One of the most memorable scenes in film history is in 1967’s “The Graduate.” At the graduation party hosted by his parents, a family friend sidles up to Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) and conspiratorially says, “I just want to say one word to you — one word … plastics.” If that scene were played today, the graduate might hear, instead of plastics, “planned happenstance.”
It may sound like a very 1960s notion, but Patty Counihan, director of the University of Maine’s Career Center, says planned happenstance is the best theory she has heard in recent years for how a college graduate should approach that often difficult transition from school to career. The idea, she explains, is that to be successful in finding a career, one must be persistent, enthusiastic, open to new relationships and ideas, and willing to take risks.
The graduate of 2010 is, of course, facing one of the worst job markets in decades (though Ms. Counihan says it was worse in the early 1980s). “Students are more fearful,” she observes, “so it almost paralyzes them.” They believe their prospects for finding meaningful — or even less-than-meaningful — employment are so slim, that they conclude, “What’s the point?” Many opt for graduate school as a way of forestalling that search. In fact, at UMaine, graduate school applications in the last two years are double what they have been, Ms. Counihan said.
Some majors, such as engineering, nursing and teaching, lead seamlessly to careers. But many others, in the liberal arts and sciences, do not. It is these graduates, Ms. Counihan says, who must keep an open mind about that first job. “They feel they have to get the perfect job or nothing at all,” she observes, when in fact, a job that would look good on a resume, even if it doesn’t pay well, can be the first step on the career path.
Graduates also often fail to investigate employment opportunities adequately. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for example, offers a management training program, yet graduates dismiss it, saying, “I don’t want to be cleaning cars,” Ms. Counihan says. That response betrays a rush to judgment, she says, and misses the point that the first job is not likely to be glamorous.
Internships, both before and after graduation, are valuable as career launchers, she says, as is networking with friends, family and fellow students.
Which leads back to “planned happenstance.” Ms. Counihan says graduates should learn what they are passionate about doing, and then be prepared to leap into a job that offers even an element of that goal or quality. That job can in turn lead to another and another, and 10 years later, the graduate finds him or herself in a challenging, meaningful and rewarding career — often doing something that couldn’t have been imagined at graduation.
“You don’t know what’s around the bend,” Ms. Counihan says, but greeting it with enthusiasm and a willingness to adapt are the best tools to reach that satisfying job future.