The foundations of petroleum engineering were established during the 1890’s in California. There, geologists were employed to correlate oil-producing zones and water zones from well to well to prevent extraneous water from entering oil-producing zones. From this came the recognition of the potential for applying technology to oil-field development. The American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (AIME) established a Technical Committee on Petroleum in 1914. In 1957 the name of the AIME was changed to the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers.

Petroleum technology courses were introduced at the University of Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1910 and included courses in oil and gas law and industry practices; in 1915 the university granted the first degree in petroleum engineering. Also in 1910, the University of California at Berkeley offered its first courses in petroleum engineering and in 1915 established a four-year curriculum in petroleum engineering. After these pioneering efforts, professional programs spread throughout the United States and other countries.


Petroleum engineering is the field of engineering concerned with the activities related to the production of hydrocarbons, which can be either crude oil or natural gas. Exploration and production are deemed to fall within the upstream sector of the oil and gas industry. Exploration, by earth scientists, and petroleum engineering are the oil and gas industry’s two main subsurface disciplines, which focus on maximizing economic recovery of hydrocarbons from subsurface reservoirs. Hence,  petroleum engineers focus on the estimation of the recoverable volume of this resource using a detailed understanding of the physical behavior of oil, water and gas within porous rock at very high pressure. In this endeavor, they use advanced computers to analyze data gleaned from exploration techniques. This requires the combined efforts of geologists and geophysicists.

Areas of specialization within the field of petroleum engineering:

  •  Drilling Engineering–  responsible for the design of the earth-penetration techniques, the selection of casing and safety equipment, and, often, the direction of the operations. These functions involve understanding the nature of the rocks to be penetrated, the stresses in these rocks, and the techniques available to drill into and control the underground reservoirs.
  • Production Engineering-  involves controlling and measuring the produced fluids (oil, gas, and water), designing and installing gathering and storage systems, and delivering the raw products (gas and oil) to pipeline companies and other transportation agents.
  • Reservoir Engineering-  concerned with the physics of oil and gas distribution and their flow through porous rocks—the various hydrodynamic, thermodynamic, gravitational, and other forces involved in the rock–fluid system.


A Bachelor of Science (BS) in Petroleum Engineering typically entails a total of 128-131 total credit hours. Some schools also have a core curriculum of courses usually one of which is English composition, reading and writing to ensure the graduates are effective communicators.

Examples of the science courses offered: petroleum drilling, reservoir engineering, heat transfer, well logging, petroleum production, thermodynamics, petrophysics, and geosystems engineering design and analysis. Naturally, the specific course selections vary from school to school in the United States.

To advance to a Master’s degree, the student needs an undergraduate degree in a field of engineering. As you research graduate degree colleges and universities, you’ll probably notice there are schools that offer a thesis and non-thesis program. For example, the University of Kansas has a minimum 30 credit hour graduate master’s degree or the 33 credit hour non-thesis option. Both require 15 hours of core hours, inclusive of these 30 and 33 hour programs.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the median annual salary was $130,280 as of 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree. The projected job growth, according to the BLS, is 26% which is much faster than average. Forbes magazine has reported that the career petroleum engineer has the highest average salary at $155,000 in comparison to other engineering fields.


The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) released their 2014 predictions in September 2013. The report stated that forecasts call for a rise in domestic oil production by 2016 by 800,000 barrels per day. Should oil production eventually decrease with more gas efficient vehicles, some switching to battery operation, the gain in natural gas will more than compensate. The EIA predicts that natural gas production will increase as much as 56% by 2040.