Positive Uncertainty and the Strange Attractor

Andrew Crain explores chaos theory and its relevance to graduate student career development.

July 25, 2019
 
 
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I was recently speaking with a newly minted Ph.D. graduate at my institution who explained their journey to me:

My research topic engaged heavily with public policy. I thought maybe I would go work as a lobbyist someday. But once I began collecting data, I realized I hated working in politics. I considered quitting the program, but I was so close to graduation that I made a deal with myself to finish the degree. Now I’m looking for work around town for a year or two, waiting to see where my partner’s job search may take us when they finish their degree.

If you work with doctoral students on a regular basis, you’ve likely had many similar conversations. In fact, this short story captures many of the complexities of doctoral education: highly focused interests, plot twists, resiliency and true love. (OK, maybe just for some.) Being relatively new to the field of graduate career development, I admit these nuances have taken some getting used to. While my previous experience advising undergraduates provided me with a great foundation in coaching skills, graduate student conversations are just different.

In undergraduate meetings, I often found myself working with a student to plot X on the career map and then hashing out a plan to help them land their dream job. Now it is much more difficult to frame planning conversations, as the interests and experiences of each student are so incredibly specific.

To complicate matters further, many Ph.D. students find themselves trying to game out where their interests, experiences and the labor market will intersect two or three or more years out. And lest we forget, many academic departments approach graduate education as something of a cloning process, focused almost exclusively on developing the next generation of faculty members in their field.

For all of these reasons, I quickly came to the conclusion that my days of using a more structured advising approach are over. I decided what we need instead is a little more chaos.

To that end, I have recently become a major proponent of using the Chaos Theory of Careers to frame graduate student career exploration. Based upon scientific conceptualizations of the natural world, the theory endorses an open-systems approach to career planning rather than a closed-systems one. The idea here is that career decisions are intertwined in complex ways with other facets of one’s life -- relationships, community, health, the economy -- each of which is ever changing and somewhat unpredictable. In fact, the entire concept of chaos theory is predicated on four core principles: complexity, change, chance and connectivity.

Think for instance of meteorology, which offers perhaps the best example of how chaos theory might be applied. The system is complex but also recursive and self-organizing. We generally know what the weather will be like for the next week or so, and we know that the seasons follow a basic pattern according to the calendar. Trying to predict the weather more than about a week out, however, is immensely challenging -- there are simply too many moving parts to provide a reliable forecast. Even short-term models can shift unexpectedly at times, highlighting the fact that the weather is a prime example of an open system.

As Jim Bright and Robert Pryor have described in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, closed-systems thinking differs from open-systems thinking in the ways listed in the chart to the right.

Open-systems thinking allows one to begin integrating these ideas of complexity, change, chance and connectivity -- which can seem somewhat overwhelming -- to reframe career planning and decision making. Rather than steadfast adherence to an initial career objective, such as a tenure-track faculty role, the theory promotes the notion that one should continually revise one’s goals based upon changes within the environment. And even if the initial goal does remain at the forefront of one’s career trajectory, accepting the scientific fact that change and chance are inevitable means that it is unwise not to have one or more solid contingency plans.

Positive Uncertainty

In this vein, I have taken to emphasizing the importance of parallel planning with doctoral students. So you came into graduate school wanting to become a faculty member, and three years later you remain committed to that goal? Great. No problem! But consider ways you can build competencies toward achieving that goal that may also provide side doors into other career opportunities. If you’re a Ph.D. student in the life sciences, perhaps that means pursuing a project management certification. If you’re a doctoral student in the humanities, you could broaden your experience in teaching and assessment. Focusing on competencies in this manner allows you to lay the groundwork for multiple career options while remaining committed to a primary objective. And, in fact, it may end up making you even more competitive for opportunities in your initial area of interest.

Above all, students should network relentlessly. Bright, a founding proponent of the Chaos Theory of Careers, argues that networking is an excellent way to create your own luck. If the economy shifts unexpectedly and your plan A suddenly evaporates, a strong network will help you to identify new opportunities. Strong networks also make it more likely for you to gin up “chance events” that may work in your favor, and they provide additional resources for you when seeking to make sense of your experiences and (re)package them effectively.

Most doctoral students expand their networks organically as they go through their programs, but they should be mindful of how that process is unfolding. The nature of graduate school course work and research means that you may be siloing yourself for years at a time, so investing in -- or even just maintaining -- a broader network of connections can require some intentional effort. (A classic go-to resource here is Never Eat Alone.) This is especially important because networks must be nurtured. You cannot simply create one at the last minute if you decide to change career trajectories a few months before you graduate.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the Chaos Theory of Careers is the fact that it completely reconceptualizes the notion of failure. “In an uncertain world,” Pryor and Bright write, “it is simply unrealistic to think that all career decisions will achieve the outcomes expected and the successes craved for. Therefore, failure in career development needs to be considered normal, expected, not feared and not internalized.”

For most Ph.D. students, the need for resiliency in academic and research settings is well understood. Science, after all, is often predicated on the notions of failure and iteration. But at the same time, science is also about control: How can we predict the natural world or bend it to our will? In this sense, failure is often a means to an end, while personal failure can simply feel like the end.

Changing your career trajectory away from a goal you have internalized for an extensive period of time can be incredibly painful, but the Chaos Theory of Careers argues that it can also be a moment of liberation -- a perspective that Bright and Pryor refer to as “positive uncertainty.” The simple fact is that failure offers incredible opportunities: the opportunity to learn, to grow and perhaps to pursue something even better than what you had previously imagined for yourself. This reframing doesn’t just make failure something you survive -- it has the potential to actually make failure something that helps you thrive.

To live in this chaotic head space is what Bright and Pryor call the “strange attractor” mode of thinking: being able to stand at the edge of chaos, between order and complexity, without ever fully giving way to complete bedlam. From this vantage point, you have the wherewithal to anticipate change and chance and integrate these occurrences into your career trajectory accordingly. Bright and Pryor argue that strange attractor worldviews are important and necessary because “mutability and contingency are the parameters of our existence” and failing to consider that fact is “an inadequate spiritual perspective for life.”

In conversations with doctoral-level alumni, these themes of change and chance are readily apparent: a serendipitous conversation. Meeting a significant other. An unexpected recession. Any number of seemingly random occurrences could significantly alter the landscape you navigate when making career decisions.

At nearly every panel or presentation, our students encounter some version of the following story: “I was hired because they just needed someone who could sequence DNA, but then one day I was approached about this other project, which ultimately led me down a new path (or a series of paths).” For many professionals, those paths are deeply rewarding -- be it the linguist who now works as a litigation consultant, the biochemist who is a successful entrepreneur, the neuroscientist who provides career development training to medical researchers, the anthropologist who conducts user-experience research or the sociologist who leads statistical analyses at a large nonprofit organization.

Such outcomes might never have been predicted from the start, largely because such possible futures often remain unknown or unknowable to many graduate students. But what all of these stories have in common is a sense of curiosity, drive and resourcefulness -- a pioneering spirit, or the notion that the skills and ideas you bring to the table can bring value beyond even your own wildest dreams.

I suppose, in the end, this is the thing that has really hooked me onto the Chaos Theory of Careers: the cosmic perspective that acknowledges just how little control we often have over our long-term career outcomes. But, at the same time, some human agency also emerges from this chaos, along with the ultimate knowledge that -- no matter what -- there is a path through the universe that is made just for you.

Bio

Andrew Crain is the director of experiential professional development at the University of Georgia Graduate School and a doctoral student in the university’s Institute of Higher Education. The views represented here are his own.

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