Many petroleum engineers travel the world or live in foreign countries - wherever their explorations take them to find and recover valuable reserves. These travels can lead to the deserts, high seas, mountains, and frigid regions of the world in order to find untapped sources of energy for the world's population.
The work of petroleum engineers keeps the world running. They help provide the energy to heat our homes, cook our food, and fuel our cars. However, petroleum engineers study more than just combustible material. Manufacturers use petroleum to create more than three hundred everyday products from medicines and cosmetics to plastics and textiles.
Earning a college degree in petroleum engineering does not mean you must earn a living in another country. Plenty of other jobs exist in the profession at home, as well as abroad. Petroleum engineers might oversee drilling sites or work indoors in a laboratory or at a computer. A wide range of career possibilities exists within the profession.
"Engineering is the science and art of efficient dealing with materials and forces . . . it involves the most economic design and execution . . . assuring, when properly performed, the most advantageous combination of accuracy, safety, durability, speed, simplicity, efficiency, and economy possible for the conditions of design and service."
-- J. A. L. Waddell, Frank W. Skinner, and H. E. Wessman (1933)
After locating reservoirs of crude oil and natural gas, petroleum engineers find ways to bring those substances out of the ground for processing. The two primary ways of getting the reserves to the surface are "drilling" and "producing". Drilling creates a tunnel down to the oil and involves creating a system of pipes and valves to bring it up. When producing, petroleum engineers locate reserves are already under pressure. If they don't erupt on their own, the engineers use their talents to coax the substances above ground.
The petroleum engineer is involved in nearly all phases of the production process, from finding the oil through its refinement and distribution. Using skills that are often associated with the earth sciences, petroleum engineers examine a variety of geologic and engineering data to determine the most likely sources of petroleum. Because many of these locations are in out-the-way places, someone involved in this aspect of petroleum engineering might have to travel extensively, or even set up residency in a foreign country for a time.
Once a reserve has been located, the petroleum engineer must determine the quantity and quality of the product to be extracted. Will there be enough of sufficient quality to make the substantial investment in money and labor worth the effort? Even after a company has decided to drill, the petroleum engineer must determine the best and most efficient means of extracting it.
Petroleum engineers examine the recovered oil and gas for quality before separating the different elements. They often find a mixture of oil, gas, water, and other components that must be separated and refined. Petroleum engineers oversee this process. They also design and develop the physical plants necessary for carrying it out these tasks safely and efficiently.
Aside from everyday gasoline, petroleum is also used in jet fuel, diesel fuel, kerosene, propane, and heating oil for homes. Some electricity-generating plants are even fueled by natural gas. Plastic food wraps, car ties, household containers, toys, and other plastics are made from petroleum byproducts. The fibers used in some clothing are also developed from petrochemicals.
Petroleum engineering majors face basic engineering courses before moving into more specialized classes like geology, well drilling, reservoir fluids, fluid flow, petroleum production, and reservoir analysis.
After completing a B.S. in petroleum engineering, you might be assigned to an office position for orientation before being sent out for field experience. Some of these entry-level experiences include well-work operations, facilities production, surveillance activities, or even drilling.
Anyone who considers a career in petroleum engineering should be prepared for continual learning. While many engineering principles learned in the college classroom remain the same, technology is always shifting and old methods of doing things can change as well. Professional organizations such as the Society of Petroleum Engineers offer short courses to update skills and to continue your professional development.
Computers play an increasingly important role in this industry. Petroleum engineers should exit college with solid computer skills, and they should stay abreast of software and hardware changes in their field. Petroleum companies own many of the supercomputers currently in use around the world. Personal computers are used for such operations as analyzing data collected during fieldwork and automating oilfield production.
Experienced petroleum engineers can choose to live almost anywhere in the world. Consider the location of the companies with whom you would like to work, where they have a headquarters, and where they have oil fields. Large numbers of petroleum engineers can be found in California, Texas, Alaska, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Many top graduates receive several offers, so consider your own tastes and the opportunities presented by each company.
With the highest starting salary among the engineering professions, petroleum engineering can be quite rewarding, even without an advanced degree. A graduate with a bachelor's degree can expect to move into a challenging assignment quickly. Many new engineers advance rapidly through their companies as they gain on-the-job experience. Typically, petroleum engineers seek a master's degree to qualify for positions in technical or managerial areas. A Ph.D. is usually the ticket to a research and/or teaching career for a petroleum engineer with solid professional credentials.
Applicant eligibility requirements for master's programs
Applicants with bachelor's degrees in petroleum engineering enjoy an advantage when applying for a master's degree program. Degrees in engineering technology, physical sciences, and geo-sciences also receive high consideration in many programs. Anyone with a degree in another field will have to take undergraduate courses in petroleum engineering fields to catch up. Applicants should have a strong individual profile and a GPA in the 3.0 range. GTE test scores are required for all students and TOEFL scores are required for international students.
Applicant eligibility requirements for Ph.D. programs
Research is emphasized in Ph.D. programs, and programs can often be influenced by the specialty of the faculty at a university. Be sure to check out the research interests of the faculty at the schools to which you will apply. Schools will generally require an M.S. in petroleum engineering for admittance. Along with coursework in a specific area of research, students may be asked to take advanced classes in areas such as mathematics, computer science, and physical sciences.
