Human resources

As Industry Changes, So Does Petroleum Engineering Education

The industry is becoming increasingly complex, leading to changes in how universities approach education for undergraduate study.

Marshall Watson (Texas Tech University) discusses laboratory equipment with Ralph Flori (Missouri University of Science and Technology) and Dhafer Al-Shehri (King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals) at the PEDHA meeting at Texas Tech in August 2019. Pictured in background is Runar Nygaard (University of Oklahoma).

As the oil and gas industry becomes increasingly complex, the requirements for petroleum engineers—and petroleum engineering education—are changing.

“Petroleum engineering jobs in the future are likely to be smaller in number and radically different from those of today,” wrote Nathan Meehan, president of Gaffney, Cline and Associates and 2016 SPE President, in paper SPE 194746, The End of Petroleum Engineering As We Know It. “The next generation of petroleum engineers will have to address demands for sustainability, lower carbon intensity, and needs for radical productivity improvements, which only artificial intelligence (AI) and digital can drive. This suggests that we will need to revisit university education for petroleum engineers and all aspects of career development and training.”

Petroleum engineering education reflects the E&P industry it serves. Training of competent graduates with both the domain and digital knowledge to immediately contribute when they join the industry has become more complicated as expectations change. What are petroleum engineering schools doing to adapt to these changes, and how are they helping their students navigate a future career in the oil and gas industry?

Balancing Theory and Practical Application

A survey by Ryder Scott Petroleum Consultants identified the need to modify the skills and knowledge currently taught in academic institutions during undergraduate study. Ryder Scott surveyed clients who were industry managers or supervisors with direct experience with newly minted petroleum engineering graduates (fewer than 5 years of experience). The survey asked participants—engineering managers in the oil and gas reserves sector—their opinions regarding the preparedness of recent graduates entering the workforce (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1—Answers to survey questions regarding preparedness of graduates for success inside and outside the petroleum industry. Source: Ryder Scott.


Generally, the respondents were satisfied with the amount of theory being taught, but not with the amount of practical application of petroleum engineering principles. The consensus was that curricula should be kept the same in terms of courses, but modernized to include the practical application of new technologies.

This presents a significant challenge for engineering education programs whose already-full curricula to meet requirements of the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) leave little room for additional coursework, labs, or field work. The current requirement for a BS degree in petroleum engineering at most schools is 130-plus credit hours. Yet, in addition to fundamentals, today’s graduates are expected to be fluent in data analytics, machine learning, and data sciences and to understand concepts such as cyber security and physical security. In addition, many are expected to use their subsurface engineering skills to plan and design carbon sequestration solutions.

“We teach students the fundamentals of petroleum engineering,” said Jeff Spath, SPE 2014 President and head of the Texas A&M University Petroleum Engineering Department. “But more importantly, we teach them to solve petroleum engineering problems.”

Jon Olson, head of the University of Texas Petroleum Engineering Department, believes companies such as those surveyed by Ryder Scott and others may be asking for too much specialization from bachelor degree graduates. “The expectation of graduates coming into the industry like 5-year working engineers doesn’t serve their long-term career paths well,” he said. He cited demand for hyper-specialization in software applications that, instead of making the students more versatile, may actually make them more narrow and less adaptable and transportable to industries outside of oil and gas, should downturns make that necessary.

An observation by Ryder Scott was that the companies that participated in the survey might be shifting away from in-house training of newly hired petroleum engineers.

“Our goal on campus,” Olson said, “is to give students the foundations they need for lifelong learning and career success.” On-the-job experience and field training “is best offered by the people who spend their lives working in the field. Getting even more immersive in how a drill rig operates can come after graduates start working,” he added.

The University of Southern California (USC) has taken a different approach. In 1991, the longstanding undergraduate program in USC’s Department of Petroleum Engineering was merged into the Chemical Engineering Department. Despite concerns expressed by alumni, this turned out to be a good move, said Petroleum Engineering Department Head Iraj Ershaghi, because it resulted in better-quality graduates entering the field and expanded employment opportunities for graduates with both petroleum and non-petroleum companies. The graduate program stayed intact, and with the help of distance education, provided expanded education to engineering professionals in different parts of California and elsewhere.

Integrating IT, Business, and Sustainability

The consensus among the academic community is that petroleum engineering graduates should have domain expertise, a level of expertise in information technologies, and a working knowledge of key topics such as business issues, sustainability, and communications.

