How to Get a PhD in Petroleum Engineering

Make the most of your education and expertise with a PhD in petroleum engineering. Earning your doctoral degree in this specialized engineering field means offering a new contribution to a field that already stands on the cutting edge of science and technology. With this terminal degree, your knowledge can add to the future of petroleum research.

Earning a PhD in Petroleum Engineering

The PhD in Technology with a specialization in petroleum engineering is designed to prepare graduates to perform high-level research and academic work in the field. Doctoral graduates typically go on to full-time faculty positions at universities, or to research or consulting positions in public, governmental, or academic surroundings.

Coursework for a PhD in petroleum engineering generally takes three to four years at minimum beyond the course requirements for a master’s degree. Students who attend classes part-time may take longer to complete their research and dissertation requirements. Significant, original research is required from doctoral candidates, and your dissertation must pass inspection by a committee.

Campus Versus Online PhD in Petroleum Engineering

While petroleum engineering doctoral degrees typically require a significant laboratory research component, it may be possible to find a hybrid PhD program that offers some online coursework and seminar requirements. Benefits of the partial online PhD in petroleum engineering include:

  • Setting your own hours for coursework
  • Online interaction with instructors and peers
  • Access to online resources through your university

Choosing the classroom mode you would prefer for your doctorate is as important as the study itself. If you’re motivated to research and learn in a distance education setting, a hybrid online PhD in petroleum engineering could offer the specialized training you’ve been looking for.

Specializations Within Petroleum Engineering

Unlike a broad-based bachelor’s degree designed to give the student a well-rounded level of knowledge in engineering, or a master’s degree that focuses on professional training, your doctoral degree features a refined, theoretical look into the intricacies of petroleum engineering. At the highest level of education, targeted study is ideal. Traditional areas of petroleum engineering include:

  • Phase equilibrium thermodynamics
  • Separations
  • Heterogeneous Catalysis
  • Chemical Reactor Design
  • Biotechnology

As a student, you may choose one of the above topics, or a similar narrowed focal point, for your research. Doctoral students must complete original research that adds new theory and thought to the study.

Petroleum Engineering Specialization Allows for Doctoral Focus

Engineering is a varied field. Within the narrowed scope of petroleum engineering, even more focus is possible. In the workforce, petroleum engineers tend to specialize in one of three engineering processes:

  • Production engineering
  • Reservoir engineering
  • Drilling engineering

Specialization allows petroleum engineering PhD students to focus on one area of research and scholarship, targeting their research instead of learning broadly about more elements. The result is original research on the topic.

No two doctoral degrees are alike. If a PhD in petroleum engineering doesn’t fit perfectly with your career goals, consider these alternative degrees:

  • PhD in Applied Geophysics: Also known as exploration geophysics, applied geophysics uses advanced tools to determine underground composition. The field has a broad application in archaeology, civil engineering, and oil production.
  • PhD in Energy Resources Engineering: Similar to petroleum engineering but with a broader focus on energy resources.
  • PhD in Chemical Engineering: A broader field than petroleum engineering, chemical engineers are interested in chemical and biochemical manufacturing and testing. Chemical engineers typically specialize in one aspect of the chemical process.
  • PhD in Geotechnical Engineering: Another broad category, geotechnical engineering focuses on the engineering behavior of the earth. Ocean geotechnical engineers might work on offshore oil platforms.
  • Doctor of Science (ScD or DSc) in Petroleum Engineering: Considered academically similar to a PhD in petroleum engineering, the ScD is considered a research degree.

Each of these degrees is a terminal degree, meaning you cannot earn a degree higher. Additionally, these choices are considered as academically rigorous as a PhD in petroleum engineering. Your specific career goals should determine your eventual degree path. In engineering, the ScD should offer the same academic and research opportunities as the PhD.

Before the PhD: Engineer’s Degrees

Worth noting in the terminal degree discussion is the professional engineer’s degree. Some schools offer engineer’s degrees, which require more hours of coursework than a master’s degree but fewer than a PhD. The engineer’s degree is generally considered a professional alternative to a PhD.

Earning an engineer’s degree means completing practical career-based training at a higher level than a master’s degree program. If your goal is to work as an expert within the field itself, instead of in an academic or high-level research capacity, an engineer’s degree in petroleum engineering may be right for you.

