“I’m overqualified” – Oh Really?

I was approached by a young man this week after a presentation.  His question was – “What do you do when you’re over-qualified for any job available?” He proceeded to tell me he had a Master’s degree in Public Health and had been told in multiple interviews he was “over-qualified.”

Now think about the reality here – In what setting would being “over-qualified” eliminate you from consideration?  If my mechanic gets an additional certification will I tell him “I don’t want you working on my car anymore – I’m afraid you’re too smart.”  If you show up for a simple physical exam and find out the doctor is a cardiologist will you back off because he’s over-qualified?  If you are choosing a massage therapist and discover that one contender has a PhD in anatomy will you eliminate that person?  If you need a receptionist with a great personality would you reject the candidate you liked the most if you discovered at the last minute that she had a Masters in English Literature?

As in any of these situations the only justification for telling a person they are “over-qualified” is likely found in this list:

  • You are not the ideal candidate we’re looking for
  • We don’t think you’d be a team player here
  • We don’t like you
  • We don’t trust you
  • You want too much money
  • We think you’re too arrogant and condescending
  • We suspect you’ll leave as soon as you find something better

Please hear my gentle counsel – being told you are “too experienced” or “over-qualified” is simply a politically correct way of telling you they aren’t convinced they want you on their team.   This statement is a disguise – and a safe way to make it sound like the person is complimenting you.  But it doesn’t realistically have anything to do with your qualifications, knowledge, or talent.  It’s a meaningless term that protects the company from being candid about the real reason they don’t see you as a good choice.  Forget about your degrees — work on interview skills that make people like you, trust you and want to be around you.

Incidentally, the young man who initiated this blog was very defensive that it was purely his brilliance, qualifications and superior ability that made people feel inferior around him and he was helpless to change that reality.  I rest my case.

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31 Responses to ““I’m overqualified” – Oh Really?”

  1. Jason Garey Says:

    Great post, Dan. I hope at some point this young man gets over himself. It’s so true that attitude trumps aptitude so much of the time. If he had an equal portion of humility he would be unstoppable, eh?

  2. Cookeville Weather Guy Says:

    Fantastic post my friend. I’ve heard people say “They told me I was over-qualified” many times and wondered what the REAL reason was…thanks for the enlightenment and remember the ‘meek (or humble) shall inherit the earth’…..

  3. Martin Bentley Krebs Says:

    Great perspective, Dan. The misuse of that phrase is similar to the equally offensive technique of “starting a negative with a positive.” It’s okay to think that my feelings might be less hurt by building me up first, but it doesn’t open the door to being slammed to the floor with the real issue that follows it.

    “Honesty is the best policy” seems to apply here — if you don’t want me for the job, just tell me; I’ll get to work on making my personality a little more winning for the next interview. And for heaven’s sake, don’t leave me hanging by not saying or sending anything. If the door is going to close, I want to know that it’s closed.

    Thanks for the post; will keep it in mind during my interview this afternoon!

  4. Marla Martenson Says:

    I love this post. I have often thought about that phrase myself. How ridiculous to tell someone that they are overqualified. I always imagined the reason they said it was because they were looking to pay a lower salary, so finding someone with less qualifications but was trainable would solve that dilemma.

  5. Holly Says:

    You forgot another possibly “real” reason a person may hear “You’re overqualified”—how about: “You’re too old and we don’t want to take a chance that you’d rack up a lot of medical bills at our expense”?

  6. Mary Mann Says:

    Unfortunately, the litigious society we live in dictates the terminology that can be used. I prefer honesty, also — but it’s never going to happen.

    I was reading recently that the percentage of suits of APPLICANTS has risen sharply because of the volume of job seekers vs. the amount of jobs to be had.

    Hence — you can’t get an honest answer about why you weren’t chosen (even if the answer might be beneficial to you and a future employer). Additionally, hardly any company will give a viable reference when a potential employer calls.

    It’s frustrating because a lot of the people who caused (and are continuing) to proliferate the crisis are still working and receiving bonuses that would feed a family of 6 for 3 years (or more).

    Also — not everyone is an entrepreneur. Some of us just want to work a regular job and pay our bills and yet we are made to feel guilty because we aren’t online with a creative idea that is going to turn into something akin to “post it notes.”

