Making the Choice To Enter a Risky Profession: A Student’s Perspective

Mankind has always tried to achieve the impossible. It is one of the most latent and potent desires among achievers to do something that appears extraordinary. Exploring deep within the Earth to produce a fluid that powers economies and empowers nations falls under the category of “extraordinary worth.” The challenges involved in achieving this feat are immense, and the contentment generated in meeting these challenges is like the elixir of life. As always, unconventional work such as that of a petroleum engineer has its share of risks, but success, like a loyal pet, follows sooner or later. A Russian general once remarked, “He who does not take risks, does not drink champagne.” Indeed, of the many variables that define the equation of success, risk is the most critical one. Modern economists immortalized the indispensability of risk in the risk theory of profit. Examples abound of pioneers stepping out of their comfort zones, venturing into the unknown, and changing the world around them. Look around; our lives would have been vastly different but for the risks taken by pioneers and brave souls. Had the Wright brothers not risked their lives in the first prototype of an aircraft, would we have developed airplanes so quickly? Would automobiles have been so popular had Henry Ford not taken the risk of mass production? Perhaps more than the reward of risk, the sheer thrill of an adventure has motivated humankind to undertake tasks replete with uncertainties.

Selection of any profession depends on two factors, namely aptitude and attitude. Next to them comes the intellectual stimulation offered by the discipline. Petroleum engineering is not just one job. It has many different specialties, each with its own unique challenges and rewards. When compared to other disciplines, petroleum engineering covers a wider spectrum and offers better chances of value addition and diversification. Patience, sound judgment, and maturity could be considered synonyms for petroleum engineering. This career is about wanting a life less ordinary, about chasing success in your own way, about staying hungry, about taking the path less traveled, about wanting to make a difference, and about wanting to make a meaningful contribution.

Your choices are not limited to conventional drilling-, production-, or reservoir-engineering positions. Your career as a petroleum engineer may include working as a manager, project manager, energy economist, entrepreneur, environmental and safety specialist, well-log analyst, petroleum accountant, renewable-energy engineer, and much more. Petroleum engineers also find rewarding opportunities in fields such as teaching and consulting. A petroleum engineer likes the interaction with other professionals of other disciplines such as environmental engineers, geologists, petrophysicists, and economists. It is always rewarding to see how your work fits into larger projects.

Motivation Is Key

All the students of petroleum engineering at my school are a lot more than satisfied. “PE has given me a lot. Many do not know of it, but it is a great discipline,” said one student. Another commented, “It helps individuals, organizations, and nations to grow in stature. And knowing that one has played a role in the success of mankind gives a real special feeling, worth a lifetime.” Motivation to pursue any career option depends on two factors: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I define it this way:

  • Intrinsic Motivation is a functrion of job enrichment, adventure, intellectual stimulation.
  • Extrinsic Motivation is a function of compensation, quality of life, work environment.

In fact, one of the main motivating factors to pursue this profession is the remuneration associated with it. To undergraduates, the monetary benefits can make many eyes gleam. And risk—it is a part of daily life. Crossing a road is a risky business and sometimes much riskier than working in an oil field. Does this stop you from crossing a road? So why not put this away? Students agree that it is a bad idea to take blind risks, in which your expected outcome is negative and the potential upside is very limited. But it is equally inadvisable to pass up an intelligent risk, in which your expected outcome is positive and the potential downside is very limited. Taking risks means that you might fail, at least at first. But risk also has a positive side, the chance of hitting a big win, of getting more on the back side than you invest on the front side.

The energy industry is one of the oldest. Mankind has had energy and heat requirements since the beginning of our existence. So obviously, this field has seen a lot of new developments over the decades. Fields such as information technology and electronics are comparatively newer and boast a better image. But one must consider that, although the petroleum industry had simple beginnings, it currently employs state-of the-art technology and the best personnel, so the next generation of tech-savvy youth should not feel a dearth of opportunity. In addition to the primary service and E&P sectors of the industry, many other facets of the industry, including research and development, offer attractive career opportunities. As long as petroleum continues to dominate as the primary energy source for transportation, as a feedstock for so many consumer products, and as a significant and growing portion of electricity generation, there will be no foreseeable reduction in the need for the next generation of energy industry workers.

Growing Demand

Current projections indicate that the landscape of energy sources and use will not undergo significant change in the next 30 years. For example, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, “Fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—currently provide more than 85% of all the energy consumed in the United States, nearly two-thirds of our electricity, and virtually all of our transportation fuels.  Moreover, it is likely that the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels to power an expanding economy will actually increase over at least the next two decades even with aggressive development and deployment of new, renewable, and nuclear technologies.” The U.S. Energy Information Admin.’s 2005 International Energy Outlook predicts a 57% increase in worldwide energy consumption between 2002 and 2025. All emerging markets, including China and India, are projected to surpass mature market economies in their energy use by 2020. This bodes well for new graduates in energy-related fields, especially in these emerging markets.

