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.

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 employs about 33,700 Americans, 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.

A Background in Science and Mathematics

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 engineering programs to include at least one year of study – one-quarter of the credits required to graduate – in college-level mathematics and basic laboratory sciences.

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. 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.

Studying algebra, calculus and trigonometry in high school can help you succeed in your college-level math and engineering courses and may even help you get ahead in your college education.  

Core Coursework for Petroleum Engineering Students

 At least a year and a half – more than one-third of your total college studies – will be spent on engineering topics. Many petroleum engineering programs include general foundational engineering courses, such as Introduction to Engineering, as well as Introduction to Petroleum Engineering classes.

More specialized petroleum engineering classes focus on subjects such as thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, the strength of engineering materials and of course classes in wells and drilling procedures. Students might take laboratory courses in drilling fluids, reservoir mechanics, formation evaluation, production engineering, drilling engineering and reservoir engineering. 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 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.

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.

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.

Additional Resources

What degree do I need to be a Petroleum Engineer?

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