An Interview with Jay Carroll

“I most enjoy the sense of fulfillment I get from being a mechanical engineer. Looking back after completing a project and knowing that what has been built is a direct result of my design is a great feeling. I think that it is fascinating to see something go from a draft on a computer to a paper and then watch the equipment or the machinery build it from start to finish.”

Jay Carroll is a mechanical engineer at Norfolk Southern, a major shipping and transportation company, in Charlotte, North Carolina. As a mechanical engineer he is responsible for designing industrial equipment.

Jay has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. He has been actively involved in his field as a mechanical engineer for 4 and a half years.

In your own words, what is a mechanical engineer?

Mechanical engineers are responsible for designing a wide variety of equipment and objects, depending on their specialty. Typically there are 3 or 4 different avenues for a career. One option is specializing in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems. Another specialization is designing fluid flows and hydraulic systems, which requires an exceptional amount of schooling and experience. Mechanical engineers also work in the energy sector for major power companies, such as Duke Energy.

Technically, I am a design engineer which fits under the umbrella of mechanical engineering. Much of my job involves creating design plans. I do a lot of CAD, or computer-aided design, modeling and 3-dimensional modeling. I create 2-dimensional plans as well. In my industry, the most relevant skill is 3-dimensional modeling.

If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a mechanical engineer,” what would your response be?

I would tell a student that before they make a decision about becoming a mechanical engineer, they should consider what traits and skills are necessary to succeed. A mechanical engineer is someone who is mathematically inclined and is very methodical in the way that he thinks and analyzes problems. A mechanical engineer is also a good problem solver who is interested in building, designing and constructing various items.

What level of education is necessary to become a mechanical engineer?

I would say the minimum education required to become a mechanical engineer is a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. You need to have an understanding of the major areas of mechanics and an undergraduate degree should provide you with that.

I chose to get my bachelors degree in mechanical engineering because I excelled in mathematics and I was also interested in physics. Courses in these subjects, as well as a natural interest in working on mechanical problems around the house, convinced me to continue learning about these topics in college. My education has definitely provided me with the knowledge that I need to succeed as a mechanical engineer.

Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become a mechanical engineer?

There are some licensing and certification opportunities for mechanical engineering, but they are not required. The exception is the Fundamentals of Engineering test, which is required if you are trying to earn a professional engineer’s license.

Why did you decide to become a mechanical engineer?

I decided to become a mechanical engineer because it is the most relevant field for me given my experience and interests. Having part-time jobs in construction as I was growing up helped me realize that I would enjoy engineering. I also wanted to pursue a career in which I could utilize my education. My background made me a viable candidate for employment in engineering.

What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming a mechanical engineer?

I did not have any big misconceptions about becoming a mechanical engineer, although I have noticed that other people mistakenly think that becoming a mechanical engineer requires an advanced degree. You do not need an advanced degree in order to be a mechanical or design engineer. Although in some fields an advanced degree may be necessary, in mechanical engineering, such requirements are very specific to particular jobs.

What do you enjoy most and least about being a mechanical engineer?

I most enjoy the sense of fulfillment I get from being a mechanical engineer. Looking back after completing a project and knowing that what has been built is a direct result of my design is a great feeling. I think that it is fascinating to see something go from a draft on a computer to a paper and then watch the equipment or the machinery build it from start to finish.

Although the field of mechanical engineering can be highly rewarding, it is not without its challenges. The most challenging aspect of being in mechanical engineering is adapting to change. You are constantly being faced with new components and new parts from various manufacturers. Incorporating the latest and greatest technology into your design is a challenge.

What is a typical day like for you?

For me, an average day involves 3 to 4 hours of straight design work, which is often 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional CAD modeling. Throughout the day I may have to revise certain drawings or plans that I designed for other projects. In addition, I spend between 1 and 2 hours answering technical questions from other employees about my designs. Finally, I may also have to answer questions from the people who are actually building the product or, in some cases, from the end-user.

Another portion of my day that is not related directly to my current project is spent researching the industry. I set aside an hour to read about developments in areas that I feel I haven’t studied as much. I try to familiarize myself with new engineering technologies and I try to maintain my sense of awareness within the field of engineering.

How do you balance your work and your personal life?

Thankfully, it is not hard for me to balance my work and personal life. There is, however, some traveling that comes along with the job, which makes that balance a little more difficult. Other than that, work and personal time are very separate. I am able to leave work at work 95% of the time.

What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a mechanical engineer and what traits would hinder success?

Analytical reasoning is one of the most helpful personality traits for pursuing a career in mechanical engineering. The job requires you to examine problems in a methodical and mathematical way. In other words, you have to understand how different parts of a machine or system work together. Having this knowledge will allow you to complete your tasks.

Although mechanical engineering is a very technical career I have found that not having the proper communication skills can be an issue. If you are unable to effectively communicate it is really difficult to troubleshoot problems. Poor communication skills can make for an awkward and ineffective work relationship.

Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?

If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would definitely choose to enroll in an accelerated masters program. Such programs are offered by most universities and are only available to students while they are pursuing their undergraduate degree. It would have been worth it to stay an extra year and get my masters while I was in school.

I think that an accelerated masters program is a good option because it can be difficult to readjust to school life once you are away from it. I did not think that would be true, but it is. Maintaining your job and family on top of a school schedule is especially difficult.

Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a mechanical engineer should pursue?

Yes, I think a student interested in becoming a mechanical engineer could benefit from pursuing certain extra-curricular activities. Many universities have various groups that are related to mechanical engineering. Whether it is a group centered on sports or car design, you may find that you are able to apply your knowledge to your interests.

What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?

The most valuable classes that I have taken have been in the subfield of mechanics. This branch of physics includes statics, dynamics and fluid dynamics. In order to succeed you should also be familiar with the mechanics of materials. Each study considers methods of understanding and calculating forces between objects. Although there are many more areas of engineering, these core components contain enough information for most of your work as a mechanical engineer.

The least valuable class that I took was a programming class in Fortran, which is a specific programming language. NASA and the military are the only organizations in the United States that even use this programming language, so it isn’t very widely applicable. I wish that there had been other options in my curriculum.

What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a mechanical engineer?

I would caution students against specializing too much while they are in school. Mechanical engineering students should strive to make themselves as versatile and well-rounded as possible. By having a broad education and knowledge base, they will be able to adapt to a greater number of positions or situations.

I would also caution students to take high school seriously. Taking advantage of high school education is important to succeeding in college. Once in college, students will literally pay for any gaps in their education that could have filled for free in high school.

Another caution I have to share is that the most important skills in mechanical engineering are related to reasoning. You have to be able to analyze and rationalize the problems that you are being presented with in a very strict and methodical way. If your reasoning skills are weak, you should not pursue a career in mechanical engineering.