Is Getting an Advanced Degree the Key to a Financially Rewarding Career?

By Matt Balhoff and Larry Fiddler 9 Feb 2015

The decision to pursue more higher education after an undergraduate degree has the potential to change your life and career trajectory in a profound new direction. For those whose passion lies in research and development or teaching, the decision will be a simple one. For everyone else, it’s not so easy. To compare the negative perception of additional tuition payments against the perceived benefts of an advanced degree, we present the views of a professor and an industry veteran to provide you with a balanced perspective toward deciding if graduate school is right for you.

The Career Advantages of Returning to College

Matt Balhoff, University of Texas at Austin

This coming fall and spring, a few thousand petroleum engineering graduates worldwide will be faced with a difficult, life-altering decision, “Should I stay or should I go?” Most students will pass up attending graduate school and opt to begin their career in the oil and gas industry. Who could blame them? For 4 years these students have studied long hours, worked hard in their internships and part-time jobs, and accumulated debt. It is time to reap the benefits of a starting salary near USD 100,000 a year and a possible signing bonus. However, some students will choose the road less traveled and pursue a master’s or PhD degree—and they will be better off for it.

There are many misconceptions about engineering graduate school. The assumption is that it will be a 2- to 5-year extension of the undergraduate years, paying a hefty tuition with even more homework, tests, and deadlines. In reality, it’s about doing creative research, solving the industry’s biggest problems, and getting paid to do it. At the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering (UT PGE), for example, 97% of our graduate students receive financial support in the form of a tuition waiver and an annual stipend of at least USD 21,000 (the total financial package in some cases can be as high as USD 45,000 per year).

UT PGE graduate students work on research worth USD 22 million a year and receive USD 3.6 million in graduate fellowships, research and teaching assistantships, and stipends. About 80% of students are funded by oil and gas companies and in exchange conduct research on practical problems that have a huge impact on the industry. Graduate students are given the opportunity to write peer-reviewed publications and present their results to the industry at SPE meetings. Within 6 months after graduation, 97% of our graduate students, compared with 85% of our undergraduate students, find full-time jobs in the industry.

There are many advantages to attending graduate school. According to the 2012 American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Engineering Income and Salary Survey, the median starting salary for MS petroleum engineering (PEng) degree holders is about USD 10,000 more than the salaries of those with a bachelor’s degree (it’s about USD 20,000 more if you have a PhD), and over a long career, those holding a doctorate in engineering earn a median 35% more than those with a bachelor’s in engineering.

Graduate students have the opportunity to take elective classes to improve their technical skills. However, the most important skills acquired are in conducting research, including creativity/thinking outside of the box, working in teams, and problem solving. PhD graduates are by definition the world’s only experts in their dissertation subject. 

Graduate (especially PhD) students are not working to drill a new well, produce the next field, or run another generic reservoir simulation. Instead, they are discovering cutting-edge drilling methods, inventing the next big production technique, and developing the next generation of reservoir simulators. For example, UT PGE students invented “UT Chem,” the oil and gas industry’s first chemical enhanced-oil- recovery simulator that is still considered a benchmark, and “UT Frac,” the design platform for hydraulic fractures.

After walking the stage to receive their diploma, graduates will be in full-time positions where they will be asked to continue making game-changing discoveries and inventions, write publications on their findings, submit patents, and implement their ideas in the field either in the industry or academia.

If you are interested in developing the next groundbreaking invention, tackling the big environmental changes ahead of us and/or serving in an executive role, graduate school is a solid choice.

Matthew T. Balhoff is currently an associate professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and holds the Frank W. Jessen Centennial Fellowship. He received his BS in 2000 and PhD in 2005, both in chemical engineering from Louisiana State University. He completed his postdoctoral research (2005–2007) at UT Austin in the Institute of Computational and Engineering Sciences.

Is Graduate School Right for You?

Larry Fiddler, Halliburton Consulting

After years of hard work, sacrifice, and financial deprivation, you have finally achieved a great milestone in your life by earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. It is at this point that one of the biggest decisions in your life’s journey must be made: Do I continue my education and work toward a master’s degree (or higher), or do I seek employment in my selected industry and become a full-time wage earner?

