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by Eve Sprunt, Mobil Oil Corporation

Technical Skills
Communications & Interpersonal Skills
Professional Societies
Advanced Degrees & Certification
Setting Priorities

Life stretches out before you

Unlike school, where training is measured at most in years, a career can be measured in decades. There is no equivalent to a college catalog listing required, recommended, and elective courses. Most people aren't assigned a mentor, the working world equivalent of a college advisor.

So how do you go about building a career in the petroleum industry?

Corporations no longer offer lifetime employment in return for loyalty. The myth of a secure corporate umbrella that will protect you has been shattered by layoffs and outsourcing. In the old system, many people mistakenly assumed their company would look out for them. But no one cares as much about your career as you do. No one else has as much information about your preferences and priorities. The mantra is "you are responsible for your own career." If you accept that responsibility, your future will be bright. Taking responsibility means setting career goals, developing skills, learning new ones, participating in a professional community, and balancing your emotional portfolio.

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Technical Skills

Job security is being well trained

Training is more than formal education and degrees; it is the continuous acquisition of marketable skills. Your current technical training may get you a job, but it will not keep you attractive as a consultant or employee through a decades-long career.

No matter how good the education you received in college, you will become technically obsolete in about 5 years if you don't keep up with advances.

Look at how the tools of technology have been revolutionized in the last 2 decades. Many people in today's petroleum industry used slide rules in college, but now would not travel without a laptop computer.

To remain technically competent, continuous, self directed education is critical.

Find what you need

Don't rely on your company to identify the best training for you. Determine where you want to go, then decide for yourself what training you need to get there.

There are many opportunities for continuing education. If your company offers courses, take advantage of them. Even when you have a heavy workload, you owe it to yourself to make the time for training.

Many professional societies offer training courses in conjunction with their meetings. In addition to the education, such courses are an excellent opportunity to meet other people and make friends with the instructor. Developing a strong personal network is at least as important as maintaining your expertise.


Training comes in many forms. Perhaps the most valuable form of training is hands-on experience.

If you want to learn how to do something, don't wait to be selected. Your supervisor may have no idea that you are interested in acquiring a particular skill. Speak up and be explicit about what you would like to do.

Some of us may find it very difficult to ask for what we want. However, if you never ask, management may assume you have no interest in certain types of assignments. In the business world, rewards do not necessarily go to those who deserve them.

Ask for what you want.

If something is especially important to you, don't be dissuaded by a single refusal. Circumstances may change. You may get a better reception the second time you make a request.

If you are consistently refused, you have obtained valuable information about your relationship with your employer. It may be time to look for a better position with another company.

In some cases you can get what you want by stretching the limits you perceive have been placed on you. Often these limits are more rigidly fixed in our own mind than anywhere else. The more you stretch your limits, both those internally and externally imposed, the easier they are to stretch.

You can accomplish much when you take reasonable action assuming that "forgiveness is easier to get than permission."

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Communications and Interpersonal Skills

Many college students considering a career in the petroleum industry have concentrated on what they consider serious technical courses. "Soft courses" in writing, public speaking, and organizational behavior are too often viewed with disdain.

But clear, concise communication and good interpersonal skills are as important today as technical proficiency.

For many years, good technical skills and hard work almost guaranteed you a job for life. You might not get rich, but you would stay employed. Technical expertise was so highly valued that you could get by without acquiring the usual social graces. The stereotype of the technical expert with substandard interpersonal skills is based on some truth.

Don't be an island

Now, downsizing, right sizing, and reengineering are a way of life. And constant organizational change will be part of tomorrow's work environment.

Those who do not have their antennae tuned to sense the latest political shift increasingly fall victim to the rounds of downsizing.

In large layoffs, many "scores" are settled. The socially challenged technologist may be terminated before more astute, but less talented colleagues.

The nerd is an endangered species. Even for those with advanced degree, the walls of the ivory towers have come crashing down.

Much of today's business is done by teams and people are judged on the basis of their teamwork. Negative and positive attitudes are infectious, so project a positive attitude about your work and the people with whom you work.

