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Expect The Unexpected

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
April 1, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 13

Credit: iStockphoto
By planning ahead, you can better cope with unexpected challenges.
This is a drawing of a kayak going over a waterfall.
Credit: iStockphoto
By planning ahead, you can better cope with unexpected challenges.

AT WORK, how often do you find that suddenly a new project or deadline pops up or a new professional opportunity arises? Right away, you will need to solve a problem, avert a crisis, or make a big decision that will affect your career. As you journey through your professional life, one of the few constants will be change. But with the right tools in your professional toolbox, you can face any challenge with confidence.

You’ll need three things to accomplish any project, either planned or unplanned: time, money, and (human) resources. With some planning, you can make sure you have enough of these resources in reserve to handle unexpected problems and take advantage of sudden opportunities.

TIME. If your plate is already full, unexpected additions to your schedule can cause a great deal of stress. This holds true on a daily basis as well as over a longer period of time. For example, have you ever had an impromptu meeting or long phone call throw off your schedule for the entire day? Or have you had a bad analytical test result wreak havoc on your 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.

MONEY. 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 in contingency funds when budgeting for new projects? And in your personal bank account, do you have six to nine months of living expenses saved and readily accessible? Finding a new job can take longer than that, but having a significant cushion can relieve some of the stress if you suddenly find yourself looking for a new position.

PEOPLE & EXPERTISE. When confronted with a problem that you don’t know how to handle, what should you do first? If you have a coworker or colleague with experience in that area, you can ask for guidance. Or you can tap into your network of professional colleagues outside your company to seek advice. But that network—built on mutually beneficial professional relationships—must be in place before you need it. Build those relationships in advance by going out and meeting people and providing them with help and advice.

You also need to be aware of new techniques, research fields, product areas, and markets that are relevant to what you do. The rapid pace of change makes it even more important that you not only keep up in your own field but that you also take the time to learn about emerging fields so your skills and expertise don’t become outdated.

In both your current job and your career, you need to have foresight and plan ahead. If you have the right tools in place when the unexpected occurs, it’s more likely to be a minor annoyance than 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 (


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