    If everyone were honest and ran their companies with integrity, we wouldn’t be in this position.

    Whew!! I must be tired.

    Mary

  7. Jason Garey Says:

    Mary, no one can make you feel guilty or anything else. If you’re satisfied with putting in your time to pay the bills, more power to you. We shouldn’t be defined by our work, rather we should put our all into pouring ourselves into the lives of others no matter where we are. At the same time, I hope you understand the importance of the entrepreneur. In his or her purest form, this is a person who is passionate serving others by discovering unmet needs in the marketplace and filling them.

  8. Mary Mann Says:

    I quite understand the importance of the entrepreneur. And more power to them (you). I don’t believe anything in my post indicated that I think entrepreneur’s are not important. However – just to clarify – to many of us, working a job and/or career in order to pay our bills is not defined by us as “putting in our time.” We love our careers and are passionate about them. We just have other things we prefer to do with our lives and our time. We don’t all require the same things. For instance, I don’t require selling something so much that all of my “friends” think I’m spending time with them for the sole purpose of selling them something. Some people are not bothered by this at all. We all reap the benefits of someone finding a niche in the marketplace and filling a need a lot of people have. We’re grateful to all of you. However, you wouldn’t be able to be so successful in your entrepreneurial endeavors if you weren’t backed up by someone who is supporting your efforts in what you would call a “putting in your time” job. The difference is we recognize your importance and intelligence…..

    I have Dan’s CD’s and found them very motivational and helpful. I passed them on to someone. I’m not criticizing the basis of this website at all. I thank him and applaud all of you. We just don’t all have the same gifts and personalities.

    BTW – the design of this website is excellent.

  9. Chuck Says:

    And one more reason to defend those who truly are “over-qualified” at times; the interviewer is protecting their own job when your qualifications for an entry level position trumps their qualifications for the postion they hold. Let’s not pretend the interviewer has the proper qualifications as well. It is exactly what Dan said, the person saying you are over-qualified is weak and unable to voice their true thoughts effectively so they put their inadequency on the backs of the prospect.

  10. Ken Says:

    We have had some job openings where I work that I have been involved in with my boss. He wouldn’t hire some because he felt they were “over qualified” and would just stay long enough to find another position somewhere else. That was his only reasoning. Not that others couldn’t do the same thing.

  11. Keith Says:

    I always understood the definition of being overqualified as being the last item on the list. They know you just want the job until something better comes along. It IS possible to be overqualified for any particular job. I have a slight disagreement with this column. Most of the time being told you are overqualified for a job is the potential employer’s honest reservation about hiring you. Some things in this world are as they seem to be.

  12. Roy Holsclaw Says:

    What about people on the other end of the scale? The people who are not qualified to have a good paying job. I worked 30 years delivering magazines, the company went out of business. Since then I’ve tried selling and failed. I now drive a school bus and have been put on medical leave (sleep disorder) . All I’m doing now is delivering pizzia’s,when I go on job interviews it seems I not qualified.

  13. Chris Says:

    By coincidence, this article also appeared in my email today:

    http://news.efinancialcareers.com/newsandviews_item/newsItemId-25729

    money quotes:
    “If a candidate previously held a role at a higher level than the one she’s seeking, or her education or certifications exceed a position’s stated requirements, she’s unlikely to pass the INITIAL SOFTWARE-DRIVEN SCREEN most employers apply before even looking at an incoming resume.

    Moreover, many employers blithely use the word “overqualified” as a barely concealed synonym for “too old.” ”

    It is unfair to put most of the blame on job-seekers’ attitude.

  14. Cindy Says:

    Having worked in HR, I have witnessed an applicant being passed over in the initial screening stage due to being “overqualified” many times. In these cases, the recruiter may feel that the applicant will not take the lower salary, or the applicant will not be happy in the position very long and will leave the company shortly after hire, wasting valuable time and money. This is especially true if the recruiter knows “moving up” is a rare opportunity or a slow process. This happens all the time and in these days of online applications only, it can be difficult just obtaining a phone screen. My suggestion would be to submit a cover letter if possible explaining why you want to work for the company, why you want the position and what you can contribute. Even then, cover letters are often overlooked as well.

  15. econobiker Says:

    “They know you just want the job until something better comes along. It IS possible to be overqualified for any particular job.”

