College students today face an uncertain future when it comes to work. Two career theories offer tips for job hunting and finding professional success.

Useful Career Theories for Today's College Students


  • Today's college students face an uncertain future and shaky job market due to COVID-19.
  • The planned happenstance theory stresses open-mindedness, curiosity, and flexibility.
  • Meanwhile, the chaos theory of careers focuses on adaptability, the big picture, and feedback.
  • Students should work with their career services centers to navigate potential career paths.

Nothing about this year has been predictable, particularly when it comes to college and employment. Whether you were already on a career path or planning one out, it's possible your journey took a direction you never anticipated.

The concept of a "career path" has been falling out of fashion for years, though. Many career models present neat steps for progression from entry-level positions to senior management roles. You might even recall the metaphor of "climbing the ladder" to success.

These days, instead of a straight line, we take detours, retrace our steps, and blaze new trails in our professional journeys.

Today, few people enter a field after college graduation and retire from that same industry decades later. Instead of a straight line, we take detours, retrace our steps, and blaze new trails.

There are many alternatives to following an established career path. Two popular career development theories — planned happenstance and the chaos theory of careers — offer a way forward. Though not new, these methods of thinking about your career are more relevant now than ever before.

Both theories frame career planning to help you not only react to unplanned events — such as the COVID-19 pandemic — but also benefit from them.

A young businesswoman in a red blazer smiles at a businessman at a professional networking event.

Planned Happenstance Theory

We can all probably agree that careers aren't built solely on luck, but planned happenstance insists an element of chance is involved. You can also create your own luck and, in doing so, foster long-term satisfaction in your personal and professional life.

Developed by Stanford University professor and counseling psychologist John Krumboltz, a planned happenstance approach encourages us to be open-minded. "Unplanned events can become opportunities for learning," Krumboltz explains.

While preparation to make the most of chance occurrences can benefit your career, planning remains important. Krumboltz and his team developed the following list of skills you can build to prepare for your professional future:

  • Curiosity

    Be open and actively explore a wide range of opportunities to learn. These could be opportunities to learn more about yourself, your areas of interest, or ideas that might be completely new to you.

  • Persistence

    Don't give up! Everyone experiences challenges and setbacks, both as a student and when they start working. Take stock of what you learn from these situations and keep moving forward.

  • Flexibility

    The world around us is constantly evolving. Develop the ability to change with the times, and adopt an attitude that accepts what you can't altar while embracing what you can.

  • Optimism

    It may seem especially challenging to remain positive these days, but maintaining an optimistic view — with some hope for the future despite the setbacks of the present — can help you see what's possible.

  • Risk Taking

    We don't always know exactly what'll happen when we choose one direction over another, but don't let it paralyze your decisions. Do your research and be prepared to act when the time comes.

Chaos Theory of Careers

Chaos seems to surround us these days: The coronavirus continues to spread, and in its wake we see continual changes in the economy and job market. Robert Pryor and Jim Bright, two Australian researchers and professors, developed an approach that relates career planning to the reality of how we live — in other words, in chaos.

Life isn't a neat, linear path; change is happening at a rapid rate, and we must embrace lifelong learning in order to keep our skills up to date and relevant. According to Pryor and Bright's chaos theory of careers, we as individuals are made up of dynamic systems, making us subject to complexity, change, and chance.

The chaos theory includes some complex concepts and several core ideas, which emphasize the importance of flexibility in career planning and adaptability when faced with unexpected changes.

  • Be Open-Minded

    Exploration is key to learning more about yourself and the possible trajectories your career could take.

  • Seek Out New Experiences

    Uncertainty doesn't have to be negative. Be willing to take risks and learn through the challenges they present.

  • Take Small Steps

    Careers accompany many decisions, successes, and failures. Break down the process so you can focus on one step or decision at a time.

  • Think About the Big Picture

    Remember that your professional path is just one part of your life. As your career progresses, you'll be able to more clearly see relationships and patterns in your decisions.

