When was the last time you were truly excited about your work?
If it’s been a while, maybe it’s time to start asking why, and what you can do about it. Maybe your personal interests or expertise have changed, maybe your organization has changed, or maybe it was never an ideal fit. In any case, if you are unhappy more often than not, now is the time to do something about it.
Even if you love your current position, it’s not a bad idea to reassess your situation at least annually, just to make sure you’re on the right track.
Uncover what excites you.What is it that you love? What do you look forward to, talk about for hours, and think about in your time off? Is it the details of your research—how 2-D nuclear magnetic resonance works, how you could improve it, and the subtle nuances you can extract from the data? Or is it conducting science outreach for elementary school students and watching their eyes light up when they get to make slime for the first time? Maybe it’s tutoring undergraduates in organic chemistry and sharing their sense of accomplishment when they finally understand an SN2 reaction. Start making a list of these things.
If nothing comes to mind immediately, ask yourself the following questions:
▸ What kinds of things am I doing when I lose track of time?
▸ What extra tasks do I seek out at work? What am I the go-to person for?
▸ What do I do with my spare time? Am I interested in volunteering?
▸ What sorts of things do I have around the house?
▸ What do I spend my money on?
▸ What makes me proud to be a chemist?
▸ What is on my calendar on days I can’t wait to get to work?
▸ When I describe my job to others, what do I tell them?
▸ What would I say in a career-day speech to students?
If you need more data, set a timer to go off every hour during the day. When it goes off, write down what you are doing, and rank how you are enjoying it.
Find common themes. After a few weeks or months, look over your list, and see how all the pieces fit together. Is there a common theme or an overarching category into which they all fit? What truly matters to you? Was it that you were working with young people or teaching science or leading others?
Do you love hands-on science? Maybe you like talking about it and planning it more than conducting it. Perhaps you prefer analyzing data or writing papers. It may take weeks, or even months, but if you continue to pay attention to what really brings you fulfillment, you can start to figure out how to get more of that good stuff in your professional life.
For example, a student who spends all their spare time fixing cars might find their dream career in instrumentation maintenance. Those who enjoy explaining science to nonscientists could move into science outreach, public health, or science policy.
While every career path has good and bad parts, knowing what you truly enjoy makes your job that much easier.
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 (www.acs.org/network-careers).