Energy always will be in demand. As conventional energy resources become less abundant, others will be found and exploited. Unconventional oil and gas resources hold the potential to provide us with dependable energy well into the future. How does someone give enough credit to a career that holds out an almost impossible promise of eternal energy supply? How does one glorify enough a career that gives you responsibility and provides you with adequate future career choices? This is a career which makes you think! It is all about managing risk; it is all about managing crisis; it is all about having the bravery to do the right thing when times get tough.

These days, E&P operations cause minimal damage to the environment. Companies ensure that all operations abide by the most stringent laws. With technological advancement and a laser-like corporate focus on quality, health, safety, and environment (QHSE) policies, the risk factor has dipped. “On a normal working day, a human is exposed to about 5% life-threatening accidents, while on an offshore platform he/she is exposed to mere 2.7% life-threatening accidents, provided all the precautionary steps are properly taken,” according to Health and Safety Journal.

The Right Risk

A famous African proverb says, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” Challenges make you learn and provide an excellent opportunity to prove your mettle. The challenges offered by this profession stimulate your mind to the fullest. Different people have different appetites for risks and challenges. For any given personality, out of the spectrum of jobs available in this industry, it is possible to find a perfect job match. The trick is to find the right position and manage the risk and challenges associated with that position. Successful people are not necessarily those with more talent. I see success in those who are willing to face any challenge or consider any innovative idea. Innovation can break the shackles of conventional methods and can cause upheaval in any industry. Lateral thinking can expose you to diverse opportunities. In any role, at any place, creativity is the most valued asset. We can always have the opportunity to suggest or become involved in new technology and entrepreneurial ideas. Entrepreneurial skill is a human factor, so if one has the fire within, then the oil industry is the place to shine.

Considering the growing demand for hydrocarbons as a source of energy, opportunities for petroleum engineers are on the rise and will stay as such for the next 100 years until we get those last molecules out of the ground. It is ironic that the oil industry is grappling with a shortage of young engineers. This crude fact is attributed to a perception that E&P is an antiquated, grubby business, lacking the magnetism of a career in a field such as computers or automobile design. In 2003, the consultancy Petro-Strategies produced a report titled “Petro-technicals: The Real Scarce Resource” showing that enrollment in petroleum engineering programs, averaging 1,500 students, is down 85% from its peak in 1982. In the March 2005 JPT, 2005 SPE President Giovanni Paccaloni pointed out that industry professionals are becoming increasingly aware of the age gap in workforce demographics as more people retire and fewer students pursue petroleum engineering education. He also commented that for our industry to continue to fulfill worldwide demand for hydrocarbons, we must have “an ample and permanent availability of skilled students choosing petroleum and energy as an extremely exciting and challenging career.” Demographics show that at least 50% of our current workforce will be retiring in the next 5 to 10 years. This is the right time for young professionals to get into the picture, because there are enormous opportunities to shape the future of the industry and society in both technical and leadership aspects.

SPE’s Ambassador Lecturer Pilot Program is a superb new initiative created to help reverse this trend. This initiative, backed by the SPE Board of Directors, has the primary goal of revitalizing interest among university students toward the energy industry and the career possibilities within it by providing a glimpse into cutting-edge technologies available to young professionals. YEPPs have begun to visit universities and reach out to the student population and explain to them the excitement involved in their jobs. The message being communicated is that petroleum engineering is the kind of job where you have to work with both mind and hands, where you must be able to see problems before they happen, where you are in the middle of the excitement, and where you will be making decisions that affect many lives in this generation and the next. By explaining to students the fact that energy is the need of the hour, that petroleum drives the world, and that their contribution is needed, the next generation will see the importance of choosing to enter this risky business and join the petroleum industry to make a difference.

Abhishek Anchliya is a senior studying petroleum engineering at Indian School of Mines (ISM), Dhanbad, India. He is the Vice President of the SPE Student Chapter at ISM Dhanbad. In addition, he is a member of the online YEPP Professional Network and has been a student member of SPE since September 2002. He has worked in internships with Niko Resources India, Oil and Natural Gas Co.’s (ONGC's) Mehsana-Ahmedabad and Ankleshwar Assets, and ONGC Gas and Oil processing plants at Hazira and Uran, India. He also has gained valuable experience from winter excursions at various R&D institutes of ONGC across India. He earned an Outstanding Technical Paper Award at a recent interscholastic regional paper contest sponsored by BG India. He will be presenting this and other technical papers at the upcoming SPE Europec/EAGE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition 2006, Canadian Int. Petroleum Conference 2006, and the Bio-Energy Conference and Exhibition, Canada 2006.


Officers of the SPE student chapter at the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, India, are, from left: Abhishek Anchliya (Chapter Vice President), Varun Pathak (Chapter President), Anish Singh Chaudhary (Webmaster), Bhaskar Trivedi (Chapter-Secretary), and Kumar Gaurav (Webmaster).

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