This is a decision that will have a profound impact on your professional career. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. Everyone’s situation is going to be different, and the drivers behind this decision will be as unique as the individuals they impact. As a scientist, I would never argue against obtaining as much education as possible; I would lose all credibility if I were to do so.

There is no doubt that having a master’s or doctorate degree will open doors that will not be available to a graduate with only a bachelor’s degree early in one’s career. With that said, it should be said that there are several different avenues for continuing one’s education, and some of the options are not going to be found with a continuation of formal schooling at a university. I would like to offer some observations regarding this subject based on my 35 years of working in the petroleum industry as a geologist and manager.

There are many factors that need to be contemplated while you are trying to decide whether to stay in school or begin your professional career. I think the most important question you need to ask yourself is what you envision your career to be. Obviously, if you see yourself working in research or teaching, then an upper-level degree is essential. Perhaps your goal is to work for a major oil company and progress through the ranks into upper management. Maybe you want to begin your career with the idea of learning all you can about the oil business and eventually work for a small independent company or start your own consulting firm where you will have more autonomy to make decisions.

If you want to secure an entry-level job at an oil company in today’s environment, a bachelor’s degree should get you in the door. I have seen several entry-level jobs that have a requirement of at least a master’s degree, but if you have the grades and interview well, securing that all-important frst job should be within your reach. At this stage of the game, employers are looking at your potential and if you will be an asset to the company in the future. Having a higher degree will show a prospective employer that you have the ability to persevere with a task, and having good grades in that degree should further be an indicator that you can achieve results based on the task at hand.

Most companies will provide training and mentoring on the subjects that they feel are important for you to know to be a high-performing employee in their company. Additional tertiary training at the university level may or may not hit on subjects that an employer thinks you need to be proficient at, but rest assured that if a company is going to spend the time and money to train you on specifics, it will be something that they recognize is mutually beneficial.

Gaining industry-related, real-world experience is of key importance at this stage of one’s career. The push in today’s oil industry is to work in multidisciplinary teams consisting of geophysicists, geologists, geomodelers, petrophysicists, reservoir engineers, production technologists, etc. In the old days, oil companies tended to be segregated by departments when it came to solving problems. Engineers and geoscientists tended to not get along and argued constantly. Most of the structure in oil companies today is based on the integration of disciplines where cross- fertilization occurs and problems are solved by including all of the various technical inputs. This is a wonderful opportunity for young geoscientists and engineers to learn what each other does, and how they all relate to the overall business model.

It has been my experience that after you reach between 7 and 10 years of work history, the type of degree you have means less in regard to career advancement. Most companies are going to look at what you have accomplished from a real-world perspective as opposed to what you did in school 10 years ago. That being the case, getting this industry experience as quickly as possible becomes a premium.

For some people, continuing their education is simply not an option due to financial or personal circumstances after getting their bachelor’s degree. For some, additional debt to finance another 2 or 3 years of university is not practical compared to the hard reality of life that they need to start earning an income. Looking simplistically from an economic standpoint, the income lost by not working for those additional years while continuing your education, together with how many years you would have to work to make up for that, is substantial.

In my career, I have seen oil prices range from USD 8/bbl to USD 145/bbl. It is entirely possible that the excellent job that awaits you in today’s market may not exist in 2 or 3 years’ time. While it is true that initial salaries for master’s degree holders will be somewhat higher than that for bachelor’s degree holders, the difference tends to equalize within a few years when the experience levels are weighed more heavily into salary considerations.

As I stated at the beginning, in no way would I ever recommend less education as being a better solution for preparing you for your life’s journey. To do so would be folly. I simply point out that higher education beyond a bachelor’s degree does not ft into everyone’s plans or personal situation. It has been my experience that the lack of a degree beyond a bachelor’s level does not act as a detriment to a wonderful and rewarding career in today’s oil business, and actually at times might be a better choice for some.

Whatever path you choose, do what makes you happy and what you have a passion for. If you do, financial success and professional satisfaction are sure to follow. 

Larry Fiddler is a project manager at Halliburton Consulting in the Asia Pacific region. He has worked in the petroleum industry for 35 years both in the United States and internationally, holding upper management positions, including director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Division for the Corporation Commission of the State of Oklahoma. He holds a BS degree in petroleum geology from the University of Oklahoma.

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