How to become a Petroleum Engineer?
One might look at this question and assume the answer is obvious. Surely the way to become a petroleum engineer is by earning a petroleum engineering degree, right? That is one path to becoming a petroleum engineer, but it certainly isn't the only path.
I'll start by explaining that some people have become a petroleum engineer without actually earning an engineering degree. The petroleum field is extremely broad and people with a variety of educational backgrounds and experiences can achieve success in the industry. Geology is a core science to the petroleum field, so people with a geology degree can become a petroleum engineer if their education is paired with the right industry experience. That being said, lacking an engineering degree can become a hurdle for career development depending on career objectives. In particular, it can be a hurdle for those seeking licensure as a professional engineer. If licensure is a goal, earning an ABET-accredited engineering degree is the best option. I'll briefly describe the three most common educational backgrounds that lead to a career in petroleum engineering.
1. Petroleum Engineering Undergraduate Degree
We'll start with the most obvious path. A degree in petroleum engineering is excellent preparation for an individual looking to have a career as a petroleum engineer. A typical curriculum will include coursework in geology, reservoir engineering, drilling engineering, and production engineering. Many programs include additional courses that are very beneficial to the modern petroleum engineer. These additional courses cover subjects such as finance, economics, and chemistry. In recent years, data analysis has become an essential skill for most petroleum engineers and, therefore, some curricula are beginning to include related courses either as required or as an elective. The typical curriculum is tailored specifically to a career in the petroleum field and offers aspiring petroleum engineers an excellent opportunity to develop relevant and valuable skills.
2. Mechanical Engineering Undergraduate Degree
The petroleum industry is filled with engineers who hold a degree in mechanical engineering. It is often regarded as the broadest of all engineering disciplines. Students enrolled in mechanical engineering programs typically develop a deep understanding of fundamental engineering principles. It is this thorough understanding of engineering fundamentals that gives them great potential as a petroleum engineer. Although a mechanical engineering program does not typically cover petroleum-specific concepts, it provides a strong foundation upon which an individual can learn the relevant concepts through on the job training or additional education. It just so happens that the oilfield is full of machines such as pumps, compressors, generators, and engines. Naturally, mechanical engineers are well suited to design and repair these machines. It is because of this that you often find mechanical engineers working in the petroleum industry for service companies. The experience gained with these service companies and suppliers is just the type of experience that can help a mechanical engineer become a great petroleum engineer.
3. Chemical Engineering Undergraduate Degree
Chemical engineers find their way into all aspects of the petroleum industry, and for good reason. They go through a rigorous set of courses while in school and develop many skills directly related to the industry. For starters, much of a chemical engineer's education focuses on the downstream refinement of crude oil. The economic extraction of crude oil from the earth is the most fundamental objective of petroleum engineers. Thermodynamics and fluid mechanics are two subjects central to the petroleum engineering discipline. Chemical engineers happen to spend a great deal of their schooling focused on an in-depth understanding of these same subjects. Considering how much overlap there is, both in education and application, it only makes sense that some chemical engineers would retool themselves as petroleum engineers.
For anyone interested in becoming a petroleum engineer, these three degrees offer excellent preparation for a long and prosperous career. Which of the three is right for any one person will depend on a number of variables such as personal interest and level of career path certainty. While a petroleum engineering degree offers a most direct route to becoming a petroleum engineer, it is a niche degree. For an aspiring engineer not yet sure which discipline they want to focus their career on, both mechanical and chemical engineering offer the opportunity to work in the petroleum industry as well as many other industries.