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How the periodic table can help you organize your career

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
January 3, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 1


An illustration of a chemist climbing career steps that resemble the perioidic table.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Each step of your career will combine to something greater.

The 2019 International Year of the Periodic Table may be over, but we can continue celebrating the many ways that the periodic table can serve as an organizational tool, including as a guide for our career. Instead of organizing elements, what if the periodic table can help you organize the steps of your career trajectory?

Look at the rows/periods. Start by reflecting on your career in chronological terms. Did your predictions for the next element (task or job) come true, or were you surprised at what appeared next? When you were in high school and college, what career did you expect? Has your career progressed in a logical, linear path, or did it jump some elements?

Look at the columns/groups. Now consider your career from the column/group (skills) perspective. What are the major abilities, skills, and knowledge needed in your current position? Your past positions? How did you acquire them? Are there some that you have used in almost all your jobs? Are there some you would like to continue to grow, maybe into the next element in that group?

Look for the outliers. Are there sharp transitions, where you filled an orbital and then moved on to the next one? Was that caused by external forces—changes in your personal life or values that caused you to dramatically shift your professional goals? Or maybe you felt that you had learned all you could and made a major change to learn something new. After the transition, did you re-evaluate your long-term goals? Does the periodicity still make sense?

Check the nomenclature. New or unknown elements are often given a placeholder name. For example, element number 114 was known as Uuq or ununquadium for years, until its existence was verified. Then the team that discovered it proposed Flerovium as a permanent name, which was ratified by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and is how it is now known. Similarly, when you first start with a new skill or interest, you may not know what to call it or how to describe it. Maybe you start playing with 3-D printing as a hobby, only to become fascinated by how the composition of the filament and slight tweaks to the structure can have dramatic effects on the final product, and the huge variety of items that can be created. When you start researching further, you realize that there is an entire industry based on this technology called additive manufacturing.

Combine old things in new ways. When you look at all the elements in your career periodic table, can you see new ways to combine them? With just a small change, HCl and NaOH can become NaCl and H2O, which have very different properties. How could your knowledge, skills, and abilities be combined in new and different ways, to enhance your employment possibilities?

Just like the periodic table, your career has broad outlines that form the possible edges, but there is an almost infinite number of ways you can combine the pieces into a career path that will be exciting, fulfilling, and last maybe not 150 years like the periodic table, but as long as you want it to.

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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