Parent Home > News and Events > Articles > Embracing 'Happenstance' in the Career Planning Process

Embracing 'happenstance' in the career planning process

"Two of my friends say their graduating seniors already have jobs lined up for spring. My son hasn't even applied for a job yet, and he says it's too soon to look. Is there a schedule for career planning, and if so, is he behind schedule? How can I be helpful with his job search without being intrusive?"

Let me start my answer by telling a story about a friend. After more than a decade of quality service, my friend was fired from his job—an innocent victim of restructuring. A career decidedly "on schedule" now appeared to be off the tracks. Following a period of second-guessing, my friend marveled at how fickle the career process is and how success is determined by many factors, some within our control (e.g., planning, effort) and some not (position availability, financial shifts, etc.).

While we want students to have a career plan, my friend's experience is an example of how plans can change. Although there is no definitive timeline for how and when to start the job search, sooner is generally better (as is involving others in the process—networking).

Career counselors note the differences between career placement, development, and planning. Of these, placement tends to be the area in which one has the least say—positions are either available or not. On the other hand, we do guide career development, which is represented by our future vision or goals, and by how we seek work that reflects our interest and values. Planning follows from this by mapping out how a career might unfold.

Though career planning (having a schedule) is important, U alum John Krumboltz and his colleague Al Levin note in their book, Luck Is No Accident, that it is not foolproof. For example, they have found "that only about 2 percent of the people claim to be working now in the occupation they had planned when they were 18 years old," and in addition to planning, our eventual career paths are significantly influenced by random, unexpected occurrences ("happenstances"). I can relate to this myself; as an East Coast native, meeting my wife and starting a career in Minnesota was never in my plans.

Mentioning all of this is not to suggest that our careers are left to the fates and that planning has no role in determining one's career. Rather, I bring it up to highlight how complex the process of getting a job can be. There are numerous employee and employer factors that need to align for a match to occur—and as a parent, your efforts to help may only go so far.

So, what to do? In general, parents can help to some extent in the placement and planning areas (e.g., keep your eyes open for positions or networking opportunities; discuss approaches and plans), but your major role includes the following:

  1. Be supportive.
    What constitutes support is going to vary according to your student's style, needs, interests, and motivations. Do not assume what support will look like. Ask. For some it will be practical (e.g., helping with networking, editing resumes), for others financial (rent, travel expenses), and for yet others emotional (comforting thoughts, encouragement).
  2. Encourage activity.
    In the absence of career fairs, students can send resumes, request informational interviews, seek temporary work, or volunteer—anything to increase the probability of happenstance kicking in. Essentially, your student needs to be active and out there.
  3. Help your student see the forest AND the trees.
    Long-term vision and goals are important. Many graduates, however, miss the small opportunities that bring big rewards. For example, after deciding to try a small-opportunities approach, one student called an old contact during a flight layover and found herself entering a dialogue that led to a job offer two months later.
  4. Help your student understand that rejection should not be taken personally.
    Rejection is never easy…for anyone. Employers often have the luxury of choosing among several qualified applicants, with final selections based less on what a graduate does wrong than on what the employer sees as the best match. Encourage students to stay active and be themselves—the right fit will happen.
  5. Allow your student to embrace failure and closed doors.
    In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer reflects on his career path and how it was shaped as much by the "closed doors" as it was by the openings presented to him. While failure is discouraging, it can also raise awareness to new options.

Krumboltz, JD & Levin, AS (2004). Luck Is No Accident. Impact. Atascadero, CA. and Palmer, PJ (2000). Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Jossey-Bass; San Francisco, CA.