Staying the course

Many promising Norwegian petroleum students drop out to take well-paid jobs in the industry. Universities cannot compete on pay – but they can make it more attractive to study.
  • Astri Sivertsen. Photos: Marit Hommedal

PhD students Bergit Brattekås, Marianne Steinsbø, Jarand Gauteplass and Lars Petter Hauge spend a lot of time in the lab.

PhD students Bergit Brattekås, Marianne Steinsbø, Jarand Gauteplass and Lars Petter Hauge spend a lot of time in the lab.


The annual seminar at the Petroleum Research School of Norway (NFIP) is aimed primarily at PhD students. But this year’s event – the fourth – was also attended by people studying for an MSc.

“Many students go no further than a master’s, particularly in petroleum subjects, since they get job offers from the industry,” explains NFIP secretariat head Martin Fernø.

An associate professor at the University of Bergen, one of the NFIP participants, he takes time out from the presentations to explain that graduates are lured away by high pay rates.

So MSc students have been invited to the October session in order to boost their interest in remaining in academia, and they make up half the 61 attending.

The other half comprises PhD students, with both groups drawn from the Universities of Tromsø, Trondheim, Stavanger and Oslo as well as Bergen.

They have joined academics, industrialists and civil servants for the seminar at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger to discuss improved recovery from mature fields.

“PhD students get to see what the industry demands of them, and what terms the government sets,” explains Fernø. “They encounter the whole value chain in one and the same place.”

Each of them must apply to their university to include the NFIP’s course in their studies. Depending on university, they get credits for attending the meetings. Writing reports and oral reviews also secures credits, Fernø says.



Martin Fernø, associate professor in reservoir physics, says pay levels in the petroleum industry are so high that they draw students out of Norway’s universities.

Martin Fernø, associate professor in reservoir physics, says pay levels in the petroleum industry are so high that they draw students out of Norway’s universities.



The seminar is useful for keeping abreast of both technological progress and industrial/economic developments, agrees Vera Iversen, one of three participants from the University of Tromsø.

Forging new contacts is naturally also important, she adds. Her everyday work involves analysing drill cores to study changes in climate and map seabed stability.

She wants to move on to a PhD when her MSc in marine geology has been completed next year, and could well imagine working on mapping for somebody like the Geological Survey of Norway.

“The whole country rests on ancient seabed, after all,” Iversen points out. “And good mapping is necessary for building roads and tunnels.”

Statoil does not employ applicants with just a BSc but is looking for people with doctorates, reports Øivind Fevang, one of the company’s chief researchers and himself a PhD.

Education is valuable not only for working in research but also for those involved in developing new discoveries or operating producing fields, he tells the seminar audience.

“A PhD is not compulsory, but it’s very advantageous,” he adds. “It’s essential for becoming a chief researcher, engineer or adviser.”



Fevang is followed by various PhD students who present their work. They include Sirikarn Narongsirikul, due to complete her thesis on petroleum geophysics at the University of Oslo next year.

She has seven years of experience from Chevron in her native Thailand, and hopes to land a job with a major oil company after graduating.

This is her second time at the NFIP seminar, but she had not made sufficient progress with her degree work last year to be able to present it to others.

Narongsirikul is interested in four-dimensional seismic surveying, reservoir monitoring and rock physics, and is using well logs from the south-western Barents Sea in her thesis.

She finds the seminar very useful, both for training in presenting her work and in order to get acquainted with other students working on different topics with alternative approaches.

“I always get valuable feedback from people who ask whether I’ve tried to do it in this way or that,” she comments.

John Emeka Udegbunam, originally from Nigeria and now a doctoral research fellow at the University of Stavanger, is another of the seminar speakers.

His presentation is based on a course organised by the NFIP at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim on reservoir porosity.

This will form part of his thesis on better well design. He has participated in three of the NFPI’s courses and published four articles in Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) journals.

According to Udegbunam, many PhD students are fed up with their studies. But meeting colleagues from other universities and having the opportunity to travel makes their lives more interesting and rewarding.

“Thanks to the NFIP, I’m working more, and more efficiently, than somebody who sits in the same place quite alone or with nobody else but their adviser,” he says.

“Time goes much faster when you meet others and attend conferences, and you suddenly find yourself wishing that you had even more years available to work on your thesis.”

Once he has secured his PhD, he could well imagine a career in research. But he would also like to spend a few years in the industry to see how his discipline is applied in practice.


Professor Arne Graue 
“We take students seriously as researchers,” says professor Arne Graue.


Big demand

According to NFIP head Arne Graue, demand for places to study petroleum subjects in the department of physics and technology at the University of Bergen is high.

A professor of petroleum and process technology there, he reports that these courses attracted 268 applicants for the 60 places available this year.

“We take our students seriously as researchers,” he responds when asked to explain this, and notes that all of them are able to spend time in the oil industry as part of their studies.

They can also work with equipment which the universities can only dream about, and with scientists hand-picked by the oil industry.

Finally, they are sent around the world – including to US universities, where they can stay for weeks and months.



During a chat with four PhD students in one of the department’s labs, the two women – both mothers of small children – highlight flexibility as one of the advantages of studying there.

They both expect to be finished next year and one of them, Bergit Brattekås, could imagine being a full-time researcher once she is qualified.

“We see that the research work we do gets used,” she comments. “And what we lack here in the way of equipment and expertise can be found elsewhere.”

All four emphasise the benefit of contact with the industry and other universities, and of acquiring a good network during their studies. They also like the combination of theory and practice, and the opportunity to do experiments in the labs.

Based in one of the department’s offices, four MSc students in reservoir technology estimate that they devote half their time to lab work. And three have been in the USA during their studies.

Six laboratories in the Bergen department range from a starter facility where students get an introduction to lab work, to the “experiment shop” in the basement.

The latter makes it possible to look inside rock samples using microphysics methods. To see how oil, water and gas flow through porous rocks, scientists here can study samples both to the smallest micro level and in large blocks.

At the levels in between, magnetic resonance and positron emission tomography (PET) imaging equipment at Bergen’s Haukeland University Hospital can be utilised at night and on weekends. ¨

Describing what happens at micro, nuclear and block levels makes it possible to develop numerical tools for understanding what happens in fields, says associate professor Geir Ersland.

The equipment is specially constructed to study high-pressure storage of carbon dioxide and the use of this greenhouse gas to improve oil recovery, he adds.



In one of the department’s lecture rooms, 64 undergraduates taking a BSc in petroleum and process technology have gathered to hear Graue talk about capillary pressure and reservoir permeability.

Tilde Sørstrand Haugen from Flora in Sogn og Fjordane, Mari Gjerde Christiansen from Vinje in Telemark and Anne Cleo Styrmo from Oslo are seated side-by-side in the back row.

All agree that the course is very good. “It offers lots of opportunities, and is very varied,” says Hauge, before Graue starts to draw curves on the blackboard. Simple tools are sometimes the best.


Martin Fernø

“PhD students get to see what the industry demands of them, and what terms the government sets,” says Martin Fernø. “They encounter the whole value chain in one and the same place.”