Volunteering is a great way to broaden your skills and experience, says Charlotte Ashley-Roberts

Q: I really want to build up my skills base as I am currently working towards chartered chemist status and I am also thinking about my next career move. Our training budget is small so I can only get so much training at work, if at all, so I’m not sure how to go about it. 

A: Working towards chartered status is part of your professional development and, as such, it is part of your career development overall. Formal training provided by your employer is just a part of this process. It’s important to recognise this and realise that there are many opportunities for development – the key is identifying them and taking ownership of your development. 

First, while most of your professional development and acquisition of skills will take place in the workplace, this is far from being the only place where these things can occur. There is a variety of opportunities outside of work too.

Give a little

Volunteering is an excellent way to get experience and gain skills. You can volunteer in all sorts of ways, sectors and environments. Volunteering itself demonstrates selflessness, initiative and a willingness to work, and depending on what you do, you will acquire other skills and experience too. You can choose something which enhances your current career, for example doing science outreach as a ChemNet or STEMNet ambassador or perhaps something that takes you in a new direction, which might help you get experience for a new role. Some members choose to volunteer to ‘give something back’ – this might be volunteering in a caring role where you work with disadvantaged people or through our Benevolent Fund as a volunteer visitor in your local area. 

There are lots of ways to get into volunteering and of course they depend on what you want to do and where you are based. You can volunteer with the RSC through the local sections or with a local charity or group. You can find out more through national web sites such as Volunteer England, Volunteer Scotland, Volunteer Wales and Volunteer Northern Ireland. There are also specific science options with the Science Museum and at science festivals.  

Longer term, semi-permanent volunteering opportunities are also something you might wish to consider, such as volunteering abroad. Many people choose this as a career break option through organisations such as Real Gap and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). VSO in particular specialises in making use of the skills you have to help or support people in developing countries, so it can still be relevant to your own career. 

You can even volunteer from the comfort of your own house: for example, you could tutor or mentor people via the web. 

Volunteering is also useful for networking, especially if you are looking to change career in the future. It also helps you develop your existing skills and knowledge, enhances your CV and ultimately can improve your career prospects. 

Gain a lot

Of course, you can still build your skills within the workplace, even if there is no budget for training – volunteering works here, too. As a first step, make sure your HR department or line manager know that you want to develop your skills and how, and then be proactive in seeking opportunities. You could offer to take on more responsibility by training others or supervising new starters. Or you could become involved in a large project to increase your internal and possibly external visibility, and to give you experience working with other teams or parts of your workplace. You might even organise training opportunities for staff yourself through ‘lunch and learn’ sessions where you ask internal or external people to come in and do a short introduction to their work over lunch. (You don’t have to provide lunch, just make sure you tell people to bring their own!) There may also be opportunities for short or medium secondments or maternity cover depending on your organisation. 

You should use any professional bodies you belong to as a source of journals or trade publications, and you could try writing for them too. You may also be eligible for help with travel and attendance costs for conferences, training and seminars. 

Whatever you choose to do, make sure it is something you enjoy as this will help keep you motivated in the long term.

If you have more advice you’d like to share about this month’s question – or have your own career conundrum for Charlotte – please write to chemistryworldjobs@rsc.org