Resources for Future Petroleum Engineering Students

As with any doctoral degree search, it helps to gather the facts before you commit to a program of study. Fortunately, the Internet offers a variety of resources to help with your school research. Start your school and scholarship research with these helpful Web sites:

  • The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) maintains a listing of all petroleum engineering programs around the world. Both undergraduate and graduate degrees are represented in the listing, and you can view schools by location or school name.
  • U.S. News and World Report ranks the best engineering schools with petroleum engineering programs. The ranking lists tuition for in-state and out-of-state students, total graduate engineering enrollment, and can be organized based on location.
  • In addition to their school listings, the SPE keeps a current scholarship database for graduate and undergraduate students in petroleum engineering schools. Scholarships reward research and achievement, and sometimes consider financial need or employment plans.

These sites are designed to help you get a sense of which schools are available and potential funding options. As you begin to compile a list of potential doctorate programs in petroleum engineering, different tools can help add clarity. Once you have established a list, you may open channels of communication with potential petroleum engineering schools.

Researching Doctoral Programs in Petroleum Engineering

The process of narrowing potential campus-based and online PhD programs in petroleum engineering may seem overwhelming at first, but this preliminary research is essential to your overall success as a student. Fortunately, there are a few simple criteria that can help focus your list. Keep the following elements in mind when examining potential doctoral programs:

  • Accreditation: Determining the accreditation of your campus-based or online PhD petroleum engineering program is essential to your degree’s value. Both on-campus and online schools should be accredited by at least one third-party accrediting board. Without that seal of approval, you can’t guarantee your degree has value as you search for jobs after graduation. Use accreditation to ensure your degree is held to high academic standards.
  • Faculty: The power of an excellent petroleum engineering program rests on the strength of its faculty. Look for faculty members who share your research interests and could serve as mentors. Realize that a famous faculty member may drive the price of admission higher, while a younger faculty may be a better fit with your goals. As always, choosing the best program for you means listening to your needs.
  • History: Higher tuition costs could be linked to a doctoral program with a history of success and excellence. Meanwhile, newer programs with lower tuition rates could be untested in the industry. Take a program’s history into consideration when you’re making your choice.
  • Alumni: A strong PhD program in petroleum engineering means strong graduates. Ask departmental advisors for more information on alumni of the program, including tenure track placement rates, publications, and other success stories. Be wary of schools that can’t offer statistics on alumni success.
  • Requirements: Applications generally require an application fee, GRE and TOEFL scores, and transcripts. More competitive schools may require letters of recommendation, application essays, and assistantship applications in addition to the initial school application.
  • Community: If you’re thinking of a campus-based doctoral program, take a close look at the community enjoyed by students already in the program. Online PhD programs have their own type of community as well; ask how students and faculty interact online.

Once you’ve narrowed your doctoral program options to just a few, you can confidently begin to apply to the schools you’ve chosen. Research is an essential first step when you’re considering any doctoral program, and good research means peace of mind and a strong foundation for your application process.

Get Involved in the Petroleum Engineering Community

One important aspect in completing higher education in petroleum engineering should be your willingness to join the community of scientists, academics, and engineers in the professional engineering community.

Consider these resources as ways to learn more about earning a PhD in petroleum engineering, publish scholarly work and research, and connect with other professionals in the field:

  • Professional Organizations: Society of Petroleum Engineers, Society of Petroleum Evaluation Engineers, Association for Women Geoscientists, American Petroleum Institute, Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, Independent Petroleum Association of America, and National Petroleum Council
  • Scholarly Journals: Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering, Open Petroleum Engineering Journal, International Journal of Petroleum Engineering, and International Journal of Geomechanics
  • Conferences: Middle East Oil Show and Conference, Offshore Europe Oil & Gas Exhibition & Conference, SPE Annual Technical Conference & Exhibition, Global Petroleum Show & Canadian International Petroleum Conference, and IP Week

Working in petroleum engineering means standing at the forefront of science and technology. Use the skill you gain with a PhD in Petroleum Engineering to operate at the top of your field, paving the way in research and development techniques as you work with colleagues. Petroleum engineers are challenged to develop new strategies in reservoirs, drilling, and production. With a terminal degree in the field, you prove your level of interest and ability to the engineering world.


  • National Petroleum Council
  • Society of Petroleum Evaluation Engineers
  • Society of Petroleum Engineers
  • U.S. News and World Report