, fast, and cost-effective.
  • Find ways to get more oil out of existing reserves. This can be done through the use of gasses, chemicals, water, or steam. A petroleum engineer ensures that a company is able to tap as many resources as possible in a reserve before moving onto the next one. Right now, this is a big challenge in the petroleum engineering field. Currently, even cutting-edge techniques can only extract some of the oil and gas. Therefore, much of it remains inaccessible.  
  • Complete and evaluate well surveys and conduct testing for safety and efficacy.
  • Use a computer-controlled drill to tap into a large reserve of oil from the same well.
  • Install, monitor, maintain and operate equipment at a well site. If you become a petroleum engineer, you will work closely with geologists to determine the best approach to extraction at a particular site. This often requires the design and development of specialized drilling equipment and procedures. There aren’t any geologic formations that are the same, so drilling at different sites can be a very diverse process.

Types of Petroleum Engineers

This is a field where there are specific subsets of engineers. Because petroleum engineering is itself a very specialized field, super-specialization is required to solve challenging problems.

  • Completions engineers. This type of petroleum engineer collaborates with geologists and others at a work site to figure out the best way to finish a well. They oversee this process, so they work directly on the site.
  • Drilling engineers. This type of engineer optimizes the drilling process at a given well. Their job is to make this as safe and effective as possible while also minimizing damage to the environment.
  • Production engineers. These petroleum engineers are not involved with well building. They monitor existing wells for productivity and do what they can to boost it.
  • Reservoir engineers. These engineers study actual oil and gas reservoirs to try and determine how high their yield is likely to be, and which methods will work best to maximize that potential yield. After wells are constructed, they assist with monitoring.

2. Work Environment

If you are looking for a job that incorporates a combination of office and field work, petroleum engineer would be an excellent match. A considerable amount of time is spent in offices and labs drafting up plans and working on research and development. A great deal of time is also spent on the field. Petroleum engineers work at drilling sites, overseeing the creation of wells and monitoring equipment and procedures. This includes on-shore wells as well as off-shore oil rigs.  Travel is usually part of the job, and may happen at the drop of a hat.  Expect to work full-time hours. When traveling, it is not surprising to work 50-60 hours per week. Eighty-hour rotations on and off are typical at drilling sites.

3. Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for petroleum engineers in 2012 was $130,280 per year, which comes out to around $62.64 per hour. This is one of the highest-paid engineering jobs you are going to find.

4. Entry Requirements

If you are hoping to become a petroleum engineer, you will need to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering such as:

  • Chemical engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Civil engineering
  • Electrical or electronics engineering
  • Petroleum engineering

As you might expect, a degree in petroleum engineering from one of the top petroleum engineering schools suggested by WikiProfessional (for example, The University of Texas at Austin, the Colorado School of Mines, or Penn State) is by far preferable to a chemical or mechanical engineering degree.

Today’s job market is very competitive, and if you have a degree that is specific to the field, you are more likely to land a top position. Note that if you are interested in a research-oriented position, you may need to earn a master’s degree.

Once you have earned your degree, you will need to pursue licensing, no matter which state you are working in. To become licensed as a Professional Engineer (PE), you must graduate from a program that has been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), and pass an exam. You will also need to accumulate four or more years of work experience, generally in the form of an internship.


5. Important Qualities

What skills and qualities do you need to excel as a petroleum engineer?

  • Excellent knowledge of mathematics.
  • Strong technical skills, particularly in the fields of chemical and mechanical engineering.
  • Operations monitoring abilities.
  • Optimization skills. A huge part of your job involves optimization. You need to be able to optimize time, money, materials, and more.
  • Teamwork, including working with non-engineers who may not understand all concepts.
  • Strong communication skills. You need to be able to translate complex engineering concepts into language that decision-makers can understand.
  • Persuasive abilities. Sometimes you will need to convince others that your idea is the best. Strong negotiating skills are also a must.  
  • Management of material resources.
  • A strong understanding of geology.
  • It is important if you work in this field to care about the environment.
  • Quality control analysis.
  • Problem-solving abilities. Your job is not only to identify problems and weaknesses in the systems you work with, but address and resolve them.
  • Other knowledge areas that are important to the role of a petroleum engineer include geography, legal codes, public safety, and design.
  • You may need to train others in new procedures. 

The exact skillset you need may differ depending on your job role. Remember, the duties of a petroleum engineer can vary widely.

6. Career Development

It is very typical, when you are first hired into an entry-level position as a petroleum engineer, to spend a lot of time on the field. That means you need to be willing to travel regularly and put in a lot of long, hard hours. You need to be in good physically shape. A willingness to relocate and travel will make it much easier for you to land a job, and also to climb up in the ranks. As mentioned previously, you will likely be spending some time as an intern, and you will be working alongside more experienced engineers.

Ongoing classes and seminars will be part of your job from that point forward. Even though you are embarking in your field with cutting edge knowledge, that knowledge can become outdated very quickly. You will need to stay on top of the latest developments and discoveries. Even if these courses are “optional,” they are essentially a requirement if you want to stay competitive. Learn everything you can, and take opportunities to share your knowledge with others as well. While you are at it, be sure to join the Society of Petroleum Engineers, and also consider some of these related professional organizations.

There are a number of different routes you can go with your career as a petroleum engineer. Many graduates opt for technical roles, but others may decide to take on managerial jobs or work in commercial roles.  Over time, as you demonstrate your expertise, you can work your way up to a senior position. The higher you climb and the more experience you get under your belt, the more money you can earn and the more exciting your work will be.

7. Employment Opportunities

According to the BLS, in 2012 there were 38,500 petroleum engineers in the US. The field is growing at a rate of 26%, which is much faster than the average for all occupations nationwide. This represents 9,800 new openings for petroleum engineers by 2022. 

Employers of petroleum engineers include:

  • Companies in the oil, gas, coal or petroleum industries
  • Companies in other industries like architecture, construction, telecommunications, or wholesale trade
  • The US government
  • Self-employment

The majority of petroleum engineers will work in oil-rich states such as Texas, Alaska, Oklahoma, California, and Louisiana.

If you love engineering, geology, chemistry, and mechanics, and looking for an exciting career field which combines them all, you should definitely think seriously about becoming a petroleum engineer. It’s a job that requires advanced technical knowledge, physical fitness, and a willingness to work hard and long hours, but it can be a very profitable and rewarding career. The work you do, not only pays extremely well, but can help pave the road to a brighter energy future.