  • Get Feedback

    Work with others, such as mentors, professors, and career counselors, to help guide your career decisions and professional exploration.

Work With Your Career Services Center

At this year's National Career Development Association Conference, keynote speaker Lisa Taylor shared that career planning often includes problem-solving, and that the way we've been taught to approach problems is as if they were a puzzle, with a finite number of pieces and a single solution. Careers used to follow this type of pattern.

But modern problem-solving and career planning are more mysterious and chaotic in nature, Taylor says. Many pieces are unknown, experimentation is necessary, and you must continually search for clues as to what might happen next.

Career counselors, coaches, and advisors can help guide your search for clues and offer advice on how to act on what you find. Work with your school's career center to better understand the constantly changing employment landscape and how to navigate through it.

Specifically, career centers can help you do the following:

  • Take Career Assessments: Want to know more about your interests, abilities, and values? Career advisors can administer several types of evaluations and provide you with a trained interpretation of your results.
  • Discover the Possibilities: Career professionals can work with you to match your interests, abilities, and values to various types of jobs and industries. They're also an incredible resource for information on current hiring trends.
  • Connect With Employers: Some employers may be already actively recruiting graduates from your institution — work with the career center to meet these companies. Your career counselor can also help you identify other businesses to follow.
  • Build Your Network: Learn strategies for meeting new people. Each contact and conversation can potentially lead to new ideas and information that'll help you make your next career move.
  • Develop Your Brand: What would employers find if they searched for your name online? Fine-tune your social media accounts, student portfolios, and other digital work to share your goals and speak for you when you can't do it yourself.
  • Explore Your Story: Everyone's career story includes successes and challenges. Conversations with a career services professional can help you not only shape your own journey but also learn more about yourself and your goals.

You don't need to be actively looking for a job to consult a job counselor — your career center is prepared to work with you throughout your college journey. This is true for freshmen and graduating seniors.

What's more, you don't need to wait for campuses to reopen. Many schools' career centers now connect with students online.

A young man happily checks his smart phone while sitting at his desk in a brightly lit office.

5 Essential Tips for College Students and Job Seekers

Whether you're looking for a job right now or anticipate searching for open positions in the near future, there are specific ways you can apply the ideas behind planned happenstance and the chaos theory in your own career planning.

Adjust Your Focus on Majors

Your next job might not be directly related to your major, and that's all right. Choosing a major can seem daunting, but it's just one of many career decisions you'll make in your life. A BestColleges study conducted earlier this year found that 61% of college grads would change their majors if they could go back.

Identify Your Work Values

Where do you find meaning in your work? Some people focus primarily on income and benefits, whereas others are more interested in working in a specific location or getting support for volunteer activities. Try exploring your values with the CareerOneStop Work Values Matcher exercise.

Be Flexible About Job Titles

Earning a college degree does more than prepare you for a specific job. Focusing only on opportunities advertised for a certain job title or industry limits your access to a wider range of positions that may better align with your needs and values.

Develop a Challenge Mindset

When presented with an obstacle, whether large or small, it can be easy to back away from it. The reality is that new barriers take effort to overcome. By embracing challenges as opportunities, you'll grow better at adapting, learning, and identifying new possibilities.

Make the Most of Your Network

Find out how others in your field of interest arrived at their current jobs. You'll likely encounter many stories that include chance conversations, meetings, and ideas leading to unexpected opportunities. Informational interviews are a great way to forge these kinds of connections.

Career Development Is Ongoing

Career development isn't a one-time deal. You'll need to make many decisions along the way — some planned, and some resulting from unexpected events. The planned happenstance and chaos theories offer suggestions to strengthen skills and apply strategies that prepare you to survive, adapt, and persist in today's job market.

As we contend with an increasingly unpredictable economy, it's important to understand that there isn't just one route to job satisfaction and a successful career. Consult your career center to learn what's possible, and don't be afraid to explore your options.