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Planned happenstance

The planned happenstance theory recognises that unplanned events can create new opportunities. Here, Dr Janie Angell introduces the concept.
Several dice flying through the air
© University of Surrey

Many people start in a career as a result of a combination of luck, spontaneous decisions, some other unplanned event, or through family or other connection. Even people who have systematically planned their careers in a structured way often find that later chance events have led to more satisfying and rewarding careers. Traditional career theory doesn’t often allow for this, or is even dismissive about careers built without conscious planning.

The planned happenstance theory recognises that unplanned or serendipitous events can create new knowledge or opportunities. The theory holds that it is not always necessary to plan a career in the conventional sense. Instead, it is important to prepare for happenstance. To prepare, developing skills and attributes that could be useful in all sorts of situations is key. And it is also important to be curious and to always look upon chance events as opportunities that could lead to action. The point is to transform unplanned events into career opportunities.

A planned happenstance approach is not about providing the quick fix many students want but rather encouraging students to develop a sustainable set of behaviours and small actions that will enable them to put themselves in the right place at the right time.
(Source: Winter, 2009)

It’s precisely this approach that we want to encourage you to take at university. As a student you will have access to many new activities, as we will see in Week 2.


Mitchell, K.E., Levin, A.S. and Krumboltz, J.D. (1999) ‘Planned happenstance: constructing unexpected career opportunities’, Journal of Counselling & Development, 77, pp.115–124.

Winter, D. (2009) How can careers advice be positive in a recession. Available from: (Accessed 25 June 2021).

© University of Surrey
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