For engineers working in the oil and gas industry, earning a master’s in petroleum engineering – one of the highest-paying master’s degrees – could be your next step to career advancement. When you’re already working in the field, though, you might not like the prospect of leaving the workforce to go to graduate school full-time. This interruption in your career can be financially costly and can get in the way of professional opportunities. If you’re wondering whether you can hold down an engineering job during your graduate studies, it depends on whether you’re looking at full-time on-campus programs or at part-time or online options.

The Challenges With Working During Graduate School

In a traditional full-time master’s degree program in petroleum engineering, you’re going to have a tough time balancing your professional work with your academic study. For one thing, the work of a petroleum engineer is demanding. Most petroleum engineer roles are full-time, and overtime is common in this occupation, particularly when out in the field, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Balancing your professional obligations with a full load of graduate-level coursework – consisting of three or even four classes per semester – is difficult. If your degree program includes a thesis component, you will also need to make time for original research, drafting and preparing to defend your thesis and potentially writing and submitting manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals.

Featured Programs

Even if you’re not intimidated by the sheer workload and the time commitments, you might have problems with the logistics of working full-time while taking a full-time schedule of graduate courses. In traditional master’s degree programs in petroleum engineering, you’re likely to find that required courses are only available during normal working hours. Some evening classes may be available, but you might not be able to avoid taking classes that start at 9 in the morning, noon or 3 in the afternoon. A program meant for full-time students will likely expect students to have full-time availability for their studies.

Some graduate schools and programs specifically prohibit students from working, or at least working full-time, during their studies. Even if your engineering school doesn’t have this rule, you should consider how attempting to work full-time while studying full-time will impact your success in both endeavors. If you undertake a full-time graduate degree while working and end up underperforming in your job, your studies or both, you may actually be worse off than you were before you went back to school.

If you decide to attempt full-time work and full-time graduate studies, you may need to work with your employer to adjust your work schedule, and you definitely need to establish strict boundaries and schedules for yourself that include time for studying and homework.

Online and Part-Time Programs Are Made for Working Engineers

If you want to continue holding down a job while earning your master’s degree, your best option may be to search for a program intended specifically for working students. Part-time programs stretch out your graduate coursework over a longer span of time, so you can take a smaller, more manageable load of classes at a time. Instead of finishing a master’s in petroleum engineering program in one and a half to two years as a full-time student, you might take two and a half or even three years to finish your degree as a part-time student. You may be able to find evening courses that you can attend after work. If you do encounter scheduling conflicts, you only have to accommodate one or two courses instead of a full load of graduate classes.

Online master’s in petroleum engineering programs may be an even better option. Not only can you skip the commute to school – which takes up even more of your time – but you can access your education from anywhere in the world. With international travel being part of the petroleum engineer occupation, that sort of flexibility is invaluable. While an important business trip to a drill site on the other side of the globe would require you to miss in-person courses, you can simply pack your laptop and do your homework from the comfort of your hotel room.

Many online programs in petroleum engineering make use of asynchronous courses. Instead of having to log onto the virtual classroom at a set time for a live online lecture presented in real-time, you can access course materials on your own time. There are no scheduling conflicts, even if you have to work overtime. The course materials that make up an online education vary across different engineering schools and programs, but they may include videos, virtual group discussions, case studies and even experiential projects.

If you’re choosing an online program, make sure that the curriculum and all degree requirements are, in fact, offered fully online. Some programs require in-person commitments such as on-campus orientation or other residency experiences, so it’s important to plan for these obligations from the start.

Even asynchronous courses have deadlines for assignments, projects, exams and virtual classwork. Although you don’t have to access your course materials at a set time, you do need to plan ahead and have the discipline to make sure your work gets done on time.

Additional Resources

Due to the Pandemic, Are Schools Generally Requiring the GRE as Part of the Application Process?

Will I Miss Out on Anything by Taking Online Classes for Petroleum Engineering?

How Long Does It Typically Take to Get a Master’s in Petroleum Engineering?