If you’re wondering what courses you have to take if you want a job in the most lucrative engineering discipline, you may be examining the petroleum engineering curriculum at your first-choice colleges. Petroleum engineering is an in-demand field with a median salary well above six figures, but it requires thorough study in well systems, drilling procedures and the handling of fluids like oil.

Employment in the Field of Petroleum Engineering

Petroleum engineering is a more specialized and somewhat smaller branch of engineering than more well-known disciplines like civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. This field employed about 28,500 Americans in 2020, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The work of a petroleum engineer focuses on extracting oil and natural gas deposits from the earth, either by developing new drilling equipment and plans or by innovating new ways to efficiently retrieve more of these resources from existing wells. 

Petroleum engineers often spend at least some of their time on-site at wells and drilling sites and may have to travel the world to visit overseas drilling sites.

petroleum engineering classes

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Petroleum Engineering Subjects List

Students looking into entering this field should know that the petroleum engineering subjects list includes advanced, specialized courses pertaining to the design and development of engineering solutions used in oil and gas extraction – and so much more. A combination of general education coursework, engineering foundation courses, specialized petroleum engineering classes and hands-on experience is what makes up the curriculum of this program of study. 

The Background in Science and Mathematics Needed for Petroleum Engineering Classes

Engineering students in all disciplines must develop a strong foundation in scientific and mathematical concepts. Throughout their education and their future career, they will apply these concepts to the creative design, development and analysis of engineering equipment, components and processes. To cultivate the full range of science and math knowledge needed for success as an engineer, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) requires accredited bachelor’s in engineering programs to include at least one year of study in college-level mathematics and basic laboratory sciences.

In other words, petroleum engineering students should expect to devote one-quarter of the total number of credits required for graduation to basic science and math coursework. The reason these subjects make up so much of a petroleum engineering curriculum is because all engineering disciplines draw upon the principles and practices of science and math to design and develop solutions. 

For prospective petroleum engineers, the most important mathematics requirement is the study of differential equations. ABET also requires students to take courses in probability and statistics. At some schools, petroleum engineering students complete a couple of levels of calculus as well as courses in differential equations specifically. These courses will help future petroleum engineers when working on analyses of job sites and creating designs to best extract oil and gas resources.

Courses in physics, chemistry and geology often make up the science component of a petroleum engineering student’s curriculum. Within these subjects of study, you may take broad courses such as general physics and general chemistry or more specialized courses, such as physical geology and structural geology. Some programs may even require specific geology courses, such as classes in the study of sedimentary rocks, to help prepare students for the different terrains they might be working with at drill sites.

Petroleum Engineering College Courses in the Foundations of Engineering

At least a year and a half – more than one-third of your total college studies – will be spent on engineering topics. As far as actual engineering courses go, students should expect to take both general engineering coursework that helps them grasp the foundations of engineering design and specialized major coursework in petroleum engineering.

The types of general foundational engineering courses that are likely to appear in many petroleum engineering programs include Introduction to Engineering, which often serves the purpose of giving students their first glimpse of engineering as a profession and of the concepts, practices and ethics of engineering problem-solving. This early engineering course may also distinguish between the different disciplines of engineering, as well as provide students with an opportunity to learn both technical and non-technical skills used in all branches of engineering, such as MatLab programming, the basics of using Excel spreadsheets and the collaborative work needed for team design projects.

Other common courses include studies in engineering communication, which helps students develop the skills they will need to convey important technical and non-technical information to clients and collaborators, and studies in the strengths and properties of various engineering materials.

Petroleum Engineering Classes for the Major 

Your coursework that is specific to your major may begin with an Introduction to Petroleum Engineering class that provides a broad overview of the concepts, practical applications, systems and processes used to discover oil and gas deposits and recover and extract these resources. Students will learn about the commercial oil and gas extraction industry and the critical roles that petroleum engineers play in this industry.  

More specialized petroleum engineering classes focus on subjects such as wells and drilling procedures. Students might take laboratory courses in drilling fluids, reservoir mechanics and geomechanics, formation evaluation, production engineering, drilling engineering and reservoir engineering. A sequence of courses in reservoir engineering can help students understand the general concepts and advanced topics and practices of primary, secondary and tertiary recovery of oil and gas.

Other coursework specific to petroleum engineering acts as a more focused study of general engineering topics. For example, coursework in fluid mechanics is common in degree programs in a variety of engineering disciplines, but classes in the properties of petroleum fluids, specifically, are unique to this major. While studies in thermodynamics are common, a focused course in thermodynamics and phase behavior might examine the applications of classical thermodynamics and phase behavior to petroleum fluids in their different states of matter. Some courses focus on working with a particular type of resource, such as natural gas, while others look at particular phases of the drilling process, such as well planning and well completion.

Because the field of petroleum engineering is so narrowly focused, the curriculum is considerably more rigid than you might find if you were majoring in a broad area of engineering, such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering or biomedical engineering. Students should be ready to take a variety of courses closely related to their major, and they may not have a lot of room for electives or much flexibility in their major coursework.

