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With so much of our food packaged in plastic, and our motor power generated by liquid-fuel combustion engines, it's hard to imagine what the modern world would look like without petroleum engineers. These professionals handle a wide range of duties, including:

  • Developing plans for drilling into reservoirs of oil and natural gas
  • Designing equipment to extract crude oil and liquid natural gas in the most profitable way possible
  • Working with geologists and other earth scientists to better understand the types of rock at a particular work site
  • Constructing estimates of the yield expected from a particular field or well
  • Ensuring that drilling and extraction equipment is properly set up and maintained

Whether it's the discovery and extraction of fresh reserves of crude oil or developing new safety techniques for oil wells and gas field operations, the skills learned in a petroleum engineering program can command a premium price in today's job market.

Petroleum Engineering: Degrees and Coursework

The selection of courses offered to petroleum engineering majors tends to vary from school to school, but certain core subjects are standard in most programs. Here are a few courses that students can expect to encounter:

General Engineering
  • Drilling systems
  • Particle dynamics
  • Petroleum geology
  • Physics of oil and gas reservoirs
  • Materials mechanics
  • Geostatistics
  • Petroleum production systems

A bachelor's degree from a petroleum engineering program is usually required for entry-level jobs in the discipline, although degrees in mechanical or chemical engineering are occasionally considered satisfactory by employers. A master's degree may be required for higher-level positions. Most jobs in education or research and development require candidates to have earned at least a master's level education.

Some institutions may offer a hybrid bachelor's and graduate degree program, which can potentially take as few as five years to complete. Candidates with experience in the field tend to fare better in the job search, so it can be beneficial to seek out degree programs that offer opportunities for hands-on work in a professional environment.

Career Outlook for Petroleum Engineers

Job opportunities in petroleum engineering are expected to increase more than twice as fast as the national average across all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In fact, demand for petroleum engineers is projected to rise 26 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022, creating nearly 10,000 new positions in the field.

The BLS lists several different occupational specialties within petroleum engineering for students to consider:

  • Completions engineers, or subsurface engineers, are in charge of the equipment used for production in a well and reservoir.
  • Drilling engineers develop procedures and best practices for running a well in a safe and economical fashion.
  • Production engineers handle operations after the construction of a well, monitoring oil and gas production rates.
  • Reservoir engineers study reservoirs to make estimates on the amount of oil or gas that could potentially be extracted.

Petroleum engineers across all occupations earned a mean annual salary of $149,180 in 2013, according to BLS data. Jobs for petroleum engineering majors in specialties outside of oil and natural gas extraction tend to earn less than those listed above -- petroleum engineers in the mining and mining support industry, for example, earned an mean annual wage of $115,910 in 2013.

"Petroleum Engineers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/CURRENT/oes172171.htm
"Petroleum Engineers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/petroleum-engineers.htm
"Petroleum Engineers," O*NET Online, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/17-2171.00

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