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Is Petroleum Engineering a viable career?

Let's be honest, the oil industry is pretty rocky right now, should I consider a career in the field if I think it might be unreliable? #engineering #career-choice #oil

Thank you comment icon Great but rocky career. Big money but low stability and chance for redundancies in a future. Anna Wolszczak

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Sean’s Answer

One way or another we will be using oil for a while. That being said it is hard to predict the future employment. You could get a degree in chemical engineering, the degrees are pretty similar. This would allow you to go into the oil and gas field but also a lot of other industries.

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Hanbi’s Answer

I worked in upstream oil and gas so can lend a few thoughts here.

1. Agree with others that the industry is very cyclical, and since I joined the industry in 2015 it has been multiple down cycles. Recently oil price has rebounded strongly due to the Ukraine war and strong rebound in demand despite the sharp downturn in 2020 due to COVID. Like Michael said above, it is hard to find a job if you are laid off during a down cycle - everyone else will be having layoffs as well and you could be without a job for 1-2yrs due to the specific nature of your skillset (not directly applicable to any other industries. It is also worth considering that large oil and gas companies have been offshoring engineering jobs to lower their expenses in the long term, so your long term career viability as an engineer could be threatened by talented competition outside of the US.

2. In the long term (>50 yrs), we will likely be very dependent on oil and gas still since it is the source material for fertilizers, plastics, transportation fuel, and many other everyday items. It is essentially impossible to live without oil and gas. However, considering our society have a pressing need to decarbonize, the nature of your job as a petroleum engineer could change throughout your career.

3. Being a petroleum engineer could also mean you work in non-urban areas such as Midland, TX, Gulf of Mexico offshore, etc. If you know you like to be in an urban area, this may not be the best fit for you. (plenty of engineers live in Houston but there are also MANY that don't, and you may have to move throughout your career). Additionally, raises and career progression will be very slow in oil and gas. I also encourage you to consider how you'd like to develop your skillsets - slower and narrower (that is how it tends to be in O&G in my experience), or a faster and wider progression?
It is also important to consider the culture in oil and gas companies - they tend to be more old school, and expect you to prioritize work over life as a general baseline for promotions. If you have a different desire for your work life balance, and know what kind of culture you enjoy working in, be sure to evaluate the impact of the company's culture on your happiness.

I have seen many peers leave the industry after 3-5yrs in search of better pay, better work life balance, and better career flexibility and options. Ultimately, it comes down to a decision factoring in what your strengths are, what culture you like, what kind of career development path you want, and what kind of work life balance you want. I chose the petroleum industry at the start of my career and have left since, but your decision is unique to your circumstances and who you are.

Best of luck to you on this decision!
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Michael’s Answer

I'll give you the same advice I gave my son a few years ago who was also considering Petroleum Engineering. [Disclaimer: I'm not a petroleum engineer, my discipline is mechanical but I have worked on oil & gas (production / upstream) all of my engineering career.] I believe there is a long term future for petroleum engineers coming out of school today. However, those who choose that field will have a more narrow job opportunity base than those who choose Mechanical, Electrical and some of the other disciplines. The oil industry is very cyclical and staying employed during a down cycle is challenging, especially for those like petroleum engineers who cannot easily transition to another industry. We are currently in a long-term down cycle and I have seen many Mechanical (and engineers from other disciplines) laid off in the past 18 months and many of them are having difficulty finding work. That is the nature of the oil & gas industry. So, another piece of advice is whatever you do, develop a strong work ethic and be as useful to your employer as you can be. People that do good work tend to survive downturns better than those that don't.


I have a friend that graduated as a petroleum engineer in 1986. It was about the worst time you could do that because we were in the middle of a downturn that lasted many years. In fact it was the worst downturn in the last 40 years. He spent his first three years out of school working as a roughneck offshore until the big oil companies started hiring petroleum engineers again. Once he got that first job he had no trouble staying employed and he did well.


As I understand it there are approximately 400 discoveries worldwide that have not been developed yet. And, there are a lot of large oil & gas companies out looking for new fields also. So, yes there are prospects for the next 20-30 years and beyond.


I do not work directly with petroleum engineers on a frequent basis so I recommend getting an opinion from a petroleum engineer.


I hope this has been helpful. Good luck. - Mike

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John H.’s Answer

Hi, Steven: one good place to go whenever exploring the future prospects of any career path is the government's Occupational Outlook Handbook. Here's a page that might be of interest to you: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/petroleum-engineers.htm. Best of luck making your choices.

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Steve’s Answer

This is an excellent career path, even though the price of OIL BBL is low now. That price will not remain low and will improve over the years as COVID subsides and tariffs issue resolve. During that period, it's a great time to go to a good Engineering college (TX A&M, OSU, etc.) and get that PE degree. The oil industry will always be up and down but over a career, it's a great field.


Enjoy this field!
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Joseph’s Answer

I'll speak to my experience in this field. I worked on the upstream side of the industry for over a decade and am a licensed P.E. in both Colorado and Texas.

There will be hydrocarbons extracted for the foreseeable future, and it will require competent engineers to do that work. You will also have the satisfaction of knowing that your work contributes to providing for humanities fundamental needs.

There are pros and cons. The industry is highly cyclical. There are times when almost anyone can get a job, there are times when entire departments are laid off and companies liquidated.

You can have opportunities to travel the world, but it will be to parts of the world that have oil. That travel may become less and less appealing as you get older and want to spend time with you family.

I don't regret the time and experience I had in this industry, but if you think you want to pursue it, I would suggest at least an internship or two preferably with a service company doing field work.

Joseph recommends the following next steps:

I would suggest a field trip to Pennsylvania (since you are in NY) to see what a developing gas field looks like
Internship with drilling or fracing company (Nabors, Halliburton, Liberty, etc.)
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