There are four areas of concern to petroleum engineers:
finding the oil;
evaluating its potential;
maximizing its recovery; and
transporting and storing the oil.
These are performed by three broad categories of engineers:
the drilling engineer,
the production engineer, and
the reservoir engineer.
One developing opportunity is in sales engineering. This involves the service and testing functions for various types of equipment in the industry.
Petroleum engineering consists of many different specialties. It can involve working with contractors to:
design and oversee multi-million dollar drilling operations,
run experiments to improve oil and gas production, or
create computer-simulated models to determine the best recovery process.
Petroleum engineers can specialize in environmental safety regulations, or they can move into other areas such as entrepreneurship and consulting.
Geologists explore for crude oil and natural gas by studying rock formations and cuttings from drilling sites. They can analyze data geological surveys, field maps, and seismic studies to help identify reservoirs.
Geophysicists study the earth's external and internal composition. They examine ground and surface waters, atmosphere, and magnetic and gravitational fields.
They combine the principles of mathematics, physics, and chemistry along with three-dimensional computer modeling to locate oil and gas reserves.
Petroleum landman. Before a well can be drilled in the United States, the drilling company must obtain the rights from the landowner. The responsibility falls to the petroleum landman who must obtain the government permits and negotiate the rights from ranchers, farmers, or other landowners. The job combines legal knowledge with communication, research, and negotiation skills.
Drilling engineer. A drilling operation can cost many millions of dollars. Therefore, it is necessary to determine the best and most economical plan for drilling. The drilling engineer works with the drilling contractors to confirm the location and design a procedure to accomplish their task.
Well-log analyst. Before, during, and after a drilling project, the well-log analyst is responsible for obtaining core samples and analyzing them for potential. Analysts must use sophisticated equipment, such as electronic, nuclear, and acoustic tools. They rely on their talents to interpret the data from these systems into meaningful recommendations.
Production engineer. Once a well has been drilled, the production engineer must determine the best way to bring the petroleum to the surface.
Reservoir engineer. To achieve as much profit as possible from a well, companies need to raise as much of it to the surface as possible. The reservoir engineer, often working in conjunction with the production engineer, examines the fluid and pressure distributions throughout the reservoir to achieve maximum results.
Facility engineers separate, process, and transport the oil and natural gas after it has been brought to the surface. Design and build pipelines to move the petroleum from the drill site all the way to the point of sale.
Safety engineer. This person is responsible for ensuring the safety of the people who work around the oil and natural gas. They keep track of safety regulations and design plans to make certain those guidelines are met and documented.
Environmental/Regulatory specialist. These specialists might come from a variety of areas, but can include petroleum engineers. Working with a team of experts, they make sure all environmental regulations are met.
Chemical engineer. Chemical engineering is an engineering specialty unto itself, but petroleum engineers can also perform some functions within the industry. This can involve everything from designing a plant for processing to researching new products or improving current production.
Petroleum accountant. All industries are based upon turning a profit, and in petroleum these accountants are charged with placing a value on the oil and gas that might be produced in the future, thereby establishing corporate assets.
Energy economist. The petroleum industry operates in a world economy, and the energy economist must analyze business conditions and develop financial strategies that are critical to a company's success. An understanding of finances and the petroleum industry is vital.
Several other careers can blossom from a petroleum engineering background. Petroleum engineers who have obtained a certain level of competence and respect in the industry can move on to consulting for several companies instead of working for just one. Some professionals might also decide to develop their own companies or obtain an advanced degree to move into an academic career.
Oil found under the sea was formed millions of years ago after rains washed the remains of prehistoric plants and animals into the sea. Over long periods of time, these layers of organic material were compressed by the weight of water and sediment into petroleum.
Petroleum provides more than 70 percent of the world's engineering and is expected to continue to do so for the next 50 to 100 years.
The modern petroleum and natural industry began near Titusville, Pa., on Aug. 27, 1859, when Edwin L. Drake completed a 70-foot deep oil well. A boom for the industry resulted quickly afterward.
Petroleum engineering is considered one of the most lucrative of all the engineering professions. One reason for that is the relatively low number of qualified workers in the industry. The latest Bureau of Labor and Statistics research study identified less than 14,000 professional petroleum engineers. However, nearly all graduating petroleum engineers go on to find employment. The average starting salary is about $50,000, and the mean annual salary is more than $80,000.
Despite the low number of potential job openings petroleum engineers, the field is always in short supply of qualified entry level professionals. The world continues to demand safe, affordable energy sources. Energy use has been increasing at a steady rate of about four percent each year. That will always make a degree in petroleum engineering a valuable investment. And the rewards for such a career are going to be long-term.
In an effort to promote the industry and protect the public welfare, the Society of Petroleum Engineers has been heavily involved in establishing standards for minimum competency requirements. Engineers who are at different career levels can use the standards established by the SPE to guide their development.
For additional information
The Society of Petroleum Engineers offers a wealth of information about the profession, and the oil and natural gas industry. It also has a separate section for students of petroleum engineers and various campus chapters.
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