Petroleum Engineer – Mentor, Larry Robinson

Larry Robinson ImageThis mentor recently retired from Chevron, one of the largest public oil and gas  companies in the US. He rose through the ranks and was given a variety of assignments within the company including the opportunity to work overseas as well as in the United States. In his article, he points out the steps he took to broaden his expertise. He also offers several  suggestions on how to get started in this profession after you graduate from college as well as how to manage your career once you are hired. Petroleum engineering is currently the highest paid profession for people who obtain a a four year degree and the highest paid category within  the various engineering specialties.  Nine of  the top ten jobs  for a four year college graduate based on both starting salaries and lifetime earnings are in engineering. All engineering categories are also projected to have some of the highest projected growth rates in terms of demand for people over the next ten years  of all career categories.



Like many professional occupations, engineering is a broad profession organized into different areas of specialized disciplines. Mechanical, petroleum, chemical, civil, electrical, nuclear, and aeronautical engineers typically share a common core of science and mathematics training, yet they each have their own areas of specialization. For that reason, it is common to see several different engineering disciplines working side by side in the same industry. As an example, the oil and gas exploration and production industry is composed of more than solely petroleum engineers. There are mechanical, chemical, civil and electrical roles as well. Even in petroleum engineering, there are several different areas of focus, e.g., drilling, production, reservoir, operations, enhanced recovery, etc. That is just one reason why the engineering field is such an attractive career choice.

Since the industrial revolution, virtually every major industry has evolved from a relatively crude beginning to a fairly sophisticated technological state. That evolution is largely attributable to the application of engineering. Over the last century or so, oil and gas drilling has evolved from cable tool drilling to rotary drilling, offshore drilling, directional drilling, horizontal drilling, and deepwater drilling. During that same time, oil is no longer refined just into kerosene for lighting fuel, but also into low vapor pressure gasoline fuels, ultra low sulfur diesel fuels, jet fuels, asphalts, etc. While natural gas was largely flared or vented before the 1930’s, it is now widely used to fuel boilers and gas turbines that generate electricity, supply industrial processes with fuel and feedstock, provide space heating, and fuel compressed natural gas vehicles. In some cases, natural gas is now even converted into clean diesel fuels. Once considered a land-locked fuel that could only be transported via pipeline, natural gas is now also transported worldwide in a liquid state and later revaporized. This is only scratching the surface of oil and gas activities, but it helps demonstrate what is driving the demand pull for engineers in the oil and gas industry.

Career Paths

Most engineering disciplines provide an entry point into numerous industries. Being a mechanical engineer by degree, I interviewed with several companies in widely differing industries during my senior year in college. For me, the oil and gas industry was by far the most intriguing. The technical and geographic diversity of potential assignments was very appealing. I was also interested in starting in a field assignment in order to get some real hands-on experience in an industry which at the time was relatively unfamiliar to me. Following that lead, my first job was as an open-hole well logging engineer for Schlumberger, a premier oil and gas service company. They offered a fast-track training program and had an impressive technical reputation. It was a great way to get kick started in the business and allowed me to become familiar with some of the most active oil and gas companies of the time. It also sparked my interest in getting a broader exposure to oil and gas. That led me to accept my first assignment as a petroleum engineer in a field role with Chevron, one of the world’s largest oil and gas producing companies. It also led me to eventually earn a professional engineering license in petroleum engineering. I loved the work and did my best to develop a reputation of being a proven top performer. That focus opened up opportunities over the next couple of decades that I never could have imagined. It led to several upstream petroleum engineering assignments in different basins to midstream assignments in trading, transportation, storage, processing, risk management and business development. Some were technical ladder assignments, some were management. Some were domestic assignments and some were resident international assignments. And, of course, as the responsibility increased, so did the personal commitment. I always strived and was fortunately able to take on those assignments in a logical order that allowed me to stay on a path of building a broad but meaningful competency in petroleum engineering in both technical and commercial functions.

Getting Started

If you are the type of person that is analytical, inquisitive, and interested in understanding how things work and wonder if there are better ways to do it, you may be a candidate for an education in engineering. If so, it helps to start laying some of the groundwork in high school. Take all the math, chemistry and physical sciences you can. Algebra, geometry, trigonometry and basic chemistry are essential. These are all prerequisites to the some of the classes you will be taking in the first year of college. Calculus and physics would also be very helpful as would an English class focused on writing.

