Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering

Members of the Penn State Petrobowl team during competition

Career Opportunities

The process of making the oil and gas available in the huge quantities needed to sustain our industrial economy and maintain our standard of living is quite challenging. Petroleum engineers are trained to face these challenges. Oil and gas must be discovered: its quantity and production potential must be assessed: optimal extraction methods must be established to maximize recovery; and it must be transported from the point of production to the refinery and then stored. All these processes need to be carried out in an environmentally benign manner. Petroleum engineers must be multi-faceted in order to cover all these various aspects.

The production of oil and gas and the conversion of these materials to usable form require large numbers of highly trained people from a variety of technological backgrounds. Oil and gas fields share many characteristics with ore deposits; the greatest common factor is a hidden location well below the surface of the earth. This being so, the petroleum engineer is directly concerned with production of oil and gas and must work in cooperation with geologists and geophysicists to determine the most likely area for the occurrence of commercial deposits of oil and gas. History is replete with stories of haphazard drilling of random "wildcat" wells all of which came in as gushers. Present-day engineers must use highly sophisticated equipment -aerial reconnaissance, magnetometer gravimeter and seismic surveys - to attempt to plot contours of subterranean strata which may contain oil and gas. In the final analysis, however, any degree of exploration work must culminate in the ultimate test - the drilling of an exploratory well. This work - a major job of the drilling engineer - is most important because not only is it aimed at the testing of an underground formation but the collection of important geological data as well.

In the event of the discovery of hydrocarbons and the field having been outlined, the main responsibility of development and operations are assumed by petroleum engineers called production engineers. Two major responsibilities - evaluation and planning - are ongoing functions. The production engineer is ever cognizant of the necessity to produce the maximum amount of oil and gas from the reservoir. This work requires knowledge of the physical properties of the reservoir and its entrapped fluids. For this reason, then, the production engineer tests the wells and takes samples of both reservoir rock and fluids in order to determine the effect of production upon the oil reservoir.

An increasingly important branch of petroleum engineering is that of the reservoir engineer. His/Her work is largely mathematical in nature and involves the application of many areas of study to the prediction of future production (including tertiary recovery) from the reservoirs. All reservoir data are pertinent and the reservoir engineer uses these data in assembling a mathematical model of the field including possible recovery processes. It is obvious that the reservoir engineer has two main objectives - prediction and evaluation - which bear directly upon the available supply of oil and gas. It is these individuals who point the way to the production of additional oil from known reservoirs.

Thus, it should be understood that graduate petroleum engineers have a choice of career opportunities. The industry uses a variety of types of equipment, and careers are also open in sales engineering. Some of the testing and service functions in the industry are performed by "service companies" who rely heavily on petroleum engineers. Increasingly important career opportunities for petroleum engineers are opening up in governmental and regulatory bodies. It is with the oil and gas producing companies, however, that most graduates find rewarding and challenging career opportunities.

As a petroleum engineer, you can expect to work in a variety of the U.S. locations from the East Coast to the West Coast and from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska. There are also immense opportunities to become an international engineer and work in overseas locations including: South America, Africa, Middle East, Northern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Graduates of Penn State's petroleum and natural gas engineering program have risen to top executive positions of oil companies in all branches of this field. An analysis of the educational backgrounds of executives in the energy sector shows that they have backgrounds in engineering, including petroleum engineering and geosciences. Employers include major oil and gas production companies, large and small independents and service companies and government agencies.


As a petroleum and natural gas engineer, you can expect to earn the highest starting salary among all of the engineers. Starting salaries are around $90,000, and median annual earnings for petroleum engineers are now well above $140,000.