Build a reputation

Your reputation is a very valuable asset. It takes a long time to build, but it is easily damaged. From the outside, the petroleum industry appears to be an immense global industry, but you will be amazed at the community of interwoven personal linkages. Networks grow ever tighter with e-mail, faxes, and improved global transportation.

There are tight little cliques inside each specialty and sub-specialty. People know each other. Even if they haven't met, principal players are familiar with the reputations of their counterparts worldwide. A good word from a friend or a friend-of-a-friend can make a big difference in getting a job, making a sale, or getting a technical paper accepted for presentation at a conference.

Long term relationships are prized everywhere. Assume that every relationship will be a long-term one. You may be working with someone for the next 30 years either within one company or as both of you move around the industry.

View everyone as a friend. If someone proves to be untrustworthy, don't consider that person an enemy, just increase your level of alertness in future interactions.


Very few people have a mentor who will promote and package their work for them. Just to survive ­ let alone to advance ­ you must be able to clearly explain the importance of your work and the contribution of the work to your employer's bottom line.

From the job interview through routine business presentations and everyday interactions, you will have to sell yourself and market your work.

Part of that self-marketing effort involves business writing. Business writing differs from expository writing and classical technical documentation. You are not writing a mystery that ends with a surprise. The odds are great that the reader may only skim the beginning of the report so the most important conclusions must go right up front.

Don't bury your headline. All your fine technical work is really just back-up to your conclusions. It must be available if someone is interested, but the reader should not be expected to wade through details.

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Professional Societies

As a new employee there can be a temptation to immerse yourself in your work and ignore the professional community outside your company.

That is a mistake.

While personal contacts may or may not play a role in landing you your first position, contacts are very important in subsequent job changes. The importance of contacts increases with the level of the position you are seeking.

If you restrict your professional activity to your own company, you are missing a giant opportunity to expand and demonstrate your skills.

Every major discipline has a technical society, such as the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Narrower disciplines or specialties may have separate societies or interest groups within the larger societies, such as the Society of Professional Well Log Analysts and the Society of Core Analysts.

Some groups focus on a geographic area, getting together for lunch, dinner, or golf tournaments. Others focus on technical issues and may have a global reach. All of these groups are always looking for responsible, reliable people who will volunteer their time to help run the organization.

You may wish to be active in several groups with different focal points. As in many types of activity, it is important to maintain a balance between dissipating your energy over too wide a range and concentrating on too small a target.

Try to set your level of involvement at the point at which you will be remembered and can make an impact.

Get involved

Being an active member of a society is much more rewarding than being a passive member. Serving on committees enables you to meet other active and influential people in the industry. It is an important part of building a powerful personal network.

If you prove yourself as a committee member, you will have opportunities to move up through the society hierarchy. Management of volunteers depends on persuasion, so the management skills you learn in such voluntary associations are powerful.


Active involvement in professional societies is crucial to those who wish to become widely recognized as experts. To become a recognized expert in your specialty, you must publish and present papers. Professional society meetings and journals are your stage. Serving on meetings and publication committees gives you a chance to learn how material must be presented.

Authors tend to take rejection of their work very personally. Inexperienced authors may over-react to reviews of their work and give up in frustration.

Having the opportunity to see the types of criticism given to other people's papers helps authors develop perspective on the peer reviews of their own work.

Even if you resist my advice to become active in your professional society, you should attend meetings. The excuse for attending a professional society meeting is usually the technical papers. However, the opportunity to meet people is at least as important. It is much easier to call or e-mail someone you have met.

If there is an exhibition, get to know the vendors in your specialty including competitors. Stuff your pockets with business cards (which include your e-mail address) and pass out your cards whenever you get a chance. Socialize during coffee breaks and cocktail hours even if you don't know anyone and don't drink.

The first few meetings may be a little scary and tense, but you will soon find friends everywhere you turn.

