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Petroleum Engineering

Opportunities for multiple disciplines

By Robert Kallick

Oil keeps the world running, and petroleum engineers are the ones in charge of making sure that there's enough oil produced to go around. For those who want to play an important role in making the world run, then a career in petroleum engineering would be a wise choice.

Jobs in petroleum engineering are wide-ranging as the industry attracts both a number of engineers (petroleum, chemical, mechanical) and business-oriented people, scientists, mathematicians and geologists.

"No wonder as the exploration and production of oil and gas is a truly interdisciplinary effort," says Margot Gerritsen, assistant professor at the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University. "Geologists, field experts and computer experts work together to explore for new resources. Drillers, petroleum engineers, chemists drill exploration wells and together with the geological team try to assess the existence of a new reservoir and its potential."

A Growing Need

While the number of students enrolled in petroleum engineering programs has grown since the 1980s (up to 3,700 in 2007), there is still a great need for people to join the industry.

"The field is in dire, dire need of people," says Gerritsen. "The workers are graying and a large fraction of current employees is retiring in the next 5 to 10 years. So, the industry is desperate to hire new talent." While salaries are high for jobs in PE (most start in the 6-figure range), the fact that the job takes you where the oil is can be a turn-off for some people. Margaret Watson, communications manager for the Society of Petroleum Engineers says that over 141 countries produce oil and natural gas.

"The center of oil and gas production in the U.S. is Houston, but you will find people working in this industry in almost every city," she says. "The concentrations will be found in places where there is a lot of oil and gas production. You will also find petroleum engineers moving into renewable energy and managing companies, which expands the possibilities even further. " For those who like to travel and meet people from around the world, PE can be a great career path. The start of your career may bring you out in the field, but as engineers gain more experience, it's more common to find them working from an office. As a petroleum engineer, Watson spent years finding oil and natural gas, and analyzing how much it would cost to drill, complete a well, and have an operating facility to produce it through.

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Photo credit: Fábio Pinheiro

"In this way we can estimate economically recoverable reserves, understand the value of the opportunity by understanding the value of the oil and gas and the cost to produce it," she says. "My role now is to forecast my company's oil and gas production in North and South America and report to management how the business is doing today, and how it will do next week, next month, next year, five years from now, etc. I also do analysis and statistical modeling to understand the range of possibilities, that we could produce so much on average, but have an upside to get so much more, or a downside uncertainty that we could produce a certain amount less."

Watson adds that her favorite part of her job is working with imaginative and realistic people with great senses of humor. "You need to be able to accept challenges such as drilling a $130 million well after three years of work, and not hitting any economic oil and gas to produce," she says. "Such things are useful data points to assist in drilling the next well to find a huge discovery. Even in the best organizations, a success ratio of reaching the target of 50 percent to 70 percent is considered to be world class. You have to understand that making these projects work is sometimes as challenging as putting a man on the moon or launching an unmanned mission to Mars."

Prepare for Your Career

The petroleum engineering industry is looking for just about everybody in all fields of study. Gerritsen says that can-do people who are willing to put in the extra mile and are great team workers are the ones who succeed. As far as educational background, math, physics and chemistry are all good backgrounds to have.

There are many places where one can prepare, Gerritsen says.

"If you're looking for a real petroleum engineering background, there are options at the undergraduate level at Stanford, Texas A&M, Austin Texas, Tulsa, Colorado School of Mines, Wyoming, USC, amongst others. At the graduate level, the same schools offer courses. Stanford and Austin Texas are generally rated the best in petroleum engineering."

It is also important to note that the industry is very much moving towards alternative energy sources.

"This means that the type of engineers or scientists they hire is wider now than ever," says Gerritsen. "Most companies are very active in solar energy, some in biomass production, some in wind, some in geothermal."

Working for a petroleum company is a job for people who want to be able to make a difference.

"Working for the energy sector is one of the most exciting and rewarding careers," says Gerritsen. "Energy is, and will increase to be, our biggest challenge. Supplying energy to a world that is increasingly energy hungry in a sustainable manner is a first priority. Everything else depends on it—food production, water supply, etc."

Robert Kallick is a freelance writer and career expert living in Los Angeles.

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