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Just ask

by Brought to you by the ACS Career Navigator
May 2, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 18

Credit: Shutterstock
Look for a lifesaver.
An illustration of a hand reaching for a lifesaver.
Credit: Shutterstock
Look for a lifesaver.

Once upon a time, a volunteer organization was having its annual awards banquet. Even though the event was similar to those of years past, it still took a lot of planning to arrange the venue, food, entertainment, decorations, invitations, awards, presenters, and all the other details involved in creating a successful event. And this was just one of many activities and events organized by the group throughout the year.

In the audience was a member who had only recently joined. This was her first time at this event, and she marveled at how smoothly everything went. She believed in the mission of the organization and would have been happy to help out, but it didn’t look like any help was needed.

Meanwhile, the organizer was overwhelmed, wondering how he was going to get everything done. He knew there were several other events coming up, and he was wondering how he was going to find time for all of them.

It did not occur to either of them to ask.

Ask if you can help.

If there’s something you want to do, ask. Even if your help is not needed with that particular event or activity, there’s always another one coming up. It’s best to start with a specific, well-defined task—maybe just manning the registration desk or picking speakers up at the airport. As you prove your abilities, larger opportunities will become available to you. As you learn more about the organization and its activities, you will be able to identify the opportunities you really want and figure out how to position yourself for them.

Ask others for help.

If you are coordinating an event or activity, don’t be afraid to ask for help. People will most often say yes to small, well-defined tasks when they are asked individually and personally, whereas a general plea to a large group will often be ignored (everyone thinks someone else will do it). If possible, tailor your request to the specific skills and interests of the person you are asking.

Ask why.

Don’t be afraid to ask why things are done a particular way and suggest new possibilities. Even if something had been tried in the past, as personnel and technology have changed, something that did not work 10 years ago just may be what is needed now. If you have real-world experience with similar organizations, you may be able to bring their successes to this new group.

Ask people for information.

You need someone to whom you can ask questions both about your specific responsibilities and about the organization in general. Unwritten rules and traditions often exist, and having a mentor in the organization can help you avoid inadvertently breaking any of them.

The next time you see something you’d like to help with, or the next time you need help with a project, find out who’s in charge, and ask. They may say no, but then you know and can move on to ask someone else. A much more likely outcome is that they will be thrilled to have your valuable contributions.

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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