“PE education has always borrowed technologies while also developing its own set of technical solutions,” said Ershaghi. “It has been the recipient of tech transfer from electrical, mechanical, chemical, and environmental engineering and from science areas such as geology, geophysics, mathematics, chemistry, physics, and physical chemistry. In recent decades, the importance of incorporating information technology solutions has become paramount.”

Many programs now integrate data analytics into courses that are mainstays in petroleum engineering curricula. At Texas Tech University, geostatistics is included as a course in the junior year. New methods to teach both technical and communication skills are incorporated into a new initiative from Marietta College called PioPetro.

Since 2004, USC has offered a smart oilfield technology class co-taught by faculty from engineering and information technologies. At Texas A&M, data science and machine learning are integrated systematically throughout the engineering curriculum, and data analytics is now offered as a separate course. Colorado School of Mines offers a minor in data analytics.

Petroleum engineering students at the University of Texas are required to take one course each in programming and geostatistics (now called data analytics). The curriculum also includes an elective course in which students write their own reservoir simulator, and another on subsurface machine learning. Additionally, students can receive a computer science certificate. The university’s curriculum requires 128 hours, says Olson, which includes 12 hours of technical electives (4 courses).

That flexibility allows for electives in business, including a required economic evaluation course that covers net present value, rate of return, and decline-curve analysis. Additionally, the university’s business school offers a five-course business foundations certificate program, and one-third to one-half of all the school’s engineering students participate.

Similarly, Texas A&M’s engineering department has joined with its business school to create a petroleum ventures program that offers qualifying seniors the opportunity to take up to 12 hours of senior finance and economics courses.

In addition to inserting digitalization, automation, and information technologies into their curricula, many engineering schools are using these technologies to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching. Texas Tech makes intensive use of physical visualization models to supplement teaching in drilling, production, formation evaluation, enhanced oil recovery, phase behavior, and pressure-transient analysis.

At Texas A&M University at Qatar, an in-house-developed virtual reality-based field trip application overcomes the limitations related to safety, climate, logistics, and culture (e.g., gender) that make actual trips to onshore operations difficult and trips to offshore operations almost impossible for many students.

USC has developed programs advancing application of informatics technologies to oil and gas systems and operations. The term “informatics” is becoming widely used to describe a broad class of intersections and convergences between the digital world and an array of functional and business areas.

“We see this convergence as an important educational benefit to help students develop an integrated systems perspective of oil and gas systems, operations, processes, and organizations,” said USC Energy Institute Executive Director Donald Paul.

Sustainability and its economic, environmental, and social pillars have been incorporated into ABET’s engineering accreditation criteria, which has led to the creation of several university courses. The University of Houston offers sustainability-related courses, while Texas A&M offers electives in sustainability and energy engineering, exposing students to nuclear, wind, and solar technologies, among others. The University of Edinburg School of Geosciences offers a master’s degree in carbon management.

At the University of Texas, the first two weeks of the freshman introduction to petroleum engineering is devoted to a lab-and-paper sequence on CO2 emissions and carbon sequestration.

“We look at who are the biggest CO2emitters in the world and what are the trends, and then we do calculations to figure out CO2 emissions from coal, gas, and oil,” said Olson. The second week of the sequence focuses on a local coal-fired power project and determining the amount of CO2 emitted and how to capture and store it.

“In this way, we are able to introduce students to anthropogenic impacts on the environment and present carbon capture and storage as a United Nations-sanctioned form of mitigation during the first month of their first PE class,” Olson said. He added that, as a result of learning about the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals at the 2019 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Calgary, he posted all 17 goals in his classroom and discusses them with freshmen.

Is 4 Years Enough?

With the increasing complexity of the petroleum engineering profession, some are questioning whether a 4-year degree adequately prepares a student for a job in the industry.

“Advancement of new technologies and operational challenges has expanded such that in the span of an undergraduate degree, with a focus on fundamentals, there is not sufficient time to prepare the graduates as professionals with expertise in the evolving technologies,” said Ershaghi. “The SPE competency matrix in what the industry expects from a bachelor of science graduate has evolved over the years, but much of what is now expected of graduates is beyond the scope of the necessary competencies.”

Saeed Salehi, faculty advisor to the University of Oklahoma SPE Student Section, agrees. “I think students need to realize that a 4-year degree will only get them so far,” he said. “Competition between graduates from 10 or more schools for the same shrinking job market is intense. Getting a master’s degree is probably useful, and also useful if the master’s degree is in some other area of specialization.”

