April 5, 2011

Is Petroleum Engineering The BEST Career?

If high pay, relatively low training requirements and good demand alone dictated what made for a good career then I would put Petroleum Engineer towards the top of the list.  Some people may look at the high pay alone and decide this is a great job.   But if the job consists of traveling to remote areas and working long hours overseas and routinely being soaked in oil then it might not be that great.   I don't know if Petroleum Engineering is the 'BEST' career out there, but I figured I'd take a closer look and find out more about it.  It certainly looks like it has the potential to be a great option.

Note:  I am not a Petroleum Engineer and I do not have first hand knowledge of the field.   

What do they do?

The BLS occupational outlook handbook site's entry for Engineers says that "Petroleum engineers design methods for extracting oil and gas from deposits below the earth."  You can also read about the career in the Careers in Petroleum Engineering from the Energy4me site.    The University of Texas at Austin website has another good description of the field.

Great Pay 

Starting wages with just a Bachelors degree are $83,000.    That places it at the top of the list for entry level pay.   Median earnings for experienced Petroleum Engineers are the highest among the engineering fields at $108,000.   But their pay on average may be quite a lot higher.   The Society of Petroleum Engineers did a survey in 2010 and they found that the median salary plus bonuses in the U.S. was $158,557 and the mean was $199,248.   Of course that includes many experienced engineers and engineers with advanced degrees.

Excellent Demand

The future job availability looks good.   According to the BLS : "Excellent opportunities are expected for petroleum engineers because the number of job openings is likely to exceed the relatively small number of graduates."    But it isn't necessarily all peachy on the job availability front.   The Wikipedia page on Petroleum Engineers notes "Petroleum engineering has historically been one of the highest paid engineering disciplines; this is offset by a tendency for mass layoffs when oil prices decline."

Can start with a 4 Year Degree

If you want a fat salary then becoming a surgeon or a patent lawyer are probably good options.  But those jobs require many additional years of schooling.    Petroleum Engineer is one field that you can get a very high salary with just a four year degree.

Limited Universities offer Training

I searched the College Board website for universities with Petroleum Engineering programs.    Only about 25 universities came up.   Most of the programs are in Texas and the midwest or in Western states.

This article lists the top 10 programs as ranked by US News back in 2007 :

1 Texas A&M University–College Station
2 University of Texas–Austin
3 Stanford University (CA)
4 Colorado School of Mines
4 Univ of Oklahoma
6 Louisiana State Univ–Baton Rouge
7 Univ of Tulsa (OK)
8 Texas Tech Univ
9 Penn State Univ–University Park
10 New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

I believe those are grad. engineering programs but the schools with the best grad. programs probably also have very good undergrad programs as well.  Thats making a generalization based on assumption, but it is a fairly safe assumption.

If you don't have a university in your state with Petroleum engineering then you'll have to go out of state.   That will mean higher tuition at public schools.  One reasonably priced and well ranked option is New Mexico Institute of Mining and Tech. with out of state tuition of $14,620 a year as well as fairly reasonable room & board costs of $5,874.

Don't Assume Its Easy

If succeeding as a Petroleum Engineer was easy then everyone would do it.    I can speak from experience that coursework in engineering is demanding and very heavy on the math and sciences.   If you aren't interested in math and science or don't excel in those subjects then engineering is probably not a good choice for you in general.  

Working Conditions

When I imagine the working conditions of a Petroleum Engineer I conjure up scenes of people soaked in oil and fighting to put out a fire at an oil rig.   That is probably completely inaccurate.   I'm not a Petroleum Engineer and I live very far away from any oil production centers. 

The StateUniversity website career pages say this about the working conditions:
"Petroleum engineers work in the United States, on offshore rigs, and in foreign countries. Engineers involved in production can expect to work irregular hours, because most wells run day and night. Many jobs in oil production require engineers to move every few years."

I can't speak first hand as I don't have any direct experience with the field.   I would assume the working conditions will vary and usually be somewhere between 'soaked in oil' and 'sitting at a desk'.   You might have to work on an oil rig.   You might have to travel.   Hours might be long.   You might end up working in an office behind a desk.

Jobs Limited to certain States (Wanna Live in Texas?)

There are only about 25,500 Petroleum Engineers nationally.   Around half of the petroleum engineers in the nation work in Texas.  Within Texas most of the engineers work in the Houston area.   Outside of Texas about a quarter of the jobs are in four other states : Alaska, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Louisiana.

I dug into the details of employment and wage data per state from the BLS site

Here's a graphic showing the jobs by location :

The table below gives the number of jobs and median pay per state :

State Jobs Median Pay
Texas       13,380  $  117,910
Louisiana        2,300  $   92,540
Oklahoma        2,180  $   96,000
Colorado        1,170  $  131,880
Alaska        1,100  $  142,020
California        1,060  $  116,140
Wyoming           750  $   67,190
Ohio           380  $   95,090
New Mexico           320  $  102,910
Mississippi           290  $   63,620
New Jersey           260  $   94,220
Virginia           210  $  112,990
Arkansas           180  166400* 
West Virginia           170  $   92,610
Utah           150  $  109,200
Pennsylvania           120  $   86,430
Kansas           120  $   76,540
North Dakota             80  $  154,710
Illinois             80  $   72,660
Nebraska             50  ? 
Missouri             40  $   77,390
Montana  ?   $   92,810
Alabama  ?   $   83,290
Kentucky  ?   $   82,870
Michigan  ?   $   81,860

Some of the data is not available as indicated by ? in the table. * The wages in Arkansas are over the $166,400 level.

I wouldn't focus too much on the salary figures.   The employment numbers are relatively low so it is a small sample and a few high or low paying jobs could throw the average wages off.   You should also keep in mind that the cost of living in different states is a factor.   The fairly high wages in Alaska don't go as far up North due to their higher cost of living.

Bottom Line:   Petroleum Engineering pays well and could be a very lucrative career.   The universities offering training and the job locations may be limited.  If the field interests you and you have an aptitude for math and science then majoring in Petroleum Engineering be a good choice.

Photo by frostedburn

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