Continuing Education: Making the Most of All the Opportunities

Having straddled the academic–E&P-industry boundary throughout my career, I am commonly asked which continuing-education programs work and what further development is most valued in the industry. In my view, learning should be an integral part of everyone’s career. If not, your horizons stop expanding and you lose touch with the leading edge. Our industry innovates at an increasing pace, so it is vital to keep up-to-date and maintain your technical skills.

But how do you best do that?

There is no unique pathway for continuing education. What works for one individual, or one discipline, may not work for another. With the plethora of continuing-education and development opportunities available, it’s just not possible to be prescriptive.

Obvious options are the gamut of formal courses, which range from half-day seminars to short 1-week courses to full-time annual educational programs. However, partnerships, sabbaticals, secondments, and exchange relationships with academic institutions also work extremely well, and increasingly so with technology developers and service providers.

Additionally, if your company has a technology program, become part of it and use the opportunity for interaction with academic institutions this creates to become involved in R&D and technology transfer.

The important point here is that continuing education doesn’t just mean taking a traditional taught course. I believe centers of academic excellence that develop an understanding of industry needs, and companies that interact openly and creatively with them, will become the learning centers of choice.

Two developments in the late 1990s to early 2000s shaped our industry’s current landscape. One was oil price fluctuations, which closed most oil company research centers and forced oil giant mega-mergers. This opened a niche for small technology companies and universities.

The second was the recognition of the impact burning fossil fuels has on global warming. As a consequence, most governments have dramatically cut back their funding for petroleum science and engineering education and research. Academic institutions often now must go direct to industry—oil companies and service providers alike—to support their teaching and research programs.

These developments have been positive drivers for collaboration and interaction between industry and academe, although much remains reactive rather than based on long-term planning.

Because continuing education and research programs, mostly managed at the departmental or course level, are still subject to oil price vagaries, it is important to be selective about how and where you choose your educational programs. The most innovative institutions have developed their courses and research with industry guidance, and as a result have excellent working relationships with industry. Such institutions have industry representation on departmental boards, and have industrial associate programs, including research consortia, largely funded by industry. Advantage is gained by leveraging invested funds, sharing data, and quickly implementing throughout funding organizations new technology arising from research programs. These are the places to seek creative learning opportunities. The leading universities in this arena have established research groups that specifically target industry challenges. Good examples of focused teaching and research groups that have aligned their programs closely with industry include the Leeds University Rock Deformation Research Group and the Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas Although many other such centers exist, these are excellent models of the type of academic-industry collaboration likely to give the best continuing-education opportunity.

While there are no fixed rules about continuing education, here are some guidelines worth keeping in mind.

The starting point is always you. Take ownership of your career. You must be prepared for career progression through self-guided development. It is good practice to have a clear view of where you want to be in the next 1 or 2 years, and then have a 5-year goal you gradually build toward. Almost certainly, as a first step, your company will expect you to be investing in your development, in both effort and time, and will probably expect you to have a track record of your personal time commitment and work performance before providing matching company investment. 

Get advice from your peers and seniors. Talk on a regular basis with your functional manager about your competency and career development. If your company runs a competency-management system, use this to understand your skills gaps and contribute to your development planning. Make full use of the training and development options your organization has available.

Make sure the option you choose is relevant. Before you commit to undertake a course or sabbatical or invest time and effort into a development program, investigate the option’s relevance in extending your existing skill sets. Use Web resources, but also talk to the institution offering the development. When considering a course, look for those that have built established associations with industry, as well as an outstanding academic track record. If possible, try to select options that give you hands-on practical experience —and let you take your datasets to work with for dissertation projects or research components.

Stay on top of leading developments in your discipline. Build your technical reputation. If your company has a technology program, be part of it. Get involved in any technology-watch activity, and if possible, join advisory or steering committees for external projects your company sponsors. There is no better way of keeping in touch with—and helping influence the course of—active research. Watch for meetings that promote case histories of joint industry-academia research and knowledge transfer, such as the petroleum group of the Geological Society of London. Bringing new technology or expertise back to your organization and implementing it within your team or department is usually a more effective type of continuing education than a formal course.

Consider distance learning. If you want to remain in full-time employment during study and work at your own pace, distance learning and Web-based resources are excellent solutions. Check that the content and quality of the online material are comparable to full-time courses and that you graduate with the same degree as students who undertake the course at the institution. Tell your company about the learning you are undertaking and ask them to recognize it as part of your career plan.

Join the technical society that represents your discipline area and subscribe to their journal. This is a must. These societies are a huge resource, commonly not fully utilized. Many companies will even pay your professional fees. There are international technical societies for just about every subdiscipline in the industry. Be active and support your society wherever you can. Work on committees, peer review articles, write technical papers, contribute to meetings, attend conferences. Most learned societies run continuing-education programs—such as the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, Geological Society of London, and SPE—which are first class and closely aligned with industry needs, often with industry representatives teaching them. SPE, for example, has a wide variety of training courses for all levels of professionals, whether you are at the beginning of your career or a senior-level professional. Many societies have online e-mentoring programs, student chapters, distinguished lecturer programs, and other resources. Make full use of them.

Keep a record of training activities you undertake. This will help you gather a supporting case for your job progression and career development, and should be included in your CV. Some learned societies require this record for accreditation. Give a one- or two-page briefing to your organization, covering the most important results of the activity in which you participated. If your organization doesn’t have such a best practice, introduce it.

Don’t always expect an immediate impact. Do not complete your MSc or MBA degrees and expect on return to the company to gain immediate promotion or a hefty pay raise. This rarely happens. Many people are so disappointed by this that they leave their employer as soon as possible. Such outcomes are generally counterproductive. Manage your expectations. Find out from your employer what you can expect once you have completed a course of study.

There is one final theme to consider. While academic-industrial collaboration has come of age in some areas, the two ends of the spectrum have different objectives. Your learning opportunities will be enhanced if you can benefit academia over and beyond your tuition. This usually means access to data for publication. This is of immense value to both parties. You get to work on relevant material with leading authorities, and your data can be used to seed new ideas and publications. If your company is sensitive about retaining trade secrets, generally there are ways of releasing information that retain academic value but hide business advantage. It is worthwhile investing the effort to convince your management of the need to share data and provide learning opportunities beyond the traditional course.

Stuart Burley, head of Geosciences at Cairn Energy India, spent 16 years as an academic and was director of the Diagenesis Research Group at Manchester University in the UK before joining BG where he ran the subsurface technology R&D program. He then embarked on an international career in E&P including technical postings to Egypt, India, and Trinidad. In his present position in Cairn, Burley is responsible for geoscience excellence, technology investment and application, and people development. Formerly the editor of Sedimentology, he is a member of the editorial boards of Petroleum Geoscience and the Journal of Petroleum Geology, has authored 100 technical publications, edited two books, and  retains an honorary chair in petroleum geology in the Basin Dynamics Research Group at the University of Keele, UK.


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