Meehan also concurs. “Most firms today accept entry-level engineers with a bachelor’s degree, but this may change as the discipline requires increased sophistication,” he wrote. “The good news is that today’s petroleum engineering students are more digitally savvy than their predecessors and often come fully prepared to code. Additionally, the democratization of advanced computational tools has made formerly esoteric techniques such as deep learning accessible to engineers with a basic knowledge of general programming.”

On the other hand, topics such as advanced material sciences, supply chain, big data analytics, and others can hardly be touched in the undergraduate curriculum. “In many scientific disciplines, including geology, the bachelor of science degree is not terminal. A master of science degree is required,” he said.

In response, the University of Oklahoma has begun offering an accelerated BS-MS program in petroleum engineering in which students earn both degrees in a 5-year period. Another change is summer “externship” programs for students who are not able to secure internships. The university solicits projects from the industry, and students work on them under the guidance of faculty members and industry personnel.

Texas A&M offers “stacked” courses for seniors with good grades that allow them to get a 5-year BS/Master of Engineering degree instead of the 6-year Master of Science in Petroleum Engineering. The university also has a requirement for students to have at least one summer internship before taking senior courses. But that can be a challenge in a slow job market, Spath said.

Olson opposes 5-year programs. “Practical experience comes from going into the field, not from the classroom, and another year on campus won’t address that demand from industry,” he said. He pointed out that students can get experience from summer jobs and internships, and that paying an institution for another year vs. going to work and getting a paycheck increases the cost of education. He also said that many schools offer online technical master’s programs for people who have been working for a few years, are more mature, and know where they want to advance their skills.

The consensus among academia and the industry is that, at the core, there are unique petroleum engineering concepts and domain knowledge that define the industry and its technology base, and these will remain the foundation of undergraduate petroleum engineering education for the foreseeable future.

In a recent SPE podcast, Meehan pointed out that automation can do what he called “cookie-cutter” work, but it can’t perform the critical balancing act between low-cost and performance optimization. “We can’t automate ingenuity; that is an engineering decision,” he said.

The Decline in University Enrollment

After a record-high 2,550 BS degrees in petroleum engineering awarded in 2017, the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees is expected be less than one-fifth that number—or 400—by 2022, and remain in the 200–400 degrees-per-year range for the next 10 years, according to Texas Tech University Professor Lloyd Heinze (Fig. 1). Bachelor’s degrees in petroleum engineering are projected to drop to 980 in 2020. Many universities have seen their enrollment decrease by more than half during the most recent oil industry downturn.

Fig. 1—Petroleum engineering degrees granted from 1956–2019 in US universities and 11 universities outside the US where the petroleum engineering program has been accredited by ABET. Source: Lloyd Heinze.


A survey conducted by SPE in 2018 gathered information on students’ attitudes to industry changes, the impact of these changes, and how students see their future job prospects in the industry. Many students said they were considering other industries and diversification of their job search, although they ideally preferred a career in oil and gas. Their largest motivating factor for choosing petroleum engineering was “interest in the field,” with 48% of respondents stating it was their primary reason for choosing the degree. The largest concerns were the availability of jobs, job security, and the volatility of oil prices. Concern over the public perception of the industry was ranked as the third-highest deterrent.

Student enrollment and membership in SPE student chapters is growing significantly in less established regions such as Asia and Africa. Professor Roberto Aguilera of the University of Calgary said that enrollment for graduate students in the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department at his university is growing, with many international students.

“Many graduate students want to become better at what they are doing. Many don’t have jobs and want to become established in North America,” said Aguilera. He also said he believes that geopolitics exacerbates the industry situation. “I can’t help but wonder if US graduate enrollment in PE is declining because of the inability of international students to get visas,” he said.

Heinze annually tracks enrollment figures and presented his latest findings at the 2019 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Calgary. He has polled university petroleum engineering department heads each September since 1992 to collect information on enrollment and degrees conferred and made it available to the programs and others expressing an interest. The surveys are based on September-to-May/June academic years. While the survey includes primarily US universities, it has expanded to include information over the past 5 years from non-US programs as well.

Highlights of the study, contained in paper SPE 195908, are:

  • Between 1956 and 2019, three petroleum engineering BS peak years occurred: 779 in 1958, 1,529 in 1983, and 2,550 in 2017.
  • The number of US college and university campuses offering petroleum engineering has dropped from 35 to 20.
  • Non-US petroleum engineering programs have increased since 2016. In 2019, there were 11 non-US and 20 US-based accredited petroleum engineering programs.
  • While freshman and sophomore enrollments drop quickly with a down job market and respond rapidly to an uptick in the job market, junior and especially senior enrollments respond more slowly. This is most likely a result of time invested toward a degree.


