I am a chemical engineer, and I have been spending much of the last two months doing nothing (either surfing the web or chatting with other employees) since my project has been very slow. The company has lots of projects and the other employees are so busy that they consistently clock in 25% overtime to get their work done.

I have spoken to my lead about this, and he assures me that work is coming 'soon'. I have also tried speaking to a manager about a move to a different project (saying that I think that that project will be more exciting for me), but was basically told that it would be very difficult to make it happen.

I am a young engineer with less than a year's experience in this field and as such I would like to learn as much as I can during my first few years, however, I feel that by doing nothing at work, I am inculcating the wrong habits.

I do not think it is wise to mention to my manager that I don't have work. I am afraid he will take it personally against me or my lead.

What can I do to 'kill' time and also learn on the job when I have nothing better to do?

  • Alpha, are you most interested in how you can productively fill your time, or how to have a discussion with your supervisors about the situation?
    – jcmeloni
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 0:58
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    @jcmeloni, it would have to be a combination of both. If I do have to face this again, I should first exhaust my 'productive' time killing options first.
    – Alpha
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 1:07
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    "This seems to assume I am a programmer. I am not." Umm.. thanks for clarifying that. While you are on the subject, I note that some of the other answers might have been better if you had stated what you are. I mean, I'd guess 'surfing the web' implies an office environment and therefore you're not a lion tamer who lacks a lion (though thinking about it, with tablet devices, even that is possible) - but more specific questions will attract better answers. Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 8:10
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    @alpha, why exactly do you think your manager will have a problem with you indicating that you're idle?
    – Angelo
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 14:42
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12 Answers 12


I am a retired engineer. During my 30 year career life, I had been in this kind of situation several times before. Hope my experience and advice can be helpful and useful.

For those who never have this kind of experience before, your story is unimaginable. What? You have nothing to work on while other employees have to work overtime. I would like to assure you this is not very uncommon. There are various kinds of reason for it.

The first time I had it was because I participated a project which was waiting for a huge government contract award. The project manager had to keep the employees for almost a year. The government kept saying the award will be next month. Finally, the contract award was cancelled because Congress did not approve the funding.

I had similar experience since then. One time, it was because my group manager was in a power struggle. He had to keep his people together so that he could rise again.

My advice is to use this time to learn. You can get on Stack Exchange sites. Help yourself and others by asking and answering questions. You can get on some other self learning sites related to your profession.

I do want to warn you. Do not get on any bad web sites. Having no work is not your fault. Getting on a bad site is. You could get fired.

If you exhausted all web sites you're interested in, bring a good book(related to your profession) to the office and read it. Take evening classes and study in the office may be another option if it takes longer than a few months.

Lastly, don't worry. They won't let it continue forever. Somebody will find out and get you work to do.

  • Please explain given your experience why getting a new job is not the right solution. Thanks.
    – blunders
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 3:44
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    The OP did not say he dislikes his employer. There is no indication that his company does not want him. He only has this situation for two months. He has less than a year experience. His situation typically happens in large companies. Small companies cannot afford to let it happen. Internal transfer may be hard at this time. Getting outside job may not be what he wants. If I were a Google employee, I would not want to get job ouside unless I am forced to.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 4:01
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    @blunders, I re-read OP's question, the last line reads "What are some of the things that I can do to 'kill' time and also learn on the job when I have nothing better to do.". I do not see anything indicating he wants to look for a new job. OP's own will is the most important thing here, isn't it?
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 12:10
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    scicomp.stackexchange.com and chemistry.stackexchange.com
    – Nobody
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 12:29
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    +1 for hanging out on StackExchange sites and using the time to learn. It makes you look busy, too (at least, as a programmer).
    – Garry
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 13:29

In the spirit of "it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission:"

  1. Learn, wherever you can find lessons. The internet, books, your colleagues. The time of my most intensive knowledge building was usually when things weren't that hectic in my regular work.

  2. Help in other projects. It seems some people have lots of work to do and it would be a safe guess that you can help some of them in some way. Why shouldn't you? Again, I wouldn't treat it as a hard requirement that your manager gives you a formal permission. In some organizations ha can have little interest in their people helping in other projects.

