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Petroleum engineers can earn six figures straight out of college — more than any other major. We asked 4 professors whether the degree will pay off now that oil markets have collapsed.

A Turkish Petroleum (TPAO) engineer stands on the helipad of Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus, August 6, 2019. Picture taken August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

  • Students who graduate with a degree in petroleum engineering earn almost $100,000 a year, on average, making it the highest-paying college major.
  • But the job is "high risk, high reward," one student said.
  • Today, the risks seem clearer than ever, as historically low oil prices are triggering layoffs and spending cuts throughout the industry
  • Nonetheless, professors of petroleum engineering say now is a smart time to get into the industry, which is accustomed to booms and busts. In a few year's time, there will likely be a shortage of engineers. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Like many ambitious college kids, Chase Gay was very much looking forward to his summer internship in Houston. 

A senior at the prestigious petroleum engineering program at Texas A&M University, Gay was planning to work for a company that finds and extracts oil and natural gas, starting in May. 

Then the price of oil crashed. 

Dragged down by a pandemic-led demand crunch, the value of Brent crude futures, the international benchmark, fell from highs near $70 a barrel at the start of the year to lows near $20. One type of crude even went negative

Read more: The price of US crude oil just went negative for the first time. Here's what that really means and why it's not free to fill up your car.

It wasn't long before oil and gas companies — which depend on prices closer to $40 a barrel — started announcing layoffs, furloughs, and budget cuts

Many of them have also canceled or suspended their internship programs — including the company that offered Gay his internship, he said. 

Chase Gay

"It's pretty concerning," Gay told Business Insider. "The outlook for the next two years is probably bleak." 

High risk, high reward is the name of the oil game, he said.

And the reward is, indeed, high. Petroleum engineers with a bachelor's degree earn an average of $94,500 out of college, according to the data firm PayScale, making it the highest-paid major. 

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But it's in moments like this that college students wonder if petroleum engineering is a smart choice, said Foued Badrouchi, a doctoral candidate in the department of petroleum engineering at the University of North Dakota. 

As president of his school's chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Badrouchi says he's fielded several questions since the price of oil began crashing from students who are considering studying petroleum engineering. 

"The first question they ask is, 'What do you think of this major?'" he said. "Undergraduate students are afraid." 

Well, should they be? 

Texas A&M University

'It's probably the best time in the last five years to get into the field'

In short, no — at least, that's the perspective of four professors that Business Insider reached for this story. 

Certainly, finding work in the oil and gas industry over the next several months will be tough, considering several companies have already announced hiring freezes

But the industry is cyclical, and so entering a petroleum engineering (PE) program now might actually pay off. 

"It's probably the best time in the last five years to get into the field," Bob Chase, the former chair of the department of petroleum engineering and geology at Marietta College, said in an email. "When it looks the worst, go into PE. When it's at a peak, don't even think about it." 

Chase says there will be a surplus of graduates this year, inspired by the last oil boom, but fewer freshmen over the next few. That means once the industry rebounds — and it always does, he says — there won't be enough grads. 

"Our business has always been cyclic and jobs and enrollment always seem to be off by a spread of 2 to 4 years," he said.  

Ben Ebenhack, a professor in the same department, put it like this: "Jobs are much like the stock market — the ideal is to buy low and sell high." 

In the late 2000s, following a recession-fueled bust, there was such a high demand for petroleum engineers that companies were "screaming" at PE programs to produce more of them, said Marshall Watson, who chairs the department of petroleum engineering at Texas Tech University.

"We were overworked," he said. "We had an engineering class that should have been 20 to 1 and we had 200 students to 1 petroleum engineering faculty. We were getting hammered." 

Cushing oil storage

Students should diversify their college courseloads

Even in a downturn, there's a need for petroleum engineers, as companies look to make their practices more efficient, Badrouchi said, such as through enhanced oil recovery (EOR) — which typically involves pumping carbon dioxide into an oil well to extract more oil. 

"If people have expertise in that, they'll be in high demand," he said. "It's a great time for students to sensitively pick the topics they want to work on." 

Still, most of the professors suggested that college students diversify their studies with classes beyond oil and gas. 

"Any student taking this discipline should diversify into other skill sets such as finance or computing," David Schecter, a professor of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University, said by email. "That's good advice for any student in any discipline." 

That's why one of Ebenhack's petroleum engineering students, a rising junior, is also studying finance. 

"I'm getting a second degree to make myself more marketable — not only in my field but in another field," he said. The student requested that Business Insider omit his name to protect his privacy. 

But while the oil industry will likely bounce back, there is a question of how long it will sustain its glory. 

Renewable energy is poised to overtake natural gas as the leading source of energy in the US by 2050, when it will account for 38% of total US energy generation, according to estimates by the US Energy Information Administration, which is known for publishing conservative figures. 

"Inevitably, the transition to clean fuels will occur and I welcome that day," Schecter said. "Don't get me wrong, we all want a healthy planet."

But, he said, that "will take a generation or more, and those that learn these [engineering] skills will always be in demand." 

As for Gay, who decided on petroleum engineering because he viewed it as a growing field, he's not intending to enjoy a lazy summer in south Texas. 

After learning that his internship offer was rescinded, he quickly formed a plan and reached out to a professor to see if there might be summer research opportunities instead. 

"I don't think people are going to be hiring over the next year or year and a half," he said. But, he added, "I'm doing my best to make myself a good candidate." 

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