The Importance of Planned Happenstance

Common narratives about career planning can lead us to believe that the future can be logically planned in a straight line. By using SMART goals and a career planner we can identify the career we want, acquire the necessary qualifications and ascend our chosen career ladder in a predictable and controlled manner. In some ways this can be a comforting myth – although it also has a negative side.

This view of the straight line future can also make us believe that if we step off this line or fail to make the next rung on the ladder as predicted, then our lives will be a failure. If we don’t make the plan a reality, we have failed.

This can have a particular sting for PGR students. As discussed elsewhere on this site, it can be easy to believe that if you don’t get a job in academia right away, then your research degree will have been a pointless waste of time.

Planned happenstance theory [1] sets out why these straight line narratives are wrong and offers another, more realistic way of thinking about our careers.

The reality is that the future is unpredictable and most people have careers that take unexpected turnings and opportunities. The path to success is rarely predictable and simply planned. Things will happen that you didn’t expect – you won’t get some jobs you want, some jobs that you do get won’t be as enjoyable as you’d hoped and you will be presented with opportunities that you could never have predicted.

This means that preparing for the future requires you to consider multiple possibilities and to be open-minded about potential opportunities. If you take a straight-line view of your career you can miss opportunities to pursue careers and roles that would bring you deep satisfaction. 

This doesn’t mean that you are powerless to plan or prepare at all. If you use the Meaning, Pleasure, Strengths model [2] that we discuss elsewhere on this site, you will be aware of what is important to you and what you want from any career or role. You can use this knowledge to develop your skills, understanding and wisdom, so that when any opportunity comes along, you are prepared and ready to seize it.

Pay attention to the skills and strength you will have as a PGR graduate and how employable that makes you. Think about the things that bring you meaning and pleasure and then seek out multiple opportunities that will be satisfying for you. Be willing to move in unexpected directions, using your knowledge of yourself and your passions as the compass to guide you. 

With the talent and intelligence you must have if you have completed a PGR degree, there will be fantastic opportunities out there for you. Be open to them, prepare yourself for them and let go of the fear that there is one, specific, path you should take. There are many paths for you and many of them will be great.

Video Resources

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Sarah Williams (University of Derby) Discusses Happenstance, PGR Studies and Careers



Mitchell, K. E., Levin, A. S., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1999).  Planned Happenstance:  Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities. Journal of Counseling and Development, 77(2), 115-124.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2002). The question of happiness : on finding meaning, pleasure, and the ultimate currency. Retrieved from Shahar meaningful goals&f=false