Petroleum Engineering Tops List of Best Undergrad Degrees

Email  Print Print periodically updates their list of Best Undergrad College Degrees by Salary and earlier this year the list was led by Aerospace Engineering – rocket scientists. It’s not surprising to see that much of the top ten is unchanged, it’s still filled with engineers of all varieties, from Chemical to Electrical to Nuclear, but this was the first time I’ve seen Petroleum Engineering on the list.

My lovely wife graduated with a Chemical Engineering degree several years ago and many of her friends went to work for large energy companies working with petroleum. I don’t know how Petroleum Engineering differs from Chemical Engineering, other than being a specialization, but it’s been a poorly kept secret in the Chemical Engineering world that the best salaries are in working with oil.

Does this mean you should rush out to get a petroleum engineering degree? looks at median starting pay as well as “mid-career” median pay, so it’s a little more balanced, but a lot can change in four years. Petroleum engineering may be hot now but unless you love it, it may not be what you expect in four years. Or ten. I went to school for computer science in 1998 because it was the hot thing, fast forward three years and you hit the point people remember as the dot com bust (March 2001). So here I was, graduating early into a busted market and everyone in lockdown mode. It’s since recovered but it still hasn’t reached the excesses I was hoping to enjoy back in the day!

That being said, I’m now of the mind that if you work hard and do what you enjoy, you will succeed. You may not uncork untold fortunes but at the very least you’ll enjoy the ride. If that happens to be Petroleum Engineering, then thinks you’ll be pulling in over $150k a year by mid-career.

{ 24 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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24 Responses to “Petroleum Engineering Tops List of Best Undergrad Degrees”

  1. zapeta says:

    Not surprising to see all those engineering degrees on there, along with physics. Almost anything math intensive seems to pay off quickly.

  2. cdiver says:

    Damn you career guidance councilor.

  3. Martha says:

    I’m very surprised to see physics on the list, when I was in school all the physics majors had to go to grad school or else become HS physics teachers. Its interesting to know that this list was for people who only had BS degrees.

  4. Texas Wahoo says:

    “I don’t know how Petroleum Engineering differs from Chemical Engineering, other than being a specialization, but it’s been a poorly kept secret in the Chemical Engineering world that the best salaries are in working with oil.”

    It’s basically a specialized form of chemical engineering, where you take less chemistry and more geology. Only a few schools offer undergraduate petroleum engineering, so it may be scewed a bit by the fact that most of the graduates are from a few schools (Texas, A&M, etc.)

  5. Tony says:

    “I don’t know how Petroleum Engineering differs from Chemical Engineering, other than being a specialization, but it’s been a poorly kept secret in the Chemical Engineering world that the best salaries are in working with oil.”

    Petroleum Engineering is a stand alone career. It is not related to Chemical Engineering other than the fact that some Chemistry classes are mandatory.

    A chemical engineer could not work as a Petroleum Engineer unless he/she undergoes specialized on the job training. Chemical Engineers can also become PE’s by attending graduate school and working in Oil Industry Projects.

    The tops PE schools are usually The University of Texas, Stanford, Texas A&M, The University of Tulsa and Colorado School of Mines.

    • Texas Wahoo says:

      Just to be clear, there are a lot of petroleum engineers that got their training in chemical engineering. It requires on the job training, but not much more than is required for petroleum engineering majors to work as a petroleum engineer.

      Also, this ranking would not include Stanford graduates, as Stanford’s petroleum engineering department is graduate only.

  6. Dave says:

    I know two different Chemical Engineers that work for Oil companies as “Petroleum Engineers” so I don’t know what the difference is. They make in the area of ~$125K/year. That big salary comes at a price – they both work 30 days shifts in an oil field in Siberia, Russia, and since there is nothing else to do because they are in the middle of nowhere, they tend to work 12-16 hours a day, every day for their 30 day shift. They do get 30 days off between shifts, but its not as easy as it sounds…

    • Anthony says:

      Yeah, a good friend of mine is a chemical engineer working for BP. She has to do similiar rotations on off-short oil rigs. Not a glamarous job.

      Plus, unless you like hour long commutes, you live near gas plants, which are in the middle of nowhere!

  7. ebekele says:

    PE and CE have nothing to do with each other except they work in the same company; where PE Locates/extracts, CEs refine it. PE is almost similar to civil eng, you’re always out & about – on the field/rig…no man’s land 🙂 $125-150k is not enough considering the life…

  8. billsnider says:


    I was once one of those aerospace engineers. And yes it paid very well when there was work.

    And when there was none, nobody (!) wanted to know you. I was too specialized. I had to change careers if I wanted to eat, have a roof over my head and such other mundane things in life.

    Bill Snider

  9. I think the economic bust in the early 2000’s really help get rid software developers who were only in it for the money and weren’t really qualified. Most of the developers I work with are smart and great at what they do.

  10. Joe says:

    Bill Snider, what job did you eventually get with a degree in aerospace engineering that wasn’t actually in the field you had studied?

    • Ryan says:

      With an engineering degree you could be hired almost anywhere. Companies understand the hard work required to get an engineering degree. Even though it doesn’t relate to the job, they know you would be a good employee that would learn the job faster than your average job.

  11. If you could make it as petroleum engineer, I would go for Pharmacy since they have some 6 year programs. That’s just two more than your bachelor degree, and you get to be called a “Doctor” They start around $130K right out of school.

    • moljacks says:

      The problem with becoming a Pharmacist or Pharmacologist is that you start out high right out of school but your salary plateaus almost immediately.

      • Ryan says:

        Yea there isn’t a whole lot of promoting going on if you’re a pharmacist.

      • Steven says:

        Do you really need much more at ~130k?

        • Shaun says:

          You don’t “need” much more than a bowl of rice and water. When it comes to finance, “need” isn’t always the goal — some people might want a different lifestyle than lower-middle class. And that’s fine — it’s their life, after all.

        • Martha says:

          Salary isn’t always everything, especially if you’re job has no room for growth or learning it may become very dull after 2-3 years.

  12. Ben P says:

    I always take minor issue with these lists because they explicitly limit the field to those with bachelors degrees only.

    It’s an insult to engineers to suggest their education is in any way just a “trade degree” because its not. But the fact remains that engineering degrees, computer science degrees etc. are focused on areas that translate easily to specific industries. On the other hand more traditional “liberal arts” or even general science degrees are not so closely related.

    I think it’s somewhat misleading to compare say, the average starting salary of a mechanical engineering student with say a biology or a chemistry major without accounting for biology majors that go on to medical school, nursing school or pharmacy school.

  13. Nigel says:

    Im about to graduate texas a&m with a PE degree and I was wondering what you guys think about how hard it will be to find a job after college? I still have one more year to go.

  14. karim says:

    sorry everyone . i read everything that you wrote. but i still don’t get the difference between chemical and petroleum engineering .i’m about to apply .. so i don’t know which one to choose. i would like to know which one is better? THANKX

  15. neo says:

    well, my major is petroleum engineering and i am now studying ,in fact i am soph student in iran.petroleum engineering is a middle field between mechanical engineering ,chemical engineering and also geology specially geophysics, and with four branches in BS ,
    drilling engineering
    reservior engineering
    production engineering
    exploration engineering
    this field is no longer of importance here
    because of large number of graduates looking for the job and filling the empty places in oil companies
    but in arabian countries like qatar or saudi arabia or north america you will have a chance

  16. Bushjeph says:

    I graduated with a B.Eng in Petroleum Engineering in Nigeria. I believe chemical engr differ from PE in their interest: PE interested in fluid underground while CE is with surface fluid!

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