    Which essentially means that the employer is hiring to fit the person and pay to the position for the long term expecting that the employee will be loyal to stay in that position and pay rate.

    And not that the employer would ever lay the person off in a downturn since he/she was hired for the long term.

    Sarcastic comments, anyone?

  16. Sharon Says:

    I have been told that many times before. I’ve been unemployed since Feb. 2009 got another job 2 months later only to loose that Dec. 2009. I’ve applied all over yah dah yah dah yah dah – just recently I was told in a letter that sorry you are overqualified. Baloney – I just need a job. It is such a lame excuse.

  17. Marie Says:

    I appreciate the point Dan made in the article, that you shouldn’t trap yourself by having the mindset that the problem is always the fact that you are overqualified, and yes, being overqualified is not going to stop you if you are creating a job for yourself as an entreprenuer.

    That said, when you are trying to get someone else to employ you, because maybe your entreprenuerial ventures have to this point been a financial failure and you are completely out of resources, yes, being overqualified is definitely an extra hurdle to actually getting an interview. If a company requires that I must start the process with an online application, and there is no way to get my face in front of anyone, it is just like sending it out into a black hole. I’ve already wasted too much time on those companies. My only hope is if I can take a copy in person and meet an actual human being, because HR is looking for every reason to filter out as many people as possible.

    My history is that I worked for a fortune 100 technology company for almost a decade, at a very specific type of job that no longer exists in this country. Since being laid off 4 or 5 years ago, the only thing I’ve been able to get are sales jobs, many of them straight commission: jobs where they will hire anyone with a personality, because these jobs are a revolving door. I have proven to myself that I am not a great salesperson, even selling wonderful products that I believe in. So now I have a history in sales, but no confidence in myself in that field. I also created an ecommerce website and put my all into it for a couple of years, but never made money. I now have gaps in my employment history as well. Initially, I really believed that the layoff was going to be a great opportunity to reinvent myself, but the kinds of jobs I want and know I would be wonderful at, I don’t even get an interview.

  18. Coral Says:

    Although I agree with several comments here that it is too bad employers are not more candid about their reasons for using the “overqualified” terminology, I am open to suggestions about what to do to practically address this and overcome it? I for one am sympathetic to employers in these time where the current govt administration makes it extremely difficult to know where to grow right now and limits options (I’ll leave it there for now) – I also am growing alarmed at how many advertise positions and then when you get in to talk to them – they have no idea what they really want, the job description is only a partial couple of paragraphs, there is no infrastructure in place as they have not done proper planning for success in the past and now they are trying to combine 3 jobs into one and call it a “newly created” position and they want you to agree to this marginal information and be a team player who won’t move on when something better comes along. Oh and for very poor money besides. I am willing to take a cut if the opportunity has merit and I can help them build something good -but it seems if I ask too many questions – apparently I am appearing arrogant or a non-team player? Anyway – any suggestions re: how to offer oneself up in these times of some compromise without totally taking all the hit yourself? I am in lots of prayer about humility but also not settling so much that it is of no benefit to me or the other party… I value my reputation as a professional and more than that – the Lord’s reputation lived out in me…

  19. Jane Aaron Says:

    Dan, as someone who has often been told they are “overqualified” when I believe this was an honest expression, I can tell you that so far I haven’t heard anything very helpful to the person receiving this type of comment.

    I, too, hold an MPH (Master’s of Public Health), and an MS in Nutrition as well. At 61, I have many years of experience working in preventive medicine research, developing and managing health education departments for large clinics and hospitals, as an employee wellness coordinator for a large oil company, and other similar areas. I worked in most of these fields when I lived in Houston, TX for 25 years, but when I relocated back to my home state of Kentucky, I found very few opportunities doing the same type of work. I realize Texas is a rich state, and Kentucky is not; that preventing diseases saves money, but isn’t an immediate income producer; and that when a poor state has barely enough resources to treat their population, with many uninsured, those resources barely cover critical medical treatment, and preventing diseases often has to take a lower priority. It still doesn’t take away the sting of not being able to find work that uses my training and experience, especially at my age. I won’t even try to address how difficult it is to see my state unable to make more headway in preventing diseases to contain costs for individuals, the state, insurance companies, everyone!! There are huge needs here!!

