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Paula Landon and W. Kerry Hammock, Brigham Young University

Editor’s Note: The article is based on a presentation given by Paula and Kerry at the 2009 NACADA Annual Conference in San Antonio.


Paula Landon.jpgW.Kerry Hammock.jpgAs advisors, we tell our liberal arts and social science students to “follow your heart” and “study what you love” in college. But, when it comes to career advising, how do we help these students “follow their hearts” to career success? Many liberal arts majors “love” so many different subjects they have a difficult time choosing a single career path. Other students do not know how to make connections between education and career choice. The career theory of “planned happenstance” provides direction for advisors to help students make connections and use developing skills and experiences to “plan” for “chance” career events.

“Planned happenstance” theory was introduced in 1999 by Mitchell, Levin and Krumboltz. They clarified it as “constructing unexpected career opportunities” and purport that students can “plan,” be prepared for, and even “construct” or generate “chance” career events in their lives. Advisors should recognize the underlying truth of this theory as many of us “happened” into advising as a career.

Because it can be used in addition to other career theories, some may argue that “planned happenstance” is not a theoretical model but a tool that assists students in development as they proceed in career decisions. When match theory or other career theories do not provide the impetus for decision-making, using “planned happenstance” can help the student generate career options and opportunities.

Our job is to not only help students plan and prepare, but also to construct, make meaning of, and capitalize on unplanned career events. When we work with students who cannot decide on specific details related to future careers, we are often at a loss as to what steps will help the student progress in the face of indecision. Advisors can apply planned happenstance to help students develop traits and skills and have experiences that will eventually make them desirable candidates in the competitive job market.  By helping the student process and make meaning of these experiences and skills, the advisor directs the student toward decision-making when “chance” opportunities arise. As Pasteur stated, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Students need to prepare for both “chance” career opportunities and unexpected career events that are consequences of the economy, the changing workplace, the global market place, or personal events.  They begin by identifying skills and traits that will be important as they develop their cadre of experience. Advisors assist students in defining methods to attain transferrable skills and employable traits through enriched learning opportunities: volunteering, part-time work, mentored research, internships, study abroad, student involvement, and leadership experiences. These skills, traits, and experiences will help students discover what is possible and how they can benefit a potential employer. The goal is to be in the “right place,” at the “right time,” with the “right tools.”

Planned happenstance lists five traits students must develop to take advantage of opportunity: curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk-taking. Advisors should work with students to encourage and reward the development of these traits. To help students develop the trait of curiosity, advisors should direct students to explore new learning opportunities that will teach them the process of defining their personal interests. As advisors encourage students to exert effort despite setbacks, this persistence may help the student reopen doors that may have been closed due to previous failure or premature decisions.  Encouraging students to stay flexible in light of changing attitudes and circumstances will help them see, in new ways, things they may have been interested in previously or how things have changed. Also, as advisors encourage students to examine new opportunities as “possible and attainable,” this optimism may generate new career opportunities. The advisor helps the student identify options, make decisions, and move forward. Rather than telling the student what is possible, the advisor’s role is to help the student discover what is attainable. Advisors must be careful not to tell the student that anything is possible or to censor the student’s dreams. This brings us to risk-taking. Advisors should teach students that taking risks may or may not generate career opportunities, but the lack of action definitely provides no new opportunities. Taking action in the face of uncertain outcomes will generate at least the possibility of “chance” events.

We need to help students understand that “planned happenstance” is a normal occurance as well as a model they can use to make career decisions. Through planned happenstance, advisors assist students to transform curiosity into opportunities, teach them how to produce desirable chance events, and help them overcome blocks to action. Students then use this model to make career decisions throughout their lives.

One of our students, an English Language major, had no idea what career she wished to pursue. When asked to think of past experiences that had meaning to her, she shared that she had organized her high school homecoming parade. She loved planning and organizing this event. Her advisor helped the student recognize this as a normal “chance” event in her life, one she could use to “construct” or generate other opportunities to plan events: major fairs, new student orientation, education conferences, etc. The advisor helped the student make meaning of this “chance” opportunity in her life which provided skills, experiences, additional opportunities, and direction to pursue a career as an event planner.

Through planned happenstance, we encourage students to “plan” for chance opportunities by developing traits and skills and having experiences that will help them recognize and even “create” career opportunities. As advisors help liberal arts and social science students “make meaning of” and capitalize on these experiences and opportunities, we help them “follow their hearts” to career success.

Paula Landon
Humanities Advisement Center
Brigham Young University
[email protected]


W. Kerry Hammock
University Advisement Center
Brigham Young University
[email protected]




Mitchell, K. E., Levin, A. S., & Krumboltz, J. D. (Sept 1999).  Planned Happenstance:  Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities, in Journal of Counseling and Development, 77(2), 115-124.  ERIC # - EJ596777. 

Cite this article using APA style as: Landon, P., & Hammock, W.K. (2010, March). Planned happenstance: Preparing liberal arts and social science students to follow their hearts to career success. Academic Advising Today, 33(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2010 March 33:1


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