Association Keeps an Eye on Education-Related Issues

Iraj Ershaghi, C. Susan Howes, and Marshall Watson

The Petroleum Engineering Department Head Association (PEDHA) is the premier association of its kind and has representatives from all petroleum engineering schools at universities in North America and other international locations with ABET-accredited programs. PEDHA members examine global data to develop a view of the trends in students being awarded degrees in petroleum engineering. This helps in global forecasts in supply and demand for talent.

Training of competent and relevant graduates with domain expertise to join the industry has been deemed a key objective by PEDHA. In recent years, the task has become more complicated as expectations from the industry have changed. Graduates are now expected to be fluent in data analytics, machine learning, and data sciences and to use their subsurface engineering skills to plan and design carbon sequestration solutions. Many operations are touched by Industrial Revolution 4.0.

One of the priorities considered by PEDHA is to facilitate sharing data for capstone projects among various member schools. Industry support is critically important and can help the organization to restore fellowships and faculty research initiation through SPE.

Participants in PEDHA meetings have shared best practices in attracting students to study petroleum engineering after the downturn, while addressing issues such as climate change and automation. In many parts of the world, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations have been adopted. The SPE Board of Directors adopted a definition of sustainability in 2014 that includes “doing business in ways that balance economic growth, social development, and environmental protection to meet societal needs today and in the future.” Key sustainability themes will be incorporated into petroleum engineering curricula, SPE competency matrices, capstone design courses, ABET criteria, research opportunities, SPE student chapters, and SPE PetroBowl content. The other transformative change is addressing the increase use of automation in drilling and production operation.

At the most recent PEDHA meeting, attendees reviewed feedback received in recent alumni survey conducted by the Colorado School of Mines Program Advisory Board. Industry ­perspectives from the service sector and operators were discussed. Some employers in industry prioritize universities that conduct research in alignment with the interests of the employers, and which produce graduates who can go to work in government institutions and agencies associated with the energy industry.

With respect to research, at the recent PEDHA meeting, the US members discussed opportunities to apply for research projects where operators contribute field data and grants are funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Funding for R&D has somewhat improved and there seems to be a national recognition of the importance of training the best work force to maintain the US lead in oil and gas technology. While the DOE’s mission does not include education, it does have an interest in fostering the sustainability of the petro-technical workforce. There are 17 DOE field labs with basin-specific strategies in topics as varied as machine learning, produced water, EOR, hydrates, and unconventional resources. The Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship Program provides students with fellowship opportunities to gain hands-on research experience with the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy.

Addressing best practices for developing young faculty, the PEDHA meeting attendees discussed guidance regarding the impact factor issue for journal publications for tenure-track faculty. While it appears that petroleum engineering programs are producing PhD engineers in sufficient quantity to maintain the status quo for recruiting new tenure-track faculty, events such as the SPE Gulf Coast Section Upstream Oil and Gas Professionals Hiring Event can also provide opportunities to recruit new faculty with industry experience who can serve as faculty in practice serving the schools.

Marshall Watson (Texas Tech University) discusses laboratory equipment with Ralph Flori (Missouri University of Science and Technology) and Dhafer Al-Shehri (King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals) at the PEDHA meeting at Texas Tech in August 2019. Pictured in background is Runar Nygaard (University of Oklahoma).

PEDHA’s History

The goal of PEDHA has been to encourage mutual cooperation among petroleum engineering educational institutions to promote worldwide excellence in petroleum engineering education. Over the past 30 years, the association has conducted several colloquia discussing issues related to updating curricula in petroleum engineering and communicating with ABET. It has been instrumental in establishing graduate fellowship and faculty research initiation awards at SPE. For the past 3 decades, thanks to the support of SPE, the petroleum engineering department heads of universities have met at least once a year at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition to review statistics about enrollment, industry trends, and to hear from ABET on its requirements. In 2018, the group registered as a nonprofit Petroleum Engineering Department Heads Association (PEDHA) and as a separate organization to minimize any financial burden to SPE. Industry representatives are invited to join as associate members.

Currently, PEDHA is developing solutions for faculty recruitment and retention and curricular changes to the need of graduates who could respond to the evolving needs of the industry.

The first meeting of PEDHA as an independent organization was organized as a part of a colloquium held in Houston in August 2018. Industry participants and university representatives discussed the need to revisit the 100-year-old curriculum and advocate more emphasis on data sciences and analytics. The main issue was how to incorporate these new topics into curricula. The second meeting was held in August 2019 at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.