    The only health department jobs in my field in KY are entry level, and when I’m told I’m overqualified, and that the company isn’t sure I’d be happy doing entry level work, I’ve tried several tactics, like: “I understand what you’re saying, and it’s true that I’ve worked at higher levels. However, I really love working with patients one-on-one, and know I can make big differences in their health status.”; or, “Yes, and I enjoyed the years I worked in management, but my true gift is in inspiring people to improve their health.” I’ve even asked, if the company really seems to like me except for the qualifications issue, if it would be possible to give me a try, without full-out hiring me. And, I’ve jokingly added that even over-qualified people need to make a living!! But, even entry level positions in my field are few and far between, and cuts in health departments are legendary. There was only one health department position in KY requiring a master’s degree when I first relocated. When the person in that position retired, someone already on staff, without the requisite education, was shuffled into that job. It was never even advertised!

    I’m not sure what part of the country the “overqualified” person in your article is from, but I also perceive something else going on in Kentucky, and perhaps other southern or poorer states, in regards to the degree in public health. It’s a little unfamiliar. When I first relocated, I had taken a few courses toward my Dr. P.H., and hoped to continue working toward that. However, for 8 years, there was no university in the entire state offering that degree! It made no sense to go out of state to take coursework, when I’d come “home” to help care for my aging mother. Now that the coursework is available, I can’t find work that will sustain me AND pay tuition. I may be going out on a limb, but I think the medical community in my state doesn’t understand this degree very well. Time after time, I see jobs advertised that specifically require an RN, when my MPH qualified me for that job in a more progressive state. I’ve even applied for those positions, carefully making a good case for my degree and experience, but have not yet been considered. It’s quite frustrating. The person you spoke about may be hearing and feeling some of the same kinds of things.

    I’ve dummied down my resume, trying to focus on skills and abilities, and almost hiding the degrees. I always include a cover letter and try to carefully explain that although my previous work experience may include X,Y,Z, that I have a particular interest in, affinity for, or many skills for, the tasks for the job in question. I’ve applied for and worked as a customer service rep, a legal secretary, various temp roles, and other jobs I’m ill suited for. I’m not so opposed to working at jobs that don’t require my qualifications, but I am concerned about earning enough to live on and save for retirement. I’ve considered going back and getting an RN instead of trying to complete my Dr. P.H. I’m not so worried about my age – fortunately, I look a good 15 years younger than I am, and both sides of my family lives well into their nineties, so chances are good that I’d get my “money’s worth” from extra education. But, wouldn’t I be even more “over-qualified” if I did that?

    I have learned from, and really appreciate, other’s posts on this subject. I still feel I have many unanswered questions about the best way to search for work! If I had the resources, maybe I’d start a campaign to educate the medical profession about the skills of people with an MPH! But, I’d rather start one called, “Get Healthy, Kentucky!” Anyone out there hiring for that?

  20. WM Says:

    “dumb down your resume’ was advice I once heard, and use, to land jobs that I would be over-qualified. For example, a company filling a position with a minimum requirement of a high school degree would likely turn away folks with graduate degrees.

  21. JustRuss Says:

    I have to agree with a few of the posters here- “over qualified” tends to mean “too old, too smart & well worth far more than what we’re willing to pay”…

    I worked for a “well known, Fortune 5 [yes, I said "Five"] company that deals in intellectual, physical, entertainment, product design and multi-marketing- who’s name rhymes with “Biz-Me”.

    I’m unable to sign back up even at the ground level within the custodial ranks of one of their parks…

    The only headway I’ve made when it comes to the “over qualified” quagmire was to explain such things in terms the interviewer would best understand…

    If you were going to hire a janitor to clean your office building and money was the delineation- but you had a wide spectrum of “cleanliness quotients” to choose from; would you take the “standard, efficient and expected” person..?

    Or knowing that “the money simply didn’t matter”- would you take Gunter Vendt, THE white-room director who personally saddled each and every astronaut headed to the moon in a room so clean, microbes would commit suicide in order to maintain its shine..?

    To me, there’s a broad, vivid line in the sand, delineating the “also ran” from the best of the best.

