When Carol Lee was eyeing a job as a secretary at a prestigious Atlanta, Georgia, university, she already knew she was overqualified. She had a master’s degree, after all.
Then again, she had just finished an eight-year stint with the military, moved to a new town, and was stuck temping until she found a “real” job. What’s more, Lee knew that starting as a secretary in the college’s fundraising department could kick-start her career, giving her that foot in the door she needed to work for an employer with growth opportunities.
So when a human resources officer told Lee she was indeed “overqualified,” she kicked her efforts into high gear to convince them otherwise.
The result? Not only did she grab the secretary position, but Lee says she loved the job and her new boss.
“Used to going over and beyond my duties, able to work autonomously, and make decisions—courtesy of the military—we made a great team for little over a year until he got promoted and went to a new job at the university,” she tells HealthyWay. “And it did jumpstart my career!”
The Problem With Being Overqualified
The word “overqualified” can signal a death knell in many a pursuit for a job, especially for those with advanced degrees who have a great educational background but little to no experience in an industry where they want to grow.
Imagine walking out of school with a marketing degree and dreams of landing a gig at a cool digital agency, only to be told your degree is just too good for that junior position that you so desperately want. It happens—a lot.
The fact is, as many as one in four college-educated workers in America are considered overqualified for their jobs. But as grads like Lee can attest, being overqualified doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want the job or that it won’t be a perfect fit!
If you’re on the hunt for a job and can’t find a help wanted ad that matches your qualifications, you don’t have to throw in the towel or pull up stakes and start over in a new town. There are some ways around the “overqualified” curse.
What Overqualified Really Means
If you’ve ever been called in for an interview and thought you nailed it, only to get the call from HR that they’ve passed on you because you’re “overqualified,” you might be frustrated. You might also be asking what the heck it means.
According to Marielle Smith, vice president of people at GoodHire, the answer isn’t as simple as a mismatch between your education level and the needs of the company or even a matter of “too much” experience.
As many as one in four college-educated workers in America are considered overqualified for their jobs.
“It could mean you are significantly more senior than the level sought, which could impact their costs—perhaps they haven’t budgeted for someone at your level,” Smith says, “Or it could mean that your compensation expectations are too high.”
So why didn’t they just pass on your name when you sent in your resume? Again, being overqualified can be complicated, and sometimes the red flags don’t come out until you’ve sat down for that face-to-face interview.
“They could also be telling you that the level of work this role entails are at a lower level than your capabilities and would be boring for you,” Smith says. “Sometimes if someone says you’re ‘overqualified,’ it’s a proxy for ‘I think you wouldn’t be happy in this job.’ And if that’s the case, it will be very hard to change their mind.”
So, being overqualified means you won’t get the job? Actually, no! You just need to know how to play up the “good” over those qualifications!
Why It’s Okay to Be Overqualified
There are countless reasons why someone might apply for a job for which they’re technically “overqualified.”
You might be like Augusta, Georgia, resident Rebecca Alwine: a primary caregiving parent, married to an active-duty military spouse, who needs to work a flexible schedule not typically available at higher-powered jobs.
You might have moved with your partner to a new area and still be in the process of transferring career certifications across state lines.
Or perhaps you lost your job unexpectedly, and the basic need for a salary to keep a roof over your head and food in your tummy is more important than the need to find a job that challenges you.
Life would be simpler if we could just wait for that dream job to become open, but unemployment benefits typically stop after 26 weeks in most states. What’s more, studies have found that the longer you’re out of the workforce, the harder it can be to find a job, as hiring managers are wary of gaps in a resume.
There are, however, benefits for employers who hire overqualified workers. In one study out of Portland State University, researchers determined that empowering overqualified employees made up for any negative effects of perceived overqualification on job satisfaction, intentions to remain, and voluntary turnover.
How to Get a Job When You’re Overqualified
So you really want that job? Heck, you need that job? You may still be able to talk your way in the door!
