Expect the Unexpected

The only thing constant is change, and there is plenty of that in your professional life.  Very often a project or deadline appears suddenly in your job, or a new professional opportunity appears unexpectedly.  Suddenly, a crisis must be addressed, a problem solved, or a decision made quickly.  If you are prepared, with the right tools in your professional toolbox, you can get started on the solution right away.

The three things needed to accomplish any project (planned or otherwise) are time, money, and (human) resources.  Do you have enough of each in your professional reserve to handle unexpected problems, and allow you to take advantage of sudden opportunities?


If your schedule is completely full, unexpected additions will cause great stress.  This holds true on a daily basis, as well as on a longer time frame. (Have you ever had a sudden meeting, or long phone call, throw off your schedule for the whole day?  Or had a bad analytical test result wreak havoc with production plans?)  Instead of completely filling your schedule, and assuming everything will go perfectly, build in some flexible time for unexpected issues.  Everything takes longer than you think it’s going to, so you might as well plan for it.


These days, you never know when your job, department, or even company will change overnight. Do you have money built into your lab or departmental budget to cover new opportunities?  Do you build contingency funds in when budgeting new projects?  Personally, do you have at least six, if not nine, months of living expenses in a savings account, to which you have ready access?  It can take longer than that to find a new job, but having a significant cushion can relieve some of the stress if you suddenly find yourself looking for a new position.

People and Expertise

When confronted with a new problem that you don’t know how to handle, what do you do first?  Find a co-worker or colleague who has experience in that area, and ask them for guidance. Do you have a large network of professional colleagues (inside and outside your company, local and long distance), who you can call for advice? In order to ask for help, you need to have mutually beneficial professional relationships in place before you need them. This means you need to go out and meet people, provide help and advice to them, and build those relationships before you need them.

Not only do you need people, but you need to know at least a little about new techniques, research fields, product areas and markets that are relevant to what you do. The rapid pace of change makes it ever more important that you not only keep up on your own field, but take the time to learn about some of the emerging fields, to make sure your own skills and expertise don’t become outdated.

In both your job and your career, you need to prepare ahead of time.  If you have the right tools in place when the unexpected occurs, it will remain merely a minor annoyance, and not become a major catastrophe.

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (https://communities.acs.org/community/profession/career_development)._—brought to you by ACS Careers.

4 Responses to Expect the Unexpected

  1. Deanna Morrow Hall says:

    This article states that you need three things to accomplish any project, either planned or unplanned: time, money, and (human) resources. Actually, there is a second critical resource: information. Granted, human resources can provide a certain amount of expertise, and should be used whenever practical, but generally they cannot substitute for a comprehensive literature search.

    The discipline of chemistry is extraordinarily blessed with a superb aggregation of the world’s chemical literature, going back into the 19th century, in the form of Chemical Abstracts. Furthermore, that entire aggregation is available in electronic form for searching. ACS does not do enough to promote this as the go-to resource for all problem-solving and decision-making.

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