Most students attend college in hopes of getting jobs and starting careers. But for many petroleum engineering majors, the crash of the oil industry has created an uncertain future.
“The struggle right now is getting motivated because the market is so bad,” said Lindsey Sweetgall, the only academic advisor for undergraduate students in the petroleum engineering department. “It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you can’t really predict the industry, so you don’t know if there’s going to be a job for you.”
Sweetgall said she tries to talk to each of the 850 petroleum students every semester. Many of them are stressed by the downturn of the industry, either taking their time to finish their degree or pursuing other degrees with the hope the industry will pick up before they graduate.
Berkleigh Gressett, a senior petroleum and environmental engineering dual major from Tulsa, Okla., said she decided to add her environmental engineering degree to help differentiate herself from other students and spend a little more time in school before graduating.
“I think that’s what a lot of people are going to have to do just out of necessity because the number of jobs versus the amount of petroleum engineers in the market isn’t favorable to people trying to graduate right now,” she said.
Charlie Mitchell, a senior petroleum engineering major, said he was also concerned about his career path before he was offered a full-time position with EP Energy.
“Right now is a really horrible time to be graduating in petroleum engineering,” Mitchell said. “I think the vast majority of our graduating class does not have a job, so I’m very fortunate that I do.”
In August 2015, Mitchell was the only petroleum engineering major with a cumulative 4.0 GPA, which he still maintains. He has had to miss many nights out with friends to maintain his grades, Mitchell said, but having a job post-graduation makes it worth it.
Gressett said she has also had to sacrifice her social life to succeed— pulling multiple all-nighters, spending weekends studying and working in the industry over the summer.
“Even when the industry was at its high point, the market was highly competitive, and students needed to achieve quality grades and work internships during the summers to get full-time job offers after graduation,” Gressett said.
Sweetgall said petroleum engineering is a high-stress major for many reasons, but the two biggest ones are course load and the way the program progresses.
In petroleum engineering, all classes are offered only once a year, in either the fall or spring semester. Most of the classes are also prerequisites for the next ones. So if a student fails one, he or she will have to wait an entire year to retake it, delaying graduation in most cases, Sweetgall said.
Mohamed Soliman, a professor and former chairperson in the Bob L. Herd Department of Petroleum Engineering, said he has noticed many students staying in school for longer periods of time.
“They can’t find jobs so they get master’s degrees in petroleum, mechanical [engineering], or an MBA,” Soliman said.
This is not the first time the industry has taken a downturn, according to Soliman. He was in the industry for 50 years before coming to teach at Texas Tech and remembers the oil bust of 1986. However, he said the current oil economy is worse than he has ever seen.
According to the Nasdaq composite, crude oil is currently at $36.59 a barrel. To compare, crude oil cost $140 a barrel in 2008, the highest price in the past 10 years. Soliman said he hopes the price will increase to about $50 a barrel by the end of the summer.
The current state of the industry is stressful for everyone in the field, he said, including professors, who find it difficult to watch students struggle with the uncertainty of finding a job after graduation.
“When you walk into a class and demand all this work and give them homework and all that, and they can’t find jobs, it’s really tough,” Soliman said.
This story is the first in a series of articles about what it is like to be a student in certain majors. Look for more “Welcome to My Life” stories soon.