Finding a Dream Job: A Little Chaos Theory Helps

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Remember when majoring in, say, French literature meant lots of anxious questions from relatives about how you were planning to support yourself, while a degree in finance was, by contrast, an almost automatic ticket to a decent entry-level corporate job? This spring's new college grads face skyrocketing unemployment, hiring freezes and competition from experienced candidates who have been laid off and are increasingly desperate to find work. Any work. So no matter what you majored in, when it comes to getting hired, all bets are off. Depending on how you look at it, that's either liberating or terrifying. (See pictures of the college dorm's evolution.)

Or both. In You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career (Viking; $25.95), Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., points out that the way we usually approach career-planning is logical and linear — i.e., "I majored in political science, so I'll go to law school," or "I studied history, so I'll be a history teacher." With the economy in shambles, though, what seems straightforward to students (or their parents) may not be. Searching out other less obvious options, always a smart strategy, matters more now than ever. Brooks borrows from mathematical chaos theory to help new grads map out a career plan that will ultimately get them where they really want to go. (Read "What to Do If You Get Laid Off.")

If that sounds daunting, it isn't. Originally developed to help with weather forecasting, chaos theory takes into account that unpredictable forces are always at work, but that with the right analytical tools, underlying patterns emerge and a sort of order — although not the linear kind — becomes clear. Applying it to career-planning is a relatively new thing. People — like my dad, and probably yours — used to go to work for one company right out of college or the military, stay there for 30-odd years, get an orderly series of promotions and raises, and then retire with a nice guaranteed pension. How quaint! Those days are never coming back. So new grads need more comprehensive tools for plotting their future, because ... well, because the world has gone nuts. Brooks, who is director of liberal-arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin, provides those tools in the form of a series of quizzes and exercises designed to crystallize students' talents and inclinations. She then explains how to use the results to choose a direction, stand out from the crowd and wow job interviewers. (See the best business deals of 2008.)

Brooks has spent a couple of decades showing panicky seniors that there is in fact life after school, and she's a big believer in staying open to the possibility that one's work may have nothing to do with one's college major. "Only about 30% of the alumni who get back in touch with me end up in careers directly related to their college studies," she says. "Most discover they're actually more interested in other things." Is that 70% majority happy? "Yes, because they're following their passion," Brooks says. "The saddest thing to me is seeing someone take a job just because it pays well, and then spend all that money on toys to cheer them up for being miserable in their job. People who are doing what they love hardly feel they're working at all, just living."

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