When Rebecca Alwine applied to stock grocery store shelves, she already knew she was overqualified for the job. She has a masters in emergency management and disaster planning, among other degrees and certifications. She also needed a job that would allow her to supplement her husband’s military income and still allow her to be there for her kids when they needed her. And she wanted to stock shelves. The grocery store said no, but it taught her a valuable lesson in how to use her qualifications for her instead of against her.
Alwine went on to apply for a position that was directed to applicants with an associate’s degree, despite the fact that she had her master’s.
“I was able to talk my way into it during the first interview by explaining why I wanted the job, why I thought I would be good at it, and why I wasn’t looking for something full-time/on my degree level at that point,” she explains.
Here’s how the hiring managers say you can copy her example:
Address objections head-on.
Going through issues a hiring manager may have and addressing them head-on in an interview is important, Smith says. They allow you to take charge of the conversation, instead of the hiring manager having to read between the lines.
“To convince someone to hire you despite your over qualifications, you need to address possible objections—whether you’re too senior, would be bored in the role, don’t have the right skills to do the operational work that the role entails, or you’re too expensive—that’s what they want to know and what you need to address,” she advises.
Talk up your hands-on experience.
If you’ve got more qualifications, that means you know how to do everything at the lower level too, right? Not exactly, Smith says.
If you’ve spent a significant amount of time in senior roles, for example, a hiring manager may assume you don’t have the operational or hands-on experience necessary to perform lower-level work required for the role, casting you into the overqualified bucket.
“The amount of effort and time the company would have to spend to get that person up to speed with the skills necessary to perform those functions would not be a good deal for them, especially if they are paying a higher salary based on their senior level,” Smith notes.
If you do have those skills, now’s the time to tell the hiring manager! Focus more on your technical expertise and how operational you’ve been in previous roles, and be as specific as possible.
“Don’t take the high-level approach, or they won’t see the operational side of your skills and how hands-on you can be,” Smith says.
Part of that should happen before you’re even in the door at the interview, with a resume built to address the needs of the job (based on your actual skills, of course).
“I will never leave experience off an application/resume,” Alwine admits, “but sometimes I rearrange it so they fall in love with me before they realize I’m overeducated!”
Promise to stick around.
Finally, show your commitment to the position. If a company is going to invest in training you, they need to know you aren’t just taking this job until something better comes along.
Greg Shepard has been hiring staff to clean homes at Texas-based cleaning service Dallas Maids since 2014, and one particular resume has always stuck out to him. The applicant’s last position was as a corporate executive, but she was applying to clean homes after being struck by a need to live life more simply.
It was a desire Shepard understood, enough so that he scheduled an interview. But it was the knowledge that the applicant wouldn’t stick with the job for long that made him eventually opt not to hire her.
“Overall, I, and I suspect most employers, want to ensure the job benefits the employee better than the job before because I want the employee to be happy.”
“We want employees that will be with us for many years, not just a few months as they find something that pays better,” Shepard explains. “Having low turnover is important for several reasons: 1. We don’t lose money on training, 2. Our customers prefer to have the same ladies cleaning their home year after year, and 3. Keeping talent means consistent cleanings for our customers. Each house has a learning curve, and sending new teams means a lull in quality as the team learns how to clean the home.”
Explain how this job helps you.
Shepard suggests applicants show a hiring manager how this job would be an improvement over your last position, even if the pay is lower or the title seems less impressive.
“Candidates that we have hired that had made more at their previous jobs were ones that this position would still have been a step up,” he explains.
For example, if someone says they’re coming to the company because it offers great hours that will enable them to continue working when they might have otherwise left the work world, Shepard sees someone who is getting a benefit from the position and is more likely to stick around.
“Overall, I, and I suspect most employers, want to ensure the job benefits the employee better than the job before because I want the employee to be happy,” Shepard says. “Happy employees will be productive and stay with the company long-term, resulting in more happy customers and less costly turnover. So if an applicant is overqualified for a position, communicate genuine reasons why the job is not a step down and why you see yourself working for years to come!”