Petroleum Engineer

Job Duties

Petroleum engineers search for oil and natural gas reservoirs across the world. Then, when reservoirs are discovered, they work with geologists and other specialists to identify the geologic formation of the rock surrounding the reservoir, decide on the drilling methods, and oversee the drilling operation. Using computer models and simulations, they design equipment and processes to recover oil and gas in the most efficient and profitable way. They also simulate reservoir performance using different recovery techniques as well as the effects of various drilling operations.

Petroleum engineers use a wide variety of enhanced recovery methods, including injecting water, chemicals, gases, or steam into an oil reservoir to force out more of the oil, and computer-controlled drilling or fracturing to connect a larger areas of a reservoir to a single well. Even the current most efficient techniques only recover a portion of the oil and gas in a reservoir, petroleum engineers are constantly researching and developing new methods to recover higher percentages and lower costs.

Job Skills

Petroleum engineers must have both mathematical and mechanical aptitudes. Their work often requires high degrees of patience and precision. They need to be able to work effectively as part of a team, and they should have the ability to communicate in writing and orally. These communication skills are vital in the field of petroleum engineering because petroleum engineers interact so often with many non-engineering specialists in a wide variety of fields. Petroleum engineers should be analytical, creative, detail-oriented, and inquisitive.


In 2002, petroleum engineers earned a median annual salary of $83,370. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $49,010, and the highest 10%, who earned more than $127,950. According to a 2003 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor's degree candidates in petroleum engineering received starting offers averaging $55,987.

Training and Education

A bachelor's degree is required for all entry-level petroleum engineering positions. Most programs include study in the petroleum specialty, as well as courses in mathematics and science. Many programs include a design course, along with a computer or laboratory class. Many colleges offer students the option of earning a 2- or 4-year degree in engineering technology, which include hands-on laboratory courses that prepare students for practical design and production work, as opposed to more theory-based jobs. While graduates of these programs may obtain the same kinds of jobs as graduates with a bachelor's degree in engineering, they are not qualified to register as professional engineers.

Faculty positions and many research and development programs in petroleum engineering require graduate training. Some engineers earn degrees in business administration to enhance their education and give themselves more career options. In fact, many high-level executives in government and business started their careers as engineers. Engineers in the United States are required to be licensed if they offer their services directly to the public. When engineers become licensed, they are designated Professional Engineers (PE). PE requirements include a degree from an engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), 4 years of relevant work experience, and successful completion of a State examination. Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers, and may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a staff of engineers and technicians.


In 2002, petroleum engineers held about 14,000 jobs. Most jobs were in oil and gas extraction, professional, scientific, and technical services, and petroleum refining. Most petroleum engineers worked in areas where oil and gas are found, including Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alaska, and California. Many work overseas in petroleum-producing countries.

Job Outlook

Between 2002 and 2012, employment of petroleum engineers is expected to decline. Despite this trend, job opportunities are expected to be favorable because the number of job openings will be greater than the number of graduates in petroleum engineering. Foreign countries may present the best employment opportunities, either from foreign employers or U.S. employers who maintain overseas divisions.

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