  3. Experiment in any work you currently do. Considering you have plenty of time you can experiment with the way you do work. If it works you learn and you learn in the best possible way -- by doing. If it doesn't you should have enough time to recover from any issues that may arise and still deal with the task. The less pressure from outside the more safe we feel to change how we do things.

  4. Start a side-project. Some companies make policies that employees can use 20% of their time building whatever they want. Why not to use your time this way? Again, the best case scenario is that you build something useful for others. The worst case is that you learn something. I guess there definitely are simple things that could be dealt with and which could improve how others to their work (look for boring daily chores first).

In either case the gain for both you and the company is what you've learned. If you're lucky enough there can also be a more tangible product of your work.


There has to be a reason for the project being slow, and I would be incredibly surprised if a manager got mad at an employee for requesting additional work since their current project is going too slow and they never have enough to do. An employee being honest isn't something that is frowned upon. My manager would have been happy to give me some extra small assignment to do, be it filing some paper work or just some boring task on the computer.

You could spend your time learning if your manager approved of that kind of usage. I'm not familiar with how acceptable of a practice that would be. If it's not, you can spend time reviewing your current or previous projects. Reflect on things you've done wrong, things you could improve on in the future, and evaluate yourself on your performance.

If all else fails, follow the policy:

Time to lean, time to clean.

If you have excessive spare time in your day, just go help out around the office. Clean your office, organize things, go clean up the lounge a bit, whatever. Just be helpful. Companies don't appreciate paying you to just sit there and twiddle your thumbs. Usually my manager always had some general tasks for me to do when I had no work left for the day, so I'd just start doing them if that's what he/she would normally have you do in that situation. It's not like a neatly organized and sparkly clean workspace ever hurt anyone. I even do this at home when I get really, really bored.

  • "Go clean up the lounge a little bit"..if the wrong people see you cleaning up the loung, it could get bad for you really fast..
    – guest
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 9:17

As a young engineer, you should already have taken the Fundamentals of Engineering exam (used to be called EIT). If not, you should be studying for it. If you do have your FE/EIT, you may want to take some time to study towards your PE exam. Chemical Engineering is one of the engineering disciplines where a PE is pretty much required. My father was a ChemE and kept his PE active until he retired. Many of the jobs he got in the last half of his career were not open to unlicensed engineers.

  • 3
    It takes 5 years after the FE to apply for the PE. That is still pretty far away. I have taken my FE.
    – Alpha
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 21:06

Social Networking sites are blocked in our office.

So whenever i am free at work, i usually spend much of my time studying my previous assignments, researching about enhancements in the technology on which i am working upon

and most of the time in Stack overflow solving others problem. I think its among the best ways to learn about things.

But also, you need to find out the reason, why you are not being assigned work, sometimes these reasons could be severe.


When you have some idle time at work: Seize the opportunity. Do you know of any schleps that need to be solved? Go ahead and try to devise a solution. Are your coworkers working on difficult problems? Could they use some help?

Contributions to these efforts will pay dividends to both the company and yourself. Even if you aren't immediately recognized with a promotion, pay increase, or visible sign of praise, making an effort and taking initiative will transform you into a producer. When you become a producer, you'll be well on your way to promotions, increased earning power, and career success.


If you're interested in staying with the company, I think you absolutely should indicate that you don't have enough work to your manager.

You said that you're afraid that the manager will hold it against you, but actually the opposite is true if the manager cares about his team and productivity.

Honestly the fact that your manager doesn't know you are effectively idle is the sign of a serious organizational problem. It really is the job of the manager to know what the members of the team are doing (at least project-wise and sometimes down to critical individual tasks).

If you're concerned about how to phrase it, say something like "I have a lot of free bandwidth, are there any other projects that I can help out with?" No rational manager could have a problem with that.

