How to Become a Petroleum Engineer (Duties, Pay and Steps)

Thinking of working in the gas and oil industry? This is a good choice!

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

How to become a petroleum engineer

If you're an engineer, or thinking of becoming one, petroleum engineering may be the perfect discipline for you. Petroleum engineers design and oversee the construction of oil and gas extraction projects, ensuring that they are safe and efficient. If this sounds like something you might be interested in, follow this guide and see if you have the professional skills needed to begin this career.

Some of you may be lucky enough to know you have a passion for engineering and just aren't sure which route to take yet, so you’re evaluating what field you should specialize in. Others are still walking through the difficulties of finding the right career, but whichever side of the fence you may land on, we are here to help you through it.

If you're drawn to this specialty, this article will take you through how to become a petroleum engineer as we review their responsibilities, the job market, working conditions, salary, and the steps to take to get there.

Let’s see if becoming a petroleum engineer is right for you!

What does a petroleum engineer do?

Petroleum engineers take the art of engineering to the next level by designing ways to extract natural gas and oil from the earth. The occupation is highly technical and focuses on not only the actual extraction, but creating, designing and developing the methods used to physically extract gas and oil from the reservoirs beneath the ground.

Cost evaluation is also an essential task of a petroleum engineer as they must take into account the cost comparison of extracting oil from new reservoirs versus maintaining the old, all while keeping in mind the least harmful impact on the environment.

Let's look at a list of common duties that typically fall to a petroleum engineer:

  • Analyzing geological data
  • Designing equipment to retrieve gas and oil from onshore and offshore sites
  • Developing drill methods
  • Planning and supervising extraction sites
  • Selecting and maintaining equipment
  • Monitoring and evaluating site operational performance continually
  • Writing skills, including preparing reports, maps and plans
  • Developing oilfield production programs
  • Researching new ways to obtain resources from existing wells
  • Using specialist computer applications and mathematical models to maximize production and save money

What the job is like

If you're familiar with engineering at all, you may think you know the work environment of a petroleum engineer, but due to the specificity of this job, let’s actually dive into what the environment, hours, and how satisfied employees are in this career. It might surprise you!

Work environment

A petroleum engineer’s work environments can be different depending on the job. You'll either be in an office (virtual or in person) or at a drilling and well site. If you prefer a more stationary job and aren’t willing to travel much, this career choice would not be for you, as travel is frequently required to meet up with other engineers, oilfield workers, and customers on site or at a different location.

On the positive side, petroleum engineers may get the opportunity to travel internationally for work, as some large oil and gas companies do have operations around the world — what a cool company benefit!

While the time spent in office may be void of hazards, the drill sites can pose potential risks. You will see petroleum engineers wearing hard hats, vests, and sometimes ear protection to keep themselves safe, as these sites are constantly utilizing heavy machinery that is dangerous if not handled properly.

Work hours

If you're looking for that stable full-time career, petroleum engineering could be right for you, as it usually provides employees with a great work-life balance.  

This role is typically 40 hours, meaning while you won’t be evaluating any zero-hour contracts for this role, the hours could still be quite flexible. Sometimes the 40-hour week could lead to more, depending on emergencies and your organization, but there is the potential for a set and agreed upon schedule, should you wish.

You and your organization will evaluate the most appropriate schedule to fit the needs of the current projects, and this will most likely be maintained for quite some time.

Some petroleum engineers work four 10-hour workdays with a day off to accommodate those time zones that require the early morning meet ups, while others may prefer the standard 9–5. Whichever way you spin it, in this career you're going to get your 40 hours with a pretty set schedule, unless there is a crisis at one of your sites.

Job satisfaction

Petroleum engineering ranks third in the best engineering jobs, meaning job satisfaction is pretty high when it comes to the engineering world, so that's a great start.

When you look at how current petroleum engineers rate their compensation and benefits, work-life balance and the career opportunities, it averages around 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Often, job satisfaction is affected by factors like your current job, your life outside of work, and your salary, so if you still think petroleum engineering could be right for you, don't let the numbers sway you. Use them to make a well-rounded, comprehensive decision!

Job market

Similar to other roles on the engineering spectrum, petroleum engineers are on the rise with an employment level increase of 8% anticipated by 2030. While that may not be a huge number, it’s still an increase.

When evaluating a career, looking at one with an upward trajectory in employment levels is always a great place to start. Due to the specialty of the role, the demand for petroleum engineers should remain strong, allowing you to feel confident in your selected career.

It's important to note, if you're interested in becoming a petroleum engineer, keep an eye on oil prices and the stock market, because these will ultimately affect the growth of this industry. While it may not be the be all and end all decision maker, it's something to keep in mind.


Petroleum engineering is the highest-paying engineering job, where the median wage (per year) is $130,850, while the lowest 10% earned less than $78,390 and the highest 10% earned more than $208,000. We all take into account salary in every major career decision, so evaluate if you were on the low end of that range and see if something along the lines of $78,000 would be comfortable enough for you to live on.

