Making a Case for the Overqualified

You think I’m qualified for the job? I’m delighted you think so! When do I start? What’s that? You said overqualified? Really, now, that’s quite a compliment. You’re making me blush. I’m sorry – am I missing something? You say “overqualified” like it’s a bad thing. Oh…I see. I’ll just show myself out, then.

It sounds like a compliment...and it should be. Photo credit: flickr user o5com

In my current combined job search and self-discovery vision quest, I’ve been met on different fronts with the recurring theme that a wealth of experience may, in fact, be a detriment. There is no shortage of “expert” advice, online or otherwise, suggesting that you should hide or neglect to mention years of education and/or employment. If your light is too bright  or its spectrum contains too many wavelengths for the position, hide it under the nearest bushel. Okay, honestly, I do get it – target your resume and cover letter toward a specific position. Focus I understand. However, I can’t completely evade the feeling that this gamesmanship of playing hide-and-seek and cherry-picking facts seems disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. It’s somewhat against the grain of how one is trained to think as a scientist. Even if one hasn’t been met with this particular o-word per se, it lies not too far beneath concerns that are more openly stated. Prospective employers are worried that so-called overqualified candidates might jump ship at the first opportunity for a better position elsewhere. They’re concerned that after going through the interview process, they won’t be able to seal the deal because their budget can’t meet the candidate’s salary requirements. They fear their new hire may soon be bored. This sort of thinking is, well, a bit risk-averse, shall we say. A recent post by Amy Gallo on the Harvard Business Review blog makes a case for taking such a risk. A challenge is posed:
“When making hiring decisions, visionary leaders don't just focus on the current needs, but on the future.”
So, will the final hiring decision for the position you desire be made by such a visionary leader? Does the future lurch and loom darkly before them, or will they embrace the challenges ahead? I think it's safe to say that most people would prefer to work for someone in the latter category. A perceived benefit for a hiring manager to adopt this mindset is driven home:
"Hiring overqualified candidates can help you achieve much higher productivity, grow, and achieve opportunities that you may not even be thinking about pursuing right now." There are other less obvious benefits too: these employees can mentor others, challenge peers to exceed current expectations, and bring in areas of expertise that are not represented at the company.

Yummy knowledge! Save some for me! Photo credit: flickr user Christian Haugen

Sounds good, doesn't it? Honestly, though, don’t most people’s jobs change over time? There are new developments in technology, best practices, knowledge within your discipline, business needs, what have you, that necessitate modifying some aspect of what you do. If you’re adamantly resistant to change, you’ll be left behind. Successful people aren’t usually like that, though. They have amassed their supply of deep, diverse experience because they want to learn all the time – that's what has driven them from day one. They don’t wait for knowledge to be fed to them; they seek it out like it’s a special treat, and then devour it – nom nom nom nom. They evolve; curiosity and a hunger for knowledge feed their evolution. To behave otherwise invites negative consequences. The philosopher and writer of social commentary Eric Hoffer put it best: "In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."  This preferred path of continuous learning will reap benefits whether you're an experienced professional, a new chemistry graduate, or anywhere in between. Okay, prospective employers, here’s my mission statement. While I’m in your employ, you will have my full attention. I will give my all and strive to grow in the position. All I ask is a chance to do what I do best every day. I will reward your courage with my efforts to contribute and make a difference. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn:

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  1. It’s kind of disheartening to hear the ‘overqualified’ excuse. It’s really hard to become ‘less qualified’. I can’t see that as being much of a goal.

    The ‘more’ qualified people are typically the problem solvers, the facilitators, the technical backstops who support the efforts of others. These are the people who can raise the game of those around them.

    For me, I always strive to surround myself with the sharpest, most qualified people I can find.

    But that’s just plain overqualified me.

  2. Couldn’t agree more — hopefully your opinion will become more prevalent, and start driving the job market.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. [strikeout]If[/strikeout] WHEN this truly does happen. You probably are better off not working there anyways. I ran into this during my job search after undergrad, and I have to say I would be hating life right now if some of those places I applied to hired me.

  4. ‘Overqualified’ is a code word, meaning all or some of:

    1. We don’t want geezers around here. They fart to much and tell too many ‘Back in my day…’ stories.

    2. You may threaten our managers, the oldest of whom is 32.

    3. You’ve only got ten years left and then you’ll retire. Never mind that most employees are only seven years in their jobs.

    4. You’re harder to mislead or lie to.

    5. You likely don’t have a dependent family to feed, so you won’t be sufficiently frightened/obsequious/desperate.

    6. You might die in your chair before a long weekend, and the place will stink by Tuesday.

    Dangerous Bill

  5. The reason why “overqualified” is problematic is that there is a historical (for managers who’ve been around the block) experience that folks who are overqualified tend to 1) be bored easily, leave and thus waste invested costs in the employee, 2) expect commensurate salary and raise schedules beyond and regardless of the original scope of the job description and budget, and 3) PhDs tend to have entitlement issues due to their degree that often makes them not be team players thus disrupting teams and interfering with project success.

    Are there exceptions? Thankfully yes, but it takes extra management experience and effort to figure out which candidates they are. And the exceptions are pure gold. However those who are not tend to net negative ROI from the get go, and most managers can’t or won’t seek those needles in the haystack.

    Again, it’s sad but this is the “why” of it.

  6. It’s a difficult argument to make – I was hired out of my PhD to do an entry level job in my field. However, I did the best job that I could do, and brought a level of technical sophistication to the role – I pursued research questions in my own time and published papers with the company’s approval.

    However, now our team is chock full of PhDs, and we need engineers that are willing to fulfill a role without getting dissatisfied. I’ve had a few candidates from the Uni approach us for jobs, but it’s obvious from their questions that they want a pure research job in industry, with no development. I don’t really want to hire someone like that… I need people who understand that things need to get done. When we’re crunched for time, even the director of our group will box up shipments.


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