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    My manager would take it to mean that I am questioning his ability to do his job (i.e. give me work).
    – Alpha
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 12:16
  • I seriously doubt that! If you approach the issue with tact it would be a much appreciated "reality check." If the manager thinks you're busy and and you're doing nothing that is a big problem. Be proactive and don't be afraid.
    – Angelo
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 13:12
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    If your manager's manager figures out that they are paying you for little work, and there is no evidence that you raised this issue then you are the bad guy. Period. You don't need to be a pest about it, but you need it on the record, preferably in writing (an email will do), that you raised this concern with your immediate supervisor, and were not just hiding in a corner screwing off. Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 15:47

Sounds like you are wating fo ra contract to come through and they don't want to assign you to anything else to make sure you are avialable when it does. If you know the kind of work the new project will require, then you can start gettign yourself up-to-speed on the technical details you will need. You can also start looking at processes and see if you can design a better way to do some of the things in the office. As you are an engineer, have you taken the engineering professional exams yet? If not use this time to seriously study for them. Even if you aren't ready yet in expertence to take the tests, doing in-depth study will make it much easier when your are ready to prep for the tests.

One of my first bosses had a rule, if you have nothing to do, you had better be reading the policy manual (several hundred pages of technical material) or doing some other training. It looks bad to just be playing, so something work-related even if it is doing something as mind-numbing as reading policy manuals. And if you have technical policies, you will be surprised at how much it helps you when it is time to do the work to know the policies backwards and forwards.


If I were you, I would utilize this time to learn new stuff in my field. I would also take tests after finishing the courses. That said, here are some useful sites to do the same.

  1. www.coursera.org - You can enroll yourself to any available course. Choose something that is relevant to your field. Many courses offer certificates signed by the course instructor.

  2. www.ted.com - TED videos are a very good source of knowledge. You can try watching speeches relevant to your area.

  3. www.brainbench.com - This a wonderful site to take tests on various topics. It ranks you against people who took the same test in the past. The questions asked in brainbench are far more meaningful than the ones in other sites. (in my opinion).

Apart from these, Check if your company has a separate department that takes care of 'Employee Trainings'. If they do, then you can opt-in for some trainings there. They might even pay you to take competitive exams.

All the best.

PS: I have seen people browsing trivial stuff online all day (shopping sites, games etc) when they have no work to do. These are so wrong to do when you are getting salary from someone. Either you quit or you prepare yourself for the betterment of the company.


Come up with some project that would require similar technology. Or learn a completely different language or framework.

Some companies give 20% time for personal projects. You just get to take your 20% up front. Because once a project starts, you'll have no time for this.

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    Have you done this before, and if so, what was the result, and why do you believe your past circumstances apply to this question? Thanks.
    – blunders
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 23:56
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    This seems to assume I am a programmer. I am not.
    – Alpha
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 23:58
  • Personal projects does not have to be programming related. If the OP is an engineer, all engineering disciplines can have some kind of personal project to do. Even chemists can do fun stuff. Heck, even economists or office workers can do some number crunching for fun or learn how to use Excel properly.
    – Spoike
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 9:03

Since you lack experience, I recommend you either start improving your knowledge on the technologies you already know or start learning a new technology that interest you. Better yet, try to learn something that relates to your team's current projects. Create a prototype of it. Show it off to your team lead or boss.

Appreciate your free time, because the time will come when you won't have time to scratch your head.

  • Have you done this before, and if so, what was the result, and why do you believe your past circumstances apply to this question? Thanks.
    – blunders
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 3:12

I'd suggest that you take any of three options.

1) Speak to your manager in passing (don't make a whole meeting with it). Mention that you finished what he had assigned you, and was wondering if he/she had anything else they could give you.

2) RESEARCH YOUR FIELD!! You say you want to learn as much as you can during your first years, and that's great! But you have to take some of that into your own hands at times. Read about the most ground-breaking/cutting edge technologies, things you didn't get taught in school. Pick a topic you have interest in in your field (newer, more efficient methods being developed for spectroscopy, new ways to create fuel cells, etc etc...). Learn that stuff.

3) Go to one of those other project, where everyone's putting in craptons of overtime (preferably one focusing on something you've already researched heavily in #2) and see if they could use another head in the mix.

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