Becoming a Drilling Engineer: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a drilling engineer? Get real job descriptions and salary info to see if becoming a drilling engineer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Drilling Engineer

Drilling engineers, more commonly known as petroleum engineers, are responsible for designing the equipment used for oil and gas extraction. Look at the following pros and cons to figure out if becoming a drilling engineer is right for you.

Pros of a Career as a Drilling Engineer
Good pay (petroleum engineers earned a median salary of about $130,000 as of May 2014)*
Engaging work (drilling engineers must not only execute a diverse range of technical skills, they're also required to work in a variety of professional environments)*
Many opportunities for advancement (with experience, drilling engineers progress into sales, supervisory and managerial positions)*
Job security (virtually all drilling engineers find employment after graduation)**

Cons of a Career as a Drilling Engineer
Long, erratic hours (drilling engineers may be expected to work upwards of 80 hours at a time and may be deployed to drilling sites on short notice)*
High barriers to entry (in addition to a bachelor's degree, engineers must also pass a state licensing exam and undergo 4 years of supervised employment before being eligible to offer their services for public use)*
Constant moving (since the availability of accessible petroleum is not constant, drilling engineers can find themselves moving from one newly discovered site to the next)*
Workplace hazards (drilling sites present numerous health risks, such as radiation exposure, high noise levels and dangerous equipment)***

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)*, Colorado School of Mines**, Society of Occupational Medicine***

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Drilling engineers are responsible for a range of professional duties. For instance, they must perform cost assessments on prospective oil and gas sites, keep track of the rates of production at drilling sites, communicate with other personnel to resolve any problems that may arise and analyze information related to well placement. Your duties could also include employing computerized drilling technology to connect isolated petroleum deposits with individual wells, ensuring that equipment is properly installed and devising strategies to increase the volume of oil extracted.

Job Prospects and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), national employment of drilling engineers was likely to grow by 26% from 2012-2022. The growth is in large part due to the increasing price of oil and the number of drilling engineers projected to retire in the near future. In 2014, the mean annual wage of drilling, or petroleum, engineers was approximately $148,000, the BLS reported.

Career Paths and Specializations

Drilling engineers can find entry-level employment at large multinationals, mid-sized independent companies, specialized operators or consulting firms to gain experience and on-the-job training. After acquiring the necessary licensing, many may then work their way up to project leadership, middle management positions and/or upper management positions. Some engineers even decide to go into business for themselves.

Technological advancements are necessitating that drilling engineers tailor their expertise to certain cutting-edge trends. Engineers may gain expertise in a variety of new developments, such as computerized oil and gas reservoir simulation, seismic drilling techniques, horizontal drilling and offshore oil production.

Career Skills and Requirements

Education and Licensure

As a prospective drilling engineer, you'll be required to obtain at least a bachelor's degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program in petroleum engineering or a related field. In addition, all states require you to be licensed. You'll need to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, acquire at least 4 years of supervised work experience and pass the Professional Engineers (PE) examination as part of the licensing process.

Useful Skills

Drilling engineers need to have a combination of skills to successfully execute their professional tasks. In addition to hard skills, such as mathematical proficiency, analytical competence and advanced computer literacy, engineers may also need a variety of soft skills. These include:

  • The ability to work in a team
  • The ability to think creatively
  • Initiative
  • Perseverance for overcoming difficult obstacles
  • A high degree of integrity

Job Postings from Real Employers

A March 2012 job search for drilling, or petroleum, engineers found several postings calling for candidates with bachelor's degrees in petroleum engineering, chemical engineering or a related discipline. In addition, some employers advertised for engineers with proficiency in several areas, such as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) technology, well surveillance and shale reservoirs. The following list summarizes several actual listings that this search turned up:

  • An oil and gas company in California advertised for a petroleum engineer with at least 7 years of experience and knowledge of full well development and artificial lifts. The successful candidate would conduct well surveillance and devise production optimization strategies.
  • A Texas reservoir development company sought a petroleum engineer with good communication skills and proficiency in Prosper software to serve as a consultant/manager on surveillance engineering projects.
  • An oil company advertised for a petroleum engineer with significant industry experience to manage its well surveillance projects and conduct field safety analyses, among other tasks.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Continuing Education

In order to enhance your career prospects, you may consider obtaining a graduate degree in petroleum engineering or a related field. A graduate degree may open up career opportunities in research and development and teaching, the BLS reported. A master's degree in petroleum engineering consists of advanced training in fundamental areas of petroleum engineering, such as reservoir engineering, well drilling and project management. In addition, students may also be reintroduced to concepts such as thermodynamics, heat and phase equilibrium. A Ph.D. program in petroleum engineering primarily emphasizes independent research on a specific engineering issue.

Get Certified

Another way to gain distinction as a petroleum engineer is by obtaining certification from the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE). By obtaining certification, you'll show potential employers that you're a committed and serious engineering professional. The SPE offers the Certified Petroleum Engineer designation to professional members of the society who hold a bachelor's degree in engineering from an accredited institution, pass a competency exam and undergo at least 4 years of on-the-job training. If your application is successful, you may also be required to pay a fee and complete 16 hours of continuing education hours to renew your certification.

Other Careers to Consider


If you feel that becoming a drilling engineer is not the best fit for you, but would like a career with similar characteristics, you may consider other options, such as a career as a geoscientist. These professionals are responsible for studying the physical composition, makeup and natural processes of the earth. To become a geoscientist, you'll need a bachelor's degree in geosciences, physics, engineering or a related field. While these professionals made less than drilling engineers (average of nearly $98,000 annually as of May 2011 BLS data), they could expect faster-than-average employment growth from 2010-2020. If you want to pursue a master's degree in this field, you may also find better job opportunities, the BLS reported.

Industrial Engineer

Another field similar to drilling engineering is industrial engineering. Industrial engineers focus on devising strategies to make the production processes of businesses more efficient. While job growth in this field was expected to be slow, the BLS projects only six percent growth expected from 2010-2020, you can work in a variety of industries. For instance, you can work for manufacturing companies, hospitals, research firms or consulting agencies.

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