Petroleum Engineers - What They Do

Petroleum Engineers Petroleum engineers design methods for extracting oil and gas from deposits below the earth. Once these resources have been discovered, petroleum engineers work with geologists and other specialists to understand the geologic formation and properties of the rock containing the reservoir, to determine the drilling methods to be used, and to monitor drilling and production operations. They design equipment and processes to achieve the maximum profitable recovery of oil and gas. Because only a small proportion of oil and gas in a reservoir flows out under natural forces, petroleum engineers develop and use various enhanced recovery methods, including injecting water, chemicals, gases, or steam into an oil reservoir to force out more of the oil and doing computer-controlled drilling or fracturing to connect a larger area of a reservoir to a single well. Because even the best techniques in use today recover only a portion of the oil and gas in a reservoir, petroleum engineers research and develop technology and methods for increasing the recovery of these resources and lowering the cost of drilling and production operations.

Work Environment

Petroleum engineers held about 28,500 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of petroleum engineers were as follows:

  • Oil and gas extraction - 34%
  • Management of companies and enterprises - 19%
  • Support activities for mining - 12%
  • Engineering services - 7%
  • Petroleum and coal products manufacturing - 7%

Petroleum engineers generally work in offices or at drilling and well sites. Travel is frequently required to visit these sites or to meet with other engineers, oilfield workers, and customers.

Large oil and gas companies maintain operations around the world; therefore, petroleum engineers sometimes work in other countries. Petroleum engineers also must be able to work with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including other types of engineers, scientists, and oil and gas field workers.

Work Schedules

Petroleum engineers typically work full time. Overtime may be necessary when traveling to and from drilling sites to help in their operation or respond to problems when they arise.

Education & Training Required

A bachelor's degree in engineering is required for almost all entry-level engineering jobs. College graduates with a degree in a natural science or mathematics occasionally may qualify for some engineering jobs, especially in specialties that are in high demand. Most engineering degrees are granted in electrical and electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering. However, engineers trained in one branch may work in related branches. For example, many aerospace engineers have training in mechanical engineering. This flexibility allows employers to meet staffing needs in new technologies and specialties in which engineers may be in short supply. It also allows engineers to shift to fields with better employment prospects or to those which more closely match their interests.

Most engineering programs involve a concentration of study in an engineering specialty, along with courses in both mathematics and the physical and life sciences. Many programs also include courses in general engineering. A design course, sometimes accompanied by a computer or laboratory class or both, is part of the curriculum of most programs. Often, general courses not directly related to engineering, such as those in the social sciences or humanities, also are required.

In addition to the standard engineering degree, many colleges offer 2-year or 4-year degree programs in engineering technology. These programs, which usually include various hands-on laboratory classes that focus on current issues in the application of engineering principles, prepare students for practical design and production work, rather than for jobs that require more theoretical and scientific knowledge. Graduates of 4-year technology programs may get jobs similar to those obtained by graduates with a bachelor's degree in engineering. Engineering technology graduates, however, are not qualified to register as professional engineers under the same terms as graduates with degrees in engineering. Some employers regard technology program graduates as having skills between those of a technician and an engineer.

Graduate training is essential for engineering faculty positions and some research and development programs, but is not required for the majority of entry-level engineering jobs. Many experienced engineers obtain graduate degrees in engineering or business administration to learn new technology and broaden their education. Numerous high-level executives in government and industry began their careers as engineers.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits college and university programs in engineering and engineering technology. ABET accreditation is based on a program's faculty, curriculum, and facilities; the achievement of a program's students; program improvements; and institutional commitment to specific principles of quality and ethics. Graduation from an ABET-accredited program may be required for engineers who need to be licensed.

Although most institutions offer programs in the major branches of engineering, only a few offer programs in the smaller specialties. Also, programs with the same title may vary in content. For example, some programs emphasize industrial practices, preparing students for a job in industry, whereas others are more theoretical and are designed to prepare students for graduate work. Therefore, students should investigate curricula and check accreditations carefully before selecting a college.

Admissions requirements for undergraduate engineering schools include a solid background in mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus) and science (biology, chemistry, and physics), in addition to courses in English, social studies, and humanities. Bachelor's degree programs in engineering typically are designed to last 4 years, but many students find that it takes between 4 and 5 years to complete their studies. In a typical 4-year college curriculum, the first 2 years are spent studying mathematics, basic sciences, introductory engineering, humanities, and social sciences. In the last 2 years, most courses are in engineering, usually with a concentration in one specialty. Some programs offer a general engineering curriculum; students then specialize on the job or in graduate school.

Some engineering schools have agreements with 2-year colleges whereby the college provides the initial engineering education and the engineering school automatically admits students for their last 2 years. In addition, a few engineering schools have arrangements that allow students who spend 3 years in a liberal arts college studying preengineering subjects and 2 years in an engineering school studying core subjects to receive a bachelor's degree from each school. Some colleges and universities offer 5-year master's degree programs. Some 5-year or even 6-year cooperative plans combine classroom study with practical work, permitting students to gain valuable experience and to finance part of their education.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)

All 50 States and the District of Columbia require licensure for engineers who offer their services directly to the public. Engineers who are licensed are called professional engineers (PEs). This licensure generally requires a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program, 4 years of relevant work experience, and completion of a State examination. Recent graduates can start the licensing process by taking the examination in two stages. The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) examination can be taken upon graduation. Engineers who pass this examination commonly are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs can take the second examination, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam. Several States have imposed mandatory continuing education requirements for relicensure. Most States recognize licensure from other States, provided that the manner in which the initial license was obtained meets or exceeds their own licensure requirements. Many civil, mechanical, and chemical engineers are licensed PEs. Independently of licensure, various certification programs are offered by professional organizations to demonstrate competency in specific fields of engineering.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Engineers should be creative, inquisitive, analytical, and detail oriented. They should be able to work as part of a team and to communicate well, both orally and in writing. Communication abilities are becoming increasingly important as engineers interact more frequently with specialists in a wide range of fields outside engineering.

Engineers who work for the Federal Government usually must be U.S. citizens. Some engineers, particularly nuclear engineers and aerospace and other engineers working for defense contractors, may need to hold a security clearance.

Petroleum Engineers - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Chemical Engineering
Chemical engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with the application of physical science (e.g. chemistry and physics), with mathematics, to the process of converting raw materials or chemicals into more useful or valuable forms. As well as producing useful materials, chemical engineering is also concerned with pioneering valuable new materials and techniques; an important form of research and development. A person employed in... more
Engineering Physics
Engineering physics is an academic degree, available mainly at the levels of B.Sc., M.Sc. and Ph.D. Unlike other engineering degrees (such as aerospace engineering or electrical engineering), Engineering physics does not necessarily include a particular branch of science or physics. Instead, Engineering physics is meant to provide a more thorough grounding in applied physics of any area chosen by the student (such as optics, nanotechnology,... more
Petroleum Engineering
Petroleum engineering is involved in the exploration and production activities of petroleum as an upstream end of the energy sector. Upstream refers to the process of finding and extracting oil, which is usually buried deep beneath the earth's surface, to provide a continuous supply to consumers "downstream". Petroleum engineering covers a wide range of topics, including economics, geology, geochemistry, geomechanics, geophysics, oil drilling, geopolitics, knowledge... more