Working in physics: Striking it lucky in the oil industry
Physicists play a key role in developing the technology used to extract oil. Stephen Mullens explains the excitement and challenges of working in the oil industry.
I have been working for Schlumberger for less than a year but in that time I have travelled to places I had never imagined visiting, worked offshore on a platform in the Caspian Sea, flown in a helicopter and practised putting out fires during survival training. Working in the oil industry may not be for everyone, but it definitely offers a wealth of new and exciting experiences for those who are willing to take the plunge.
I graduated from Nottingham University with a Masters degree in physics in July 2006. Unsure of what to do next, I applied to, and had interviews with, companies from both the defence and financial industries, but all they could offer me was a typical office job that would have involved staring at a computer screen all day. My father suggested Schlumberger and, not knowing much about the company, I uploaded my CV to their website and thought no more about it until I was asked to attend a two-day assessment event. This involved a couple of academic tests, although what Schlumberger really values is the ability to work well in a team and handle working abroad in potentially tough environments. I was offered a job, and began working for the firm in October last year.
Schlumberger is the world's largest oilfield services company, employing 70,000 people in 80 countries to provide the technology that helps oil firms such as BP, Shell and Exxon find and exploit hydrocarbon reserves. I work as a field engineer in the reservoir monitoring and control division, which tries to maximize production from existing wells. My job involves preparing, testing and installing sensors in oil wells. This can sometimes be mundane – days can be spent checking new equipment to make sure it is up to specifications. But the exciting part of the job for me is going offshore and seeing all that work in action.
After joining Schlumberger I spent 10 days in Paris where I was introduced to the company's culture and especially to safety issues. Safety is taken very seriously in the oil and gas industry; any employee can stop an activity taking place if they feel it is unsafe. Another common feature of the industry is the long hours: you may be expected to work 12 hours a day for six or even seven days a week. But this hard work comes with many rewards – from free plane tickets and company nights out to the chance to experience different cultures. You will have the opportunity to travel the world and spend time in every continent – there is oil everywhere and talented people are needed to exploit it.
After my training in Paris, I was allocated to work in Baku, the capital city of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which is one of the many oil-rich countries that encircle the Caspian Sea. The major operations in Baku are run by BP, which manages a number of newly constructed permanent platforms that are in the process of drilling wells and starting to produce oil. Baku has serious problems with corruption, pollution and poverty, which do not always make it the nicest place to live. The city centre has many bars and restaurants that cater almost exclusively to expatriates but, other than this, there is not much to do for a non-Russian speaker. However, when you first join the company you will not have much spare time, as you are kept more than busy enough with training and development.
The language barrier has certainly been challenging – in Azerbaijan almost everyone speaks Russian, although locals working for Schlumberger are required to have a certain amount of English. There will of course be times when your co-workers are speaking their native language and you will not understand what is going on – but if you ask them to explain, try to interact as best you can, and take language lessons, then you can turn the cultural differences into a positive thing.
Bridging the gap
I recently finished a nine-week training course based in Melun, France, that aimed to educate the field engineers in my department about the theory and practical use of current oilfield technology. The tools we learned about included an orbital welding machine that creates pressure-resistant seals and a "surface acquisition unit" that collects pressure and temperature data from oil wells. The facilities at Melun include an 800 m deep test well that contains only water – the idea being that it is better to learn here than on a customer's installation.
My future with Schlumberger offers many opportunities. It is part of the company culture for employees to change location and role every couple of years. To aid this movement, all employees attend short courses on everything from management training to finance. In my case, after 18 months in the field I will travel back to Southampton in the UK to work in research and development for Schlumberger Sensa – a fibre-optics company acquired by Schlumberger in 2001 to develop and install temperature sensors for oil wells. After a couple of years with Sensa I will be expected, but not forced, to change role again – perhaps back to field work; or I could try project management, recruiting or something else that appeals to me.
A physics degree may not at first seem the ideal qualification for work in the oil industry. During my degree I did not really "get my hands dirty" and one of the main reasons I chose to work in the oil industry was to learn to use my hands, as well as my brain, to help solve problems. However, physics graduates are ideally suited to developing the new breed of "intelligent" wells that use advanced technology to reach oil as diminishing supplies make it harder to extract.
Out in the field, physics graduates are easily outnumbered by engineers; but in the research and development side of the company, physics graduates are everywhere. I was employed partly to bridge the gap between these strands. Currently a lot of the tools being created by our researchers are not suitable for the field because they are designed to work in a lab, not deep underground covered in oil, water and mud. The oil industry therefore needs people who can interpret what is going on in the field and feed that knowledge back to researchers in the lab. But whether you choose to start work in research or as a field engineer, the beginning of your career is a great time to take a risk and try something new.
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- Physics in Action: Prospecting for oil with an optical nose
- Feature: Physics and the hunt for black gold
About the author
Stephen Mullens is a field engineer with Schlumberger, based in Baku, Azerbaijan.
This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Physics World
last edited: February 23, 2016