Career development

Letter from the TWA Editor: How To Get Better at Reservoir Engineering

In this month’s Letter from the TWA Editor in Chief, I share my thoughts and perspectives on how to get better at reservoir engineering.

Close Up Photo Of Man Hands Writing Notes In A Notebook During Lecture At College
Be bold and do the homework problems in textbooks for real.
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In this month’s Letter from the TWA Editor in Chief, I share my thoughts and perspectives on how to get better at reservoir engineering. Self-improvement is a mark of professional maturity. The choice to diligently self-improve cements the transition away from the role of student/supervised contributor toward a role of amplified contribution. Amplified contribution consists of the ability to provide high-quality work and to credibly shape the development of others around you.

The examples and reflections in this article reflect my own personal experience within the reservoir engineering discipline. However, I believe that the learnings and insights are applicable across any technical discipline once properly “mapped.”


A colleague/mentee recently asked me, "How do I get better at reservoir engineering?" It took me some time to develop a thoughtful response to his question because it is an open-ended question, but more importantly, because we should all be asking this question.

This question seems difficult to answer. However, I will attempt to convince you in this article that the true answer is simple.

Simple Answer:

1) Read

2) Do

3) Seek out mentors

4) Teach others

It sounds lame, but I promise that you will improve your competency x10 in a step-out topic by reading a textbook, yes reading a textbook, and solving every single exercise and end-of-chapter problem.

But Michael, it can't be that simple, can it?

Well, I argue that it really is (~90%) that simple because you are doing the first three at the same time. You are reading, reflecting on the material, and doing calculations/ derivations to prove holistic understanding, and learning from the author(s)' expertise.

I've never met Drs. Muskat, Van Everdingen, Hurst, Coats, etc., but I can still "chat" with them through the papers and books they've left behind as their legacy. This strategy helped me when preparing for the Professional Engineering (PE) Exam (which I joyfully passed on my first attempt).

I read and solved every problem cover to cover in the "Well Test Analysis" and "Applied Drilling Engineering" textbooks in the Society of Petroleum Engineers International textbook series.

There are many more books to recommend, but ownership of your growth as an engineer requires reading, doing, and finding mentors.

There are two vital points to clarify.

Point 1:  Solution Manuals

Conscientious “participation” in a book does not have a shortcut. It will take time, and there will be portions that are beyond your own understanding. While tempting, do not resort to opening solution manuals unless you are absolutely stuck. Solution manuals are an excellent tool to learn from (and discover alternative solution strategies) but be cautious. Consulting knowledgeable mentors who “know” the answer falls under the same umbrella. Ask for help in the fundamental sense, but make sure to protect your right to “discover for yourself” the answer vs. letting someone else give you the answer and erode your sense of personal ownership.

Point 2:  Expand Your Net to Include Journal Papers and Technical Conferences

An important point I want to clarify is that technical papers and conference attendance are crucial to staying at the top of your discipline. Textbooks (based on the citation dates vs. the book print date) could be 5 to 15 years out of date. Within that framework, one invites a serious blind spot if the only source of knowledge is textbooks.

What is Step 4, Teach Others?

Once you've had enough time to digest and apply aspects of the material you learned (steps 1–3), you enter a position of being able to teach others in a non-superficial manner. This transformation defines an important professional milestone.

Dr. Richard Feynman was a passionate physicist and educator who believed that true subject matter expertise required the ability (or at least genuine commitment) to coherently explain complex ideas in simpler terms (without using jargon to intentionally gatekeep and/or impress).

Making complex ideas simple is decidedly not simple. However, teaching becomes a phenomenal way to learn in and of itself because you must wholeheartedly embrace a “heart of the teacher” mindset and help others love the material in the same way you do.

Do Not Pursue Joyless Excellence

Reservoir engineering is deeply technical, but joyless excellence is not nearly as attractive and inspiring as someone who truly loves what he or she does.

I love what reservoir engineers bring to the world when we do our jobs well. I love the profession, and the reason I wrote this article is to help you in your own professional development arc.

Bottom Line

Be bold and do the homework problems in textbooks for real. I promise that thought goes into them if the author was serious about growing competency in his/her readers. Once the ideas take root, you enter a new realm of contribution because you are equipped to teach others.

PS: What About the Other 10% of Learning?

Good point. There will always be more to learn and discover. I have never coasted in my professional career, so I am always going to chase the unfilled portion of that knowledge meter. Being an engineer is a lifelong process, so that extra 10% is something you need to discover on your own. Neal S. Turluck wisely noted that “[the] other 10% is really expensive and doesn’t come from books.”

I agree with Turluck because most of that 10% comes from mistakes and there is no way to accelerate experience that takes years to acquire. Training a reservoir engineer is like training a geoscientist. It takes a long time for everything to marinate and come together. There is no "lock someone in a room for 4 weeks" and out comes a competent geoscientist shortcut.

Acknowledgement: I thank Mark Burgoyne for his feedback that version 1.0 of this article missed the importance of teaching. I also thank Doug Walser for the valuable insight that papers must complement textbooks. I humbly agree and made these sorely needed corrections.