When selecting a university to attend, make sure that your choice offers several different engineering disciplines. Doing so gives you some flexibility during your first or second year of college to change the type of engineering discipline you want to pursue. Also select a school where major employers actively recruit graduating seniors. Once you are in college, focus on making good grades. Prospective employers are interested in engineering students with solid GPA’s. Eventually, they often want to see your official transcript to verify your GPA and see what classes you have taken.

Once you reach your junior year, take the first of two professional engineering exams. This first 8-hour test covers engineering fundamentals and is normally easily passed while you are a junior or senior. Many practicing engineers that did not take that test while in college find it nearly impossible to pass once they are out of school. (The second exam requires at least 4 years of work experience before it can be taken and is focused only on the single discipline you have chosen – petroleum, chemical, mechanical, nuclear, civil, etc.).

When you become a senior, take full advantage of the interviewing opportunities at your university’s career placement office. You just invested 4 years of hard work getting a degree, so it warrants spending more than just a few days finding a job. Take the process and the prospective employers seriously by putting your best foot forward (prepare a professional resume, dress like a professional business person, and do some homework to learn about the company that is about to interview you).

Once You’re There

Now that you have invested in an engineering degree and landed that first job, think about what you want to accomplish and how you want to conduct yourself as a professional. A few tenets to consider following include:

  • Learn from the successes and mistakes of the people around you and adopt some of the best practices and habits you observe,
  • Be known as one that is punctual, meets deadlines, fulfills objectives and exceeds expectations,
  • Develop the discipline to focus on the value-added and/or critical path activities,
  • Manage your daily agenda because if all you accomplish is answering e-mails and telephone calls, you probably aren’t on pace to fulfilling your near term goals,
  • While it is okay to say “I don’t know”, don’t be content with it – push yourself to continually learn,
  • Offer potential solutions to the problems you identify,
  • Manage your responsibilities, but recognize when an issue is beyond you and needs to be escalated in terms of resources or authority,
  • Develop good communication skills, including how to communicate from a conceptual level to a detailed level and recognizing when and how to move along that continuum,
  • Push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and of course,
  • Never compromise your integrity.

One good thing about engineering professions is the level of the starting base salaries. How well you do after that is up to you. You could spend an entire career in the starting salary range. On the other hand, your compensation could grow to multiples of then-current starting base salaries. To enjoy the latter, you will need to adopt good practices like some of the tenets above. You can follow a technical career ladder and become one of the most competent engineers in your company or profession. Alternatively, you can take the management track of increasing responsibility. Note that most managers spend a fair amount of time on the technical career ladder during the first several years of their careers before qualifying for and moving into a supervisory role. After becoming an experienced engineer, you may also merit and be interested in an international assignment. The personal commitment is indeed higher and you will need to prepare your family for the challenge, but the professional, cultural, and financial rewards are abundant.


US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Petroleum Engineering Salary Survey, May 2013

Currently petroleum engineering has both the highest starting salary of all categories of engineering and highest lifetime earnings estimates.


Employment estimate and mean wage estimates for this occupation:

Employment Mean annualwage
34,910 $149,180


Percentile wage estimates for this occupation:

Percentile 10% 25% 50%(Median) 75% 90%
Annual Wage $74,240 $98,390 $132,320 $186,520 $187,199


Many people do not know that there is oil and gas production in many areas of the United States providing opportunities to work in many parts of the country as well as internationally.

Map for Petroleum Engineers

Metropolitan areas with the highest employment level in this occupation:

Metropolitan area Employment Annual mean wage
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 12,520 $163,490
Oklahoma City, OK 1,620 $158,170
Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 1,340 $151,500
Midland, TX 1,210 $156,510
Dallas-Plano-Irving, TX Metropolitan Division 1,210 $179,040
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 880 $144,300
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Division 870 $160,270
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA Metropolitan Division 800 $122,150
Tulsa, OK 800 $155,670
Bakersfield-Delano, CA 620 $129,680
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