The average oil refinery looks like something out of a plumber's fever dream, so it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you envision your career options. Yet oil production and other forms of heavy manufacturing are crucial to the international economy, and offer some lucrative and challenging careers. As a petroleum or chemical engineer you'd have the opportunity to bring new products to market, improve manufacturing processes, or find ways to reduce industry's impact on the environment.
Some branches of engineering are all about the end result, like a bridge that stays up or a faster, smaller computer chip. When you're a chemical engineer, it's more about the processes that lead to a specific result. You'd design and refine the manufacturing processes for anything from food to makeup to plastics, and you could work in pure research or almost any branch of heavy industry. You need a strong grasp of biology and physics as well as chemistry, because your job might include designing containment systems for caustic chemicals or assessing how dangerous they are to living creatures. Waste disposal and environmental compliance are big parts of the job.
Petroleum engineering has a narrower focus. It's all about the extraction, refinement and transportation of the petroleum products that fuel the world's economy. You can choose between a number of specialties in the field. If you're a drilling engineer, you're focused on the logistics of putting in the wells. As a reservoir engineer, you find ways to extract more of the oil from each well. Production engineers run day-to-day operations, managing costs and keeping the well profitable. You might also design refineries or refinery subsystems, improve methods of extracting petroleum products or producing petrochemicals, or find ways to minimize the environmental impact of extraction and processing.
The two professions overlap in those late stages of oil production, when the petroleum is processed into marketable products. Many of these processes require a strong knowledge of chemical processes, so chemical and petroleum engineers sometimes compete for the same positions. In fact, the two fields share enough common ground that in some schools they're joined in the same program. If you plan a career in the processing stage of oil production, you can major in either field. Overall chemical engineering is a broader profession with more career paths, so it's less dependent on the ups and downs of one industry.
The training in either field is very similar. You can get your foot in the door with a bachelor's degree in either chemical or petroleum engineering, but the best jobs require a master's degree or a doctorate. Most companies like to see some practical experience as well, so some schools incorporate externships as a part of their curriculum. After earning your bachelor's degree you can take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, and be recognized as an Engineering Intern. After four years of work experience you can take the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, and earn certification as a Professional Engineer. It's mandatory for most petroleum engineers, and recommended for chemical engineers.
Pay and Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2010, the median annual wage for petroleum engineers was $114,080; while for chemical engineers it was $90,300. The bureau expects job growth this decade for petroleum engineers to be about 17 percent; for chemical engineers, about 6 percent.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.