Petroleum Engineering (PE) departments in the US are facing significant challenges.  On April 13, 2007, the SPE sponsored a workshop of PE department chairmen and industry representatives to address the issues.  This report details the deliberations and the actions being taken.

Statement of Problem:
          The industry is facing the celebrated coming of the Big Crew Change.  Addressing this takes on many facets that have been addressed most recently in panel discussions at the SPE/IADC meeting in Amsterdam in February, and at the IADE meeting in Houston in April, 2007.  This workshop concentrated simply on the issues facing educators in the Petroleum Engineering departments, which are important feeds to the Oil and Gas industry talent pool.  These PE departments are dealing with the following critical issues:

  • Nationwide, at the 19 PE departments, there currently are 42 vacancies in the faculty ranks.  Even were these to be filled, the student to teacher ratios will remain very high, for both undergraduate and graduate students.  Table 1 details these statistics today.
  • Teaching loads for faculty are currently as high as four courses per semester.  For reference, top programs in other disciplines of engineering and the sciences such as biology have a teaching load of one course per semester, if the research funding and activity is significant, and two courses for those with low research loads.  In many cases, the PE departments are competing with these other departments for faculty, because a number of PE faculty are trained in fields with other choices of discipline such as mining (an industry which is thriving in unprecedented fashion), chemical engineering, applied mechanics, and the like.
  • Starting salaries for PE faculty are as much as $30K below starting salary offers to top undergraduates.  While the faculty salaries are nine month salaries, the disparity is still striking and compensation is a factor in the inability to attract talent.
  • The threatened cessation of DOE funding for Oil and Gas research will reduce research funding in PE departments by up to 40%, with attendant losses of graduate students and reduced ability of faculty to conduct research.  Loss of research opportunities directly influences tenure and promotion decisions, and hence impacts retention.  It also causes departments to fall behind on funding equipment and facilities needed for education and cutting edge research, the sort that can garner competitive grants to offset the DOE funding loss.
  • At several schools, providing an option of a “no thesis” masters results in more graduate students requiring additional required hours of classroom instruction, adding to the size of the graduate classes.

Summary of Deliberations and Actions
     The workshop group decided to attack the problem primarily in three buckets, each of which is discussed below, together with suggested actions.

  • Adjunct Faculty:  The primary action necessary to address the faculty shortage, at least in the short- to medium-term, was seen as augmenting the supply of adjunct faculty to alleviate the teaching load.  Concrete actions recommended included the following:
    • Establishment of a “clearinghouse”, likely on a controlled access web site, detailing the precise adjunct faculty needs of each university.  Industry would then be in a position to better match qualified personnel for these posts.  Companies could also post available lecturers and their subjects of expertise, which would provide the universities with increased flexibility in defining their needs.  SPE was suggested as the entity to administer this “clearinghouse”.  Companies need to encourage such activity through active recognition of some form for participating employees.
    • The creation of a short course that would train intended adjunct faculty in the skills needed for the activity.  While in most cases one would expect to have a detailed syllabus in existence, nuances need to be communicated that differentiate college courses from industrial courses, including testing and assessment techniques.  Universities would do well to carefully choose courses most suited to being taught by industry practitioners, and also to provide experienced TA’s to supplement instruction for these courses.  The TA’s would be well versed in university procedure, and would in turn get invaluable experience rubbing shoulders with these practitioners.
    • It was felt that even though they endorse the effort, many entities may not have available employees with the qualifications needed to be adjunct faculty.  It was suggested that a Funding Pool could facilitate the hiring of adjunct faculty no matter the provenance, which could even be foreign.  A small group of oil company persons need to take on the problem of defining the form and function of such an entity.  Some guiding principles included were: 1. The Pool could take the form of several small consortia of a few companies each, rather than a single large Pool.  2.  A given company should be permitted to target its funding to a particular institution, much as is the practice in directing donations to specific charities via United Way.  3.  Participating companies should expect to get brand recognition for their efforts, which would be a recruiting aid.  It is also likely that individual companies will continue to independently sponsor universities of their choice.
    • Some PE departments are in locations remote from donor companies.  Means need to be established to increase the attraction of temporary relocation.  Team teaching; e.g., on a 28/28 rotational schedule could be established to reduce the duration of a teaching assignment away from home. Remote computer access could enable the instructors to perform some of their industrial job functions concurrently with teaching, since teaching a single course is not generally a full time occupation if not combined with research. 
    • Distance teaching was discussed and could well apply to certain courses and not to others.  This concept is currently very successful in the internal courses offered by Halliburton, as well as the distance learning programs at the University of Texas at Austin and at Texas A&M.  Again, the innovative use of experienced TA’s, physically available in the classroom with the students to answer questions, could make this effective.   Ideally these would be live, not recorded, sessions.
  • Faculty Hiring and Retention:  The compensation issue may be addressed in two ways.  One is direct augmentation of salaries, and the second is assurance of research funding so as to guarantee summer salaries and concentrated research opportunity.  Suggested courses of action are detailed below:
    • Funding of chaired professorships was discussed and discarded for a variety of reasons as not being sufficiently responsive to the short-term faculty shortage.
    • The most enthusiastic support was for Faculty Fellowships to be used as salary augmentation.  A figure of between 10K and 30K per year per professor appears to be reasonable as making a difference.  The funding could be annual or it could be deposited into an endowment to provide support for perpetuity, but continuity would be essential, even if it were partitioned by institution, according to the wishes of the donors.  A preferred vehicle would be endowments specifically targeted to PE departments for use as Faculty Fellowships, with a typical endowment needing to be about twenty times the intended annual benefit.
    • Funding of TA’s and offering graduate students internships were both seen as valuable, with the former again tying to assignment to adjunct faculty courses.
    • Lack of funds also translate into inability to offer adequate “set-up funds” for incoming faculty, especially those needing specialized equipment in emerging fields not currently resident in the university in question.  One idea advanced, that needs fleshing out by a group of faculty, is that of facilitating a PE Facilities Network with the following objectives: 1.  Minimizing duplication of expensive equipment.  2.  Facilitating easy access by faculty, with also the attendant benefits of cross fertilization and even shared grad student mentoring.  3.  The network could include industry facilities.  Such techniques exist in biology, physics and other fields.  We may even be able to interest the National Institute of Testing and Standards (NIST) in collaborating in this venture.
  • Research Funding:  For a variety of reasons, including the focus of the workshop on providing short-term solutions to gaps in the September 2007 curriculum offerings, this issue received very little attention in the workshop, and we recommend another effort in this area.  Members should be aware of the as yet not canceled DOE program administered by the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA), targeting roughly $35 million per year in the areas of ultra deep water, unconventional resources and assistance to small independent producers.  Most universities have representation on the RPSEA advisory board and should monitor and influence the funding distribution.

Action Plan:
          The representatives from academia agreed that a comprehensive list of the courses that need professors could be assembled by May 31, 2007 if not earlier.  Industry can find opportunities to contribute to the effort by viewing this list in the “clearinghouse” webpage, to be linked from  Companies could also describe the skills of employees available to teach and their subjects of expertise on the “clearinghouse” site.  Further collaboration can take place in the Professional Network for Educators, to which SPE members can subscribe on
          It is only by working together that we can build a solution to the short-term need of faculty to teach September 2007 courses, with an answer that best leverages the resources and talents of industry to assist academia in solving this problem.  It is hoped that by responding to the short-term crisis, we can develop a better awareness of the need for long-term solutions to faculty shortages. Together, industry and academia can reap the rewards of collaboration to provide cutting-edge research, inspirational faculty, and graduates who are better prepared to make the technology advancements of the future.