Some of the courses you take in a petroleum engineering program might surprise you. For example, despite the reputation the petroleum industry has for being less than environmentally friendly, petroleum engineering students often study the field of engineering as it pertains to energy supply and demand and to the environment. In fact, the petroleum engineering departments at some engineering schools even offer minors in sustainable energy, which may encompass coursework in energy technology and policy, issues in sustainable energy production, climate change history and mitigation, sustainable systems engineering and the use of mineral resources and its impact on the environment.

Because there are so many potential occupational hazards related to petroleum engineering, it’s important for students to take courses in risk analysis to help them meet the ABET requirement of understanding decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Classes in resource economics and valuation, in which students learn how to project the profitability of projects to extract earth resources like oil and gas and how to plan these projects for maximum profitability, can also assist in developing this knowledge.

In both major coursework and general engineering coursework, the concepts you learned in basic science and math classes will resurface. For example, you need an understanding of physics and chemistry to succeed in courses like petrophysics, which refers to the physical and chemical properties of rocks and how they interact with fluids – particularly in the petroleum industry. 

Graduate-Level Classes for Petroleum Engineering

Many petroleum engineers enter the field with a bachelor’s degree, according to the BLS. However, there are master’s in petroleum engineering programs that may give students an advantage in the job market. The estimated time to complete a typical master’s in petroleum engineering is two years, and some of these programs can be completed online, allowing students from out of state to avoid having to relocate.

Earning a master’s degree in petroleum engineering typically requires a bachelor’s degree in some discipline of either engineering or science. When earning your master’s in petroleum engineering, you can take advanced electives such as enhanced oil recovery, the fundamentals of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), advanced petroleum production operations, natural gas engineering and unconventional resource engineering.

Some colleges offer five-year accelerated BS/MS in Petroleum Engineering programs that allow students to start working towards their graduate education while they are still finishing their undergraduate degree, reducing the extra time it takes to earn a master’s degree to just one year. In BS/MS dual degree programs, students can expect to work on the petroleum engineering college courses towards their last three years of schooling and use their first two years to cover their general education requirements and math and science coursework. Students in a BS/MS program will typically begin taking some graduate-level classes during their fourth year of study, along with their remaining undergraduate coursework, and their fifth year will consist entirely of graduate-level courses. Often, graduate coursework taken during students’ senior year of studies count toward both their bachelor’s and master’s degree requirements, which is how these students are able to finish the master’s degree early.

Dual master’s degree programs, like an MS Petroleum Engineering/ MS Engineering Management, are also an option if you want to prepare for roles in the management side of the petroleum engineering field. Aside from your graduate-level petroleum engineering coursework, students will satisfy the management degree requirements by taking courses in areas such as engineering project management, leading and managing engineering teams and economics analysis of engineering projects.

Regardless of what program you choose, any advanced degree will help make you more attractive to future employers. 

Learning Outcomes From Taking Petroleum Engineering Classes

By the time students complete an ABET-accredited program in petroleum engineering, they should know how to design and analyze well systems, how to develop procedures for well drilling and completion, how to optimize the development of oil and natural gas resources and how to design systems that safely and effectively handle the fluids used in the process of drilling for oil.

In a complex field like petroleum engineering, having theoretical knowledge is not enough. Throughout a student’s core engineering coursework, he or she will learn to apply the theories of science and math to the real-world problems found in the field of drilling and oil extraction. Students typically have to complete a major design experience, like a senior design project or capstone course, in order to graduate. In addition to meeting this requirement, petroleum engineering students can also benefit from gaining hands-on work experience in the form of an internship or cooperative program, the BLS reported.

A petroleum engineering major isn’t the only option for breaking into this field. Some petroleum engineers enter the field with degrees in chemical, civil and mechanical engineering rather than petroleum engineering, though exact degree requirements vary by employer, the BLS reported.

The Importance of ABET Accreditation for Petroleum Engineering Programs

Aspiring petroleum engineering students should seek out programs that have attained ABET accreditation, because some employers may refuse to consider candidates who did not graduate from an accredited program. For petroleum engineering programs, the ABET takes a look at how the program’s curriculum prepares graduates in the field of mathematics, with a focus on differential equations and probability and statistics as well as fluid mechanics and thermodynamics. ABET-accredited programs must also help students learn how to design and analyze well systems using proper drilling procedures. ABET requires that accredited petroleum engineering degree programs provide a strong background in geology so students can understand different geological formations. Other areas evaluated are the ways the program teaches students to handle fluids and the reservoirs used for these resources.

The different content areas that ABET evaluates should give students an idea of what courses will be the most important in their academic careers. 

Additional Resources

What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a Degree in Petroleum Engineering?

What Are the Highest Paying Jobs With a Degree in Petroleum Engineering?

What Is the Difference Between a Degree in Petroleum Engineering and a Degree in Nuclear Engineering?

Top 10 Highest Paying Engineering Careers