The five best paying states for petroleum engineers are New Jersey at $208,440, Alaska at $170,080, California at $160,000, Texas at $51,420 and Florida at $147,420. While you may not be looking to relocate for this career choice, knowing the states that pay the highest may factor into your decision in the end.

Petroleum Engineer Salary Infographic

Essential skills and qualities

In order to be an effective petroleum engineer, you'll need specific skills. You can’t just show up in a hard hat with your degree in hand and start working.

Before you get that far, let’s go over a list of qualities and skills that petroleum engineers must have in order to be successful. Evaluate if you currently possess — or could learn — the following skills, prior to jumping in with both feet:

Steps to become a petroleum engineer

When it comes to engineering, there will be a great deal of planning, education and perhaps career counseling involved, and specializing in petroleum engineering will be no exception. This section will take you through the steps to take to become a petroleum engineer and all that you need to help you along your way.

Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you

You've made it this far, so you’re pretty intent on finding out if petroleum engineering is right for you. If you're passionate about it and the career interests you, then go for it!

While you may be confident in your decision and don’t need to spend the time looking at an ultimate list of careers to weigh out your options, do take the time to think about more than just the potential salary you may earn. Look specifically at the requirements and the necessary skills. Does this seem like a good fit for you personally? If you’ve taken a good look inside and still believe it's right for you, then keep working through the steps.

If you’re here and still a bit stuck on if this specialty is right for you, or if the field of engineering all together may be a mistake for you, check out the tests on CareerHunter. Specifically designed by a team of professionals to help determine what you would enjoy most in a job. Let these tests help take the guesswork out of determining if this is the right job for you!

Step 2: Focus on the right subjects at school

Now comes the fun part: you get to focus specifically on what you want to do in school to help you get into the petroleum engineering field. There may not be a specific class called petroleum engineering, but break down the aspects of what is required for this career and study those subjects in more depth.

Anything in physics, chemistry, geology, and mathematics would be a great place to start. There may be more specialized courses specific to petroleum engineering, like physical geology or structural geology, but you’ll get into those as you further your study for this career.

Step 3: Earn a bachelor’s degree

The great part about this chosen career is that there is literally a bachelor’s degree you can earn that relates directly to this industry — the bachelor’s in petroleum engineering, and the next step would be to choose the right university.

It’s really that simple. If you're looking to specialize in this specific field of engineering, it would be best to get that degree first and foremost, perhaps from one of the best engineering schools in the world. Should you acquire a 4-year engineering degree, that could be sufficient for most organizations.

If you want to keep your options open to change careers to a different engineering field at some point in your life, you could always look at a broader degree that covers different aspects of engineering instead.

Step 4: Consider completing a graduate degree

While a graduate degree may not be required for this specific role, if you're looking to increase your earning potential, getting this additional degree might be the way to go. Some engineering schools even offer a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree that you can complete in five years total that also includes work experience in the program.

Again, while this may not be necessary for the role at all levels, it can set you apart and even qualify you for more leadership roles or teaching-specific roles. Earning your graduate degree in petroleum engineering is a good feather in your cap to add to this career choice.

Step 5: Get licensed

After you have completed a four-year degree to earn your bachelor’s degree, you’re required to take and pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. This allows you to work more autonomously as a licensed engineer on the job. While there will still be someone there for supervision, taking the FE exam does give you more freedom and confidence in your role.

Once you pass this specific exam, you spend four years on the job, gaining full-time work experience under the supervision of a licensed petroleum engineer and utilizing your skills from your degree and your FE license.

From there, you will qualify for taking the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, which focuses on a minimum level of competency in petroleum engineering specifically.

Step 6: Earn certifications

If you’re still looking to set your skills apart, look into earning a certification in petroleum engineering. There are helpful certifications that specialize in different areas of the industry, such as becoming a professional auditor in the petroleum engineering field.

Whichever suits your fancy, as far as certifications go, be sure to consider the petroleum engineering certification if you are looking for that leg up in the industry. This will help identify the gaps in your career knowledge and hone your leadership skills as a petroleum engineer. If you have completed the above steps already to become a petroleum engineer, then obtaining certifications should be no issue, as you’ll already meet the requirements, so pick a certification and jump in!

Key takeaways

Becoming a petroleum engineer will require dedicated time, energy, focus, and a substantial amount of knowledge — it's important to remember that before you select this as a career. If you’ve progressed through this article with us and have decided this is the option for you, you're well on your way to career planning success! As you consider becoming a petroleum engineer, remember:

  • Evaluate the core skills and responsibilities to see if they align for you long term.
  • Focus your degree on petroleum engineering, getting a bachelor's and even a master’s (if possible).
  • Get licensed, certified and hit the ground running as a petroleum engineer.

Stay focused, whether you're just starting out on your journey or are a current school leaver planning for the future, keep pushing forward as you strive towards this rewarding career. Follow your passion and you’ll find yourself in a career you love!

Are you interested in becoming a petroleum engineer? What about the role appeals to you? Let us know in the comments below!