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Petroleum engineers apply scientific principles to locating reserves of crude oil and natural gas. They also determine how to retrieve these reserves in the safest manner and at the lowest cost. A student considering a petroleum engineering major should realize that there are advantages and disadvantages involved with the career, as well as some aspects that could be either, depending on the student's personality. One disadvantage is that a petroleum engineering degree is not the simplest to obtain; another is that the career is directly tied to the demand for petroleum products. The pay scale is a definite advantage; the fact that many jobs require travel to remote locations can be viewed as either a pro or a con, depending on how the individual views the opportunity.
This is not to say that the only jobs offered to those with a petroleum engineering major are in a foreign country or the middle of nowhere. Petroleum engineers, however, must go where the oil is, and in states that do not have oil or gas reserves, jobs will be few or nonexistent. If a student wants to pursue a major in petroleum engineering with the goal of earning the most money, he or she should be prepared to spend at least part of his or her career overseas, on off-shore drilling rigs or in remote locations without many creature comforts. Although some might view the travel as an exciting adventure, others might see it as a significant negative.
Another negative can be the difficulty involved with obtaining the degree. A petroleum engineering major needs to have excellent math skills and enjoy both science and engineering courses. Chemistry, geology, statistics, calculus and physics are just some of the courses required by most universities offering the degree. In addition, the major will include a number of advanced courses, such as fluid dynamics and drilling operations, that are specific to the degree. The student cannot neglect communication skills, either, and must also complete courses in English, computer skills and economics.
The demand for petroleum engineers depends on the demand for the products they deliver. One significant factor is the price of crude oil, because high prices mean that governments and corporations are more actively pursuing production, including some marginal reserves previously deemed unprofitable. As alternative forms of energy are developed, the demand for hydrocarbon production may decline, resulting in fewer opportunities and less upward mobility for those with a petroleum engineering major.
One of the most significant advantages to a petroleum engineering major is the potential salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, petroleum engineers command the highest salaries of all engineers. In 2010, petroleum engineers averaged $127,970 U.S. Dollars (USD) annually, with the best-paid 25 percent earning at least $158,580 USD per year. Average salaries were significantly higher in oil-producing states such as North Dakota, Alaska, Oklahoma and Texas.
The likelihood of solar- and wind-based energy, and other alternative "environmentally-friendly" sources of energy eventually being capable of consistently meeting global baseline energy needs in every geographic area on the planet to the point of completely supplanting nuclear power, coal, and oil is extremely remote.
I would be willing to wager my entire mid-7-figure net worth that petroleum engineers will still be in strong, global demand 100 years from now. Unfortunately, neither you nor I will be alive for you to pay me.
Another point to keep in mind is that, although it may not happen tomorrow or next year, efforts to move away from fossil fuels and toward more environmentally friendly energy sources could limit the need for these engineers in future decades.
As a result, the career lifespan for someone studying petroleum engineering today is probably not as long as it was 20 years ago.
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