Confessions of a Distance-Learning Student

Pursuing a graduate degree at night can be very beneficial. But it requires trade-offs and dedication and should not be entered into without considering both what you'll have to give up (while in school) and what you'll gain.

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In the past 4 years, it has been an exciting journey for Student Link. Change brings innovation and as we transition to, we are very excited to have Tony Fernandez as our first author. He shares with us his personal experience on obtaining a distance-learning graduate degree in petroleum engineering. It is never too late for adults to go back to school and earn an additional degree. Deciding the right time to pursue a graduate degree is a tricky affair. Often young professionals ask questions about the pros and cons of getting a graduate degree and the potential benefit it brings to a career. Fernandez brings some fresh ideas to the table through his confessions as a distance learner and the challenges he faced. We are excited about this new section and seek your active feedback to improve future issues.

Abhishek Anchliya, J. Shaun S. Toralde, Hui Pu, and Reza Rastegar, Editors,

The case for enrolling in distance-learning (DL) programs, such as the one I recently finished, can be unique to each student’s history, credentials, and career aspirations. Some students who recognize the value of a graduate degree appreciate being able to pursue higher education while working full time. Others enroll to reinforce their knowledge or to become an expert in a specific discipline. An increasingly larger number of individuals are using DL programs to switch career gears and enter the lucrative E&P industry. I represent all of the above.

My Story

Some of us simply are not the prototypical oil industry engineers. I have a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke, and while I am proud of my undergraduate education, my job hunt after graduation led me to the stark realization that the majority of careers at E&P companies call for engineering or geoscience degrees. Therefore, I opted for the closest job I could find, an economic analyst position at a refining company, where I familiarized myself with the economic drivers, major players, and jargon of our industry.

To break through to upstream, a DL program fit the bill: I could learn petroleum engineering, obtain a technical degree, and continue to work at the same time. Merely 6 months after I began the program, I landed a job in upstream, and 2 years later I would obtain my degree. Mission accomplished.

Every Situation is Unique

This is, of course, a gross summarization of my experience but my purpose is merely to illustrate the uniqueness of my situation. Every student has used DL programs uniquely, so their “value” varies greatly. In fact, that value cannot be measured financially, but instead from a utility theory perspective. In other words, the degree’s perceived value to one individual will be different than another’s.

Throughout my tenure in the program, I have morphed from a recently graduated bachelor with a pipedream to a family man with a defined career goal. I have met peers in the DL program that range from a blue-collared newlywed to a seasoned technical expert and father of four. It is a great opportunity and a unique way of shaping your education to help steer your career in the direction you want it go.

The Ultimate Balance Trick

The one constant I have observed in the program is that the distance learner is essentially three persons in one: student, employee, and family member. The percentage of time and effort each facet requires depends solely on the individual. This is what makes every situation different.

Regardless of the balance trick, a DL education is a serious commitment that will require you to surrender some luxuries. When I was a bachelor, my life balance was approximately 40% studies, 40% work, and 20% family as I was able to absorb the coursework into my everyday life, only conceding “down time.” Some people may, however, require “down time” to keep sane, and it should be a factor in their decision. Toward the end of my degree, life events changed my balance to 25/25/50, respectively, yet I still had to postpone planning my wedding because my plate was too full. These are not deal-breakers, but potential DL students should be keenly aware of which luxuries will have to be relinquished or temporarily postponed.

Curve Balls

Lastly, prioritizing should not be understated, because there will be times when one of these facets will monopolize your time. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, my family required 100% of my time as we struggled to repair our living situation and regain electric power over 2 weeks. Because my DL university was unaffected, classes went as scheduled and I fell seriously behind in my studies. I had to be nimble enough to focus on my family when it was crucial, and then fiercely concentrate on catching up to my studies later. The balance among studies, work, and family is incredibly fragile. While it is difficult enough to manage time during routine times, it takes serious dedication to reachieve normalcy when life throws a curve ball.

When deliberating on a DL education, one must establish a personal goal and understand the potential value of the degree. Determine how it will affect your work/life balance and identify the luxuries you will lose. Admit to flexibility and recognize that the ride will be full of ups and downs, because curve balls will inevitably be thrown at you. Finally, once committed, allow your goal to steer you in the right direction. Implementing this decision-making process will ensure that your result is as satisfying and rewarding an experience as it was to me.

Once you’ve prepared yourself mentally as explained above and you find that the value of the degree outweighs the sacrifices, I encourage you to pursue it. You will discover pathways towards career advancement and become a better manager of your resources all at the same time. Good luck and happy distance learning!

Tony Fernandez is a petroleum engineer working for RSK, an international engineering consultancy focused on the provision of technical, strategic, and commercial advisory services. He earned a BS degree in economics from Duke University and a ME in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M University. His fields of professional interest are the economic assessment and financing of oil and gas properties, reservoir characterization, and numerical simulation.