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Advanced Degrees and Certification

While lifelong learning is important, formal degrees don't ­ over the long run ­ mean more money. Many salary surveys, including the most recent survey by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) show that while an advanced degree may bring a higher starting salary, the salary advantage is not sustained throughout a career.

However, an advanced degree may qualify you for a different type of work, such as research or a new specialty. Keep in mind if you decide to seek an advanced technical degree that you are doing it for yourself - not for the money.

Within the industry-specialized disciplines, there is a certain amount of rivalry. Sometimes one group believes that another is better paid. There is some difference between the Society of Petroleum Engineer's (SPE) salaries for engineers and the AAPG's salaries for geologists.

However, some of the variance may be due to the nationality of the respondents to the salary surveys. About 38% of the responses in the SPE salary survey were from non-U.S. based members.

Managerial salaries are considerably higher than technical salaries. Still, manager or not, you'll never get really rich on salary alone. To get really rich, you need to be a successful investor or entrepreneur.

Nevertheless, a technical professional's salary will afford you a very comfortable lifestyle.

For engineers, professional registration does bring a slight premium. In the 1997 SPE salary survey, 26% of respondents were registered and reported a salary of $80,473. That is $3,017 more than the average for all unregistered members. Registration also increases the types of employment open to you.

A good time to seek registration is when you are fresh out of school with lots of practice taking timed tests. If you procrastinate, you may find it more difficult.

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Setting Priorities

One way to approach life is as an inverse problem. Start by defining success for yourself.

Don't limit your definition to just career success. It is important to consider everything you want in life including family, friends, experiences, power, and possessions. No one can have everything, so you must rank your goals.

Then you can begin to identify the boundary conditions that will shape your career.

It is tough to predict how technology, the economy, and politics will unfold over the decades that shape a career. However, if you have a good, up-to-date understanding of your priorities, you have a context in which to evaluate each new challenge you encounter.

Balance your emotional portfolio

The petroleum industry offers a wealth of different opportunities and lifestyles. Some jobs come with extensive travel; others entail frequent transfers from one city or one country to another. Some assignments require 28-day rotations.

There are even jobs that permit you to have an entire career in one location.

Each of these options has its advantages and disadvantages. As your personal life evolves, you may wish to switch from one lifestyle to another.

Don't underestimate the importance of your personal life. No matter how far you progress in your career, there will always be disappointments. If you target one aspect of your emotional portfolio ­ be it family, friends, experiences, power, or possessions ­ to the exclusion of all others, you are increasing your odds of major frustration.

A balanced emotional portfolio will empower you to weather the inevitable storms that will strike in all of these areas.

Take time

Family can impose particularly strong boundary conditions in both time and space.

You must balance when to start a family with building a career. For a woman, delaying child-bearing past her mid-30's increases the odds of failure. For a man, delay can mean college expenses coinciding with retirement.

Children represent a major investment in time, money, and energy, but are a big part of the enjoyment of life. Many people on their deathbed lament estrangement from their loved ones because of long hours or excessive business travel, but few have regretted the time they spent with family.

Time for family and loved ones is important to both men and women, married and single. Employers are becoming more aware and supportive of the needs of dual-career families, but there are still trade-offs. In the petroleum industry, many married women with children have taken international transfers and/or travel extensively. Two career families can be transferred, but as one spouse advances, the other career may suffer with the transfers.

For some families, a commuting marriage may be the best compromise.

Many complicated career-family situations an be made to work, but only if you identify which aspects are most important to you and your family.

Enjoy the trip

Know your goals and priorities.

Few people magically end up where they want to be without having charted a course for themselves. However, most of life is spent moving towards goals rather than savoring the joy of reaching them. Look for assignments in which you can take pleasure and pride in as many of your daily tasks as possible.

Recognition and praise from peers and supervisors are crucial to advancement, but the need for self-satisfaction should not be overlooked. Structure your life and your career so that you enjoy your journey towards your goals.

Bon voyage! 

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© Copyright 1997, Oil & Gas Journal

Reproduced from the October 1997 Supplement to the Oil & Gas Journal.

Reproduced under permission of Oil & Gas Journal.

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