Petroleum Engineers Overview

Employment for petroleum engineers is expected to grow at an average rate compared to all occupations and overall, job opportunities should be good. For most entry-level positions petroleum engineers need a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but some research jobs may require a masters degree. Continuing education is required throughout the career to keep up with technology. Starting salaries for petroleum engineers are some of the highest of all college graduates.

Nature of the Work for Petroleum Engineers

Petroleum Engineers

Petroleum engineers apply math and science to develop economical solutions to technical problems. Their work brings scientific advancements together with commercial applications.

Many petroleum engineers work on new product development. During the process they consider precise functional requirements, design, and overall effectiveness, cost, safety and reliability.

Beyond design and development petroleum engineers may work in testing, production and maintenance. They may supervise production in factories, determine why a particular component is defective or test for product quality. Supervisors typically oversee entire projects or major components.

Computers are essential for petroleum engineers. They use them to control efficiency, monitor quality, generate specifications for parts or simulate system operations. Nanotechnology is also creating new principles for design.

Petroleum engineers design ways to extract gas and oil from deposits below the earth. After resources are discovered, petroleum engineers step in along with other specialists including geologists to understand geologic formation and rock properties, determine drilling methods to be used and to monitor the drilling and production processes. Petroleum engineers design both process and equipment to maximize the profit of oil and gas recovery. Only a small proportion of oil and gas in reservoirs flows out naturally, so petroleum engineers develop a variety of enhanced recover methods including computer-controlled drilling or fracturing to connect a larger area to a well, or injecting steam, gases, chemicals or water into a reservoir to force out more oil. Today’s best techniques only recover a portion of the oil and gas, so petroleum engineers are constantly researching and working to develop new technology and methods to improve recover and lower the cost of drilling and production.

Most petroleum engineers work in plants, labs or office. However some work outside at oil and gas exploration and production sites, monitoring and directing operations or solving onsite problems. Some petroleum engineers must travel extensively here and abroad to plants or worksites.

A 40-hour workweek is standard for petroleum engineers, though deadlines can cause longer hours on occasion.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Petroleum Engineers

Petroleum engineers usually have a bachelor’s degree, but sometimes a masters is required for research positions. A degree in natural science or mathematics may be a worth alternative to an engineering degree for some jobs. Usually degrees are granted in mechanical engineering, civil engineering or electrical and electronics engineering. However, those trained in one field may work in related field. This helps engineers shift from field to field to match interests and job demand.

Typically petroleum engineers take courses in general engineering, science, math, computers, design, laboratories, humanities and social science. Often the first two years focus on core curriculum and the last two years are engineering-based. It’s not uncommon for petroleum engineers to take 5 years to finish a 4-year engineering program.

Rather than seeking a 4-year bachelor’s degree some petroleum engineers may choose to seek an engineering technology degree. These programs provide hands-on training in the most current engineering applications to prepare students for practical design and production work rather than theoretical and scientific-based jobs. Graduates of these programs often find jobs similar to bachelor’s degree grads, however their skill level is usually lower, somewhere between an engineer and a technician.

For faculty and research and development programs, graduate training is a must. Many experienced petroleum engineers choose to earn a masters degree in business administration or a masters degree in engineering to broaden their education as well.

For petroleum engineers who offer their services directly to the public, a license is required in all 50 states. To obtain a professional engineer (PE) license, petroleum engineers must have a degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), pass an exam and have 4 years of related work experience. Recent grads can begin the process right away by taking one half of the exam to become an engineer intern. Then when they complete suitable work experience, they can take part two to complete the process.

Also, petroleum engineers should be detail oriented, analytical, creative and inquisitive. Teamwork and communication skills are important, too. When working for the Federal Government petroleum engineers must be US citizens and often, need to hold a security clearance.

At the beginning of a career, many petroleum engineers must work alongside more experienced engineers and complete on the job education classes and seminars. With experience and skills they can work independently and take on more challenging projects. Later petroleum engineers may become supervisors or technical specialists. Some even work in managerial positions or sales jobs explaining the technical aspects of particular products.

Top 10 Most Popular Engineering Schools

1. Georgia Institute of Technology, Main Campus (Atlanta, Georgia)
2. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
3. Pennsylvania State University, Main Campus (University Park, Pennsylvania)
4. Purdue University, Main Campus (West Lafayette, Indiana)
5. North Carolina State University at Raleigh (Raleigh, North Carolina)
6. University of Illinois, Urbana, Champaign (Champaign, Illinois)
7. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
8. The University of Texas at Austin (Austin, Texas)
9. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Blacksburg, Virginia)
10. Texas A & M University (College Station, Texas)

See All Engineering Schools

Employment and Job Outlook for Petroleum Engineers

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow faster than average (increase 14 - 19%).

About 1.6 million engineers are working in the US and 21,900 are petroleum engineers. Most engineering jobs are found in manufacturing industries and the professional, scientific and technical services industries. Many engineers also work in telecommunications, construction or wholesale trade. The government employs about 12 percent of engineers and about 3 percent employ themselves.

While engineering jobs are typically found nationwide and across the globe, petroleum engineers will find the most jobs where sizable petroleum deposits are located. In the US, petroleum engineers often work in Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and California.

Even though engineering jobs overall are only growing at an average rate, petroleum engineers jobs are expected to grow more. An 18 percent jump in employment is projected for petroleum engineers, which is faster than average compared to all occupations. More and more petroleum engineers will be required to find new methods of extracting more oil from existing sources as for developing new resources. Because the number of job opening is probably going to exceed the small number of graduates, excellent job opportunities are expected for petroleum engineers. Jobs are found around the globe and the best opportunities for petroleum engineers will likely include work in other countries.

Continuing education is a must for petroleum engineers in order to keep up with the latest changes in technology, which can become outdated quickly. Employers expect petroleum engineers to keep current in the field to provide the greatest value and best solutions. Those who don’t continue their educations and stay up to date with technological advances may be at a disadvantage in the job market and when seeking promotions.

Earnings and Salary for Petroleum Engineers

Petroleum engineers earned median annual salaries of $108,910. Petroleum engineers have one of the highest average starting salaries among bachelor’s degree graduates: $83,121.

Annual Salary for Petroleum Engineers

On average, Petroleum Engineers earn $108,910 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $58,600/yr $79,810/yr $150,310/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook