Pillars of Industry

Costs and Benefits of Graduate Education

Young professionals—and often even old professionals—are constantly facing important decisions about their professional development. Even before we finish high school, what appear to be monumental decisions have to be made about selecting a college and a program of study. After four years of college, just as we think we are done and have our BS degree in hand, other questions about further education toward an MS or PhD degree start popping up. How does one deal with these important questions? How do we know what is the “right” answer and its possible benefits, and what will be the cost of making the “wrong” decision? Before you spend your time reading this article, let me come clean and say that even after 44 years of teaching, I don’t have any good answers to these questions, but I believe I can propose a process that will help you in charting your future. I am going to rely heavily on my own experience and my observations of hundreds of students I have had the privilege of teaching or advising. 

Let me first tell you a bit about myself and some of the events that have defined my life. I studied in public schools in India and Pakistan to complete the equivalent of what is 12 years of high school in most western countries. Some of these schools had no classrooms, and in some cases we practiced our writing with slate and chalk, or on wooden boards to which we applied a thin layer of clay the night before. The writing instrument was made out of reed stalk. Paper was too expensive for writing and discarding. In 1952, when I was barely 16, my father suggested—actually more than just suggested—that in order to get a good university education, I should go to the US and study engineering.

In those days, it was fashionable for young people from our part of the world to study engineering or medicine; I liked the idea of being an engineer, without knowing what engineering really was. I know that these days, young people find it almost repulsive even to consult their parents, but in this, my first big step, my contribution to the decision was only about 10%. Surprisingly, not only did this somehow escape turning into a disaster for me, it even opened many new avenues. My point is not that we should do what parents and other interested adults may suggest, but that we should be open to such suggestions when our own experience is limited. Using all available data in developing and assessing options is what a practicing engineer does all the time.

Once I arrived at the University of Michigan 56 years ago and started building my knowledge of engineering through my courses and contact with my professors, it became easier and easier to make my own decisions. I had started out in aeronautical engineering, but after a short period decided that since I was not sure what I wanted to do as an engineer, it was better for me to be in a more general mechanical-engineering program. Here I learned the importance of a strong education in fundamental pillars of engineering, such as fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, mathematics, physics, and chemistry. My first job as a mechanical engineer turned out to be boring, and I decided to try something different. Any education beyond the bachelor level did not cross my mind even after I got a second degree, a BS degree in petroleum engineering at the University of Alberta. After 6 years in North America and two degrees and some work experience, I decided to go work in Pakistan for a natural gas distribution company. While initially the work was interesting, after about a year I was starting to find my work to be rather routine.

My professors at the University of Alberta had perhaps recognized my potential before I did, and they offered me a fellowship to obtain an MS degree, without my having applied for it. I left a very lucrative job in Pakistan, with perks like a car with a chauffer, to become a student once again. With guidance from my professors, I discovered the joys of doing research and discovering new ways of solving old problems and even trying my hand at defining and solving new problems. I still remember the thrill of seeing my first paper in print. Again, it seems that my professors knew more about what would excite me than I did. Without ever having considered teaching as a profession, I was offered a teaching job at the University of Alberta. I enjoyed this for 2 years and got involved in some independent research. Here I discovered that to understand something in a real way you have to be able to explain it to a class and answer questions. The costs of this 3-year excursion into graduate education and teaching, as well as its benefits, were not easy to determine. How do we balance the loss of good income with a new—and possibly life-changing—experience? I somehow felt deep down that enjoying what I did was far more important than immediate financial gains. This truly was a turning point in my life, but I did not quite realize it at the time.

Once again, my family and a well-paying job with lots of perks pulled me back to Pakistan in 1962. Again, after about a year in this job, I knew that for me teaching and research were far more satisfying than a well-paying but routine job. But I also knew that to be successful as a university professor, I needed a PhD degree from a top university. I was fortunate to be admitted to Rice University. At this stage, I knew that I wanted to be a petroleum engineer, but I also recognized that instead of doing another degree in this field, I should study chemical engineering to enhance my knowledge of fundamental principles that form the basis of petroleum engineering. Again, the cost of the PhD-degree program was 2 years of living in poverty (and often it is 3 or 4). But how about the benefits? Did it lead to a job that compensated me financially for the loss of income while I was a student? Not really. My starting salary as an assistant professor was lower than what I would have made at that time by working in the industry after just my first degree 10 years earlier. There is another kind of benefit to which you cannot attach monetary value! It is finding a profession that you love. How lucky one is to enter a profession where your job becomes your hobby. To me, the greatest value of my graduate education has been that it has allowed me to be a teacher, and through that, a lifetime student.

Changing course to face new challenges is what provides continuous excitement in life. Even the top-rated department of petroleum engineering at Stanford University decided to change its name last year to Energy Resources Engineering and broaden its programs to encompass other energy resources and environmental issues. This change is much more than a change in name. It is recognition of the fact that we must solve our energy problems with much greater attention to sustainability than was the case in the past.

Looking back on 44 years of teaching and learning (much of it from my students), I have often thought about my good fortune in sliding into a profession that is so satisfying for me. However, this does not mean that teaching is the only profession in which one can find satisfaction. Many of my students have found very satisfying jobs with just a BS-degree-level education; some have earned an MS degree before settling into the kind of work that is right for them; yet others have spent many years getting a PhD degree to prepare them for the future. The point here is that we should never measure the value of graduate education strictly in terms of money, although it may lead to significant financial gains in some cases. The real value is in what it allows you to do and the training you get in solving difficult problems. There is almost nothing I teach or research these days that is even close to what I did as a student, but the grounding in fundamentals has allowed me to explore new areas constantly. This would not have been possible without a good graduate education.

Let me summarize the main points I have tried to make:

  • In making important decisions about your career, you need to process all available data—including what your parents, friends, and colleagues may have to offer. But remember that we are dealing with a poorly constrained problem. There are often several options that lead to desired outcomes. For this highly nonlinear problem, with multiple optima, the trick is not to get stuck in a local optimum that is far from where you will have the desired level of professional satisfaction. Going back to school is one way to find another path to reach the optimum.
  • The professional journey—or, for that matter, life’s journey—does not have a predetermined roadmap. At each fork, we have to make decisions on the basis of available information. As some options are eliminated, many more become available. Continue to explore new challenges, but make sure you invest sufficiently in mastering new tools needed for success in this fast-changing world. Going back to school for advanced education is just one way to do this.
  • Graduate education is not for everyone, and its benefits cannot be predetermined. If you hunger for more knowledge and more exciting opportunities in work, then you should consider getting a graduate degree. If you have what it takes to be successful in a graduate program, you will never look back and say that you made a mistake by investing time in graduate studies.
  • No matter what the level of your formal education, you need to continue educating yourself about the latest developments not only in your field but also in related ones. The boundary between different disciplines is getting fuzzier and fuzzier, with exciting developments at the intersections. Who would have thought just 5 years ago that nanotechnology and biotechnology will find exciting applications in the petroleum industry? What you do today may become irrelevant, but with a strong background in fundamentals, you will continue to adapt to changing needs.

I suspect that this short article has not answered any of the questions you had in mind when you started reading, but that was not my purpose anyway. I hope that it helps you in your thinking about expanding your options and constantly improving the quality of your life by seeking new knowledge, either through self-study or through more formal education. Our industry is constantly dealing with more and more complex problems that involve the optimum development and operation of offshore production systems in thousands of feet of water and that cost billions of dollars. The reliability, safety, economic viability, and environmental sustainability of such systems require deep knowledge and understanding of software and hardware tools that are integral parts of the system. The average recoveries in the past of around 30% are no longer acceptable, and the push is on to double the amount of oil recovered from existing reservoirs. To be a player in the future energy game, we need skills that come from constantly upgrading our knowledge of relevant technologies.

Khalid Aziz is the Otto N. Miller professor of earth sciences and professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University. Before coming to Stanford in 1982, he was a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary. At Stanford, Aziz has served as the associate dean for research (School of Earth Sciences) and as chair of the Petroleum Engineering Department. He conducts three major research groups at Stanford on reservoir simulaton, advanced wells, and smart fields. Aziz studied engineering at the University of Michigan (BS degree), the University of Alberta (BS and MS degrees), and Rice University (PhD degree). He has received several national and international awards—including honorary membership in SPE, the society's highest award. Aziz has published more than 150 technical papers, two books, and one monograph. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

The Pillars of Industry section provides a forum for individuals who have established or distinguished themselves as such in the energy industry. In this section, Pillars authors talk to the generation of young professionals about to inherit their legacy in the oil and gas industry and share their long-established expertise from a mentoring perspective. In this edition, we have invited Khalid Aziz, professor at Stanford University and member of the National Academy of Engineering, to address the theme of competency for the future. Aziz gives his perspective on the need for an MS/PhD degree in one’s career and how there might not be definite answers to that question. He describes the interesting twists and turns of his own professional path and likens the process of finding each one’s professional path to a highly nonlinear problem with multiple optima and a search without a predetermined roadmap. Either through self-study or formal education, Aziz notes, the constantly evolving challenges of our industry necessarily will drive the continuous growth of our skills and knowledge of relevant technologies. This should be a thought-provoking article for all the young professionals now getting ready for successful and rewarding careers in our industry.

Luis F. Ayala and J. Shaun Toralde, Editors, Pillars of the Industry


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