    Why would I apply for a position [a "job" can be picked up by anyone with a car and a pizza logo on it...] fully intent on leaving it if not to give my all in the meantime? Is our business environment so cold and calculated- our missives so obvious to an HR department that it’s “sooo obvious” we’ll not fit in or work out or “belong”?

    Have we become all too obvious to that world?

    My mind has a college degree to back up it’s abilities.
    My hands have the callous to show that hard work can be had.
    My spirit and will to do a thing, no matter the expanse of task or menial of labor is my creed.
    Against that of a dog, my loyalty is nearly as unquestionable, my loyalty as resolute.

    In humility I offer my best and yet it seems…

    Lacking.

  22. Abby Penn Says:

    I agree that it is a euphemism for “there’s something wrong here” or “not a good fit”. Your statement about the young man is probably very much on the money. One of your readers said he would prefer “honesty” but that is not always the best policy -some people would take it personally, get upset and/or make a scene. Also people who feel superior do not want to be told they need to correct/work on a personality trait, they prefer to believe you not as smart or don’t like them.
    Thanks for the insight, I hope the young man and others like him read it and really think about it.

  23. Ola Says:

    Hello Dan,

    Thanks very much for this knowledge – I thought to say one is over qualified is a compliment, I shall hence forth work on this.

    thank you

  24. Mary Mann Says:

    I’ve appreciated very much all of the comments regarding this article. It actually helps to realize that I’m not the only one in this position — and even to have my sense of things validated.

    Now — shall we broach the subject of professional in demeanor and experience but a little over weight vs. tall, thin, blond and beautiful — but with no experience whatsoever?

    I’m just sayin’……..

  25. Jessica Says:

    I worked for a company once that had a great philosophy about folks who were over qualified. They wanted them in the company because they could move them to a better position within in the company when one became available. Though it is a hassle to fill the entry level position again, it keeps talent from going to another company. I wish more companies could think like that. So, because I have been “over qualified” since the first year I was in college, I am just creating my own jobs instead.

  26. Mary Mann Says:

    Great comment, Jessica. Would you care to share what jobs you have created for yourself?

  27. FinancialBondage Says:

    why can’t companies just be honest and say sorry, I don’t think this job is a good fit for you?

  28. Mary Mann Says:

    FinancialBondage, for the same reason that they don’t fire people who continue to perform so badly they put the entire company at risk. No one has the courage to do the right thing — they don’t want the inconvenience and the expense of having to defend their actions in court.

    It’s called lack of integrity.

    So……many non-performers are continuing to draw paychecks (sometimes incredibly large ones) because the executive group will not hold them accountable for draining the morale and the financial assets of the company. Additionally, there are many excellent workers who aren’t allowed to work because of this same lack of integrity.

  29. Nicole Says:

    I think sometimes a person could actually be overqualified. If I found out my massage therapist has a PhD in anatomy, I’d wonder why he wsan’t utilizing his degree to the fullest he can. It isn’t always about feeling inferior, they might feel that the job really is inferior. Taking a job that is less than the best you can do could be a sign of feeling inferior about yourself – people discuss this in the realm of underearning. Unfortunately it is getting to the point when people are often overqualified because the economy is causing people to not want to hire expensive workers; instead they lump more work on the workers they already have. These workers make high salaries but sometimes end up working ridiculous 60-100 hour weeks. It is a real problem, and seems like many of these people may need to become self-employed. It will require structural change in the job market.

    In actuality, cost-cutting is a strategy companies employ because they do not know how to improve their bottom line without cutting costs. What they should be doing is really being innovative, with their products and services as well as with their marketing. Improving the job market needs to be a team effort.

    These are things I learned in Labor Economics, Sociology of Work & Business Admin classes at UC Berkeley, as well as figuring out on my own.

  30. danielle Says:

    Look, great post but why work for someone who is coming with incredibly stupid reasons not to hire you. And, anyone who ever thought at employer telling you that is a compliment is insane!!! Furthermore, I live in the Mid-West and if you think your areas are bad economically, then take a trip here. Most of these don’t have any college degree but a wealth of experience and will gladly take someone with experience and NO degree than the other way around. Also, getting a job to pay an annual salary is very hard to find; most are hourly starting at around $8.50. I have a BA in what I think is one of the WORST BA degrees out there-Psychology. I can’t find work to save my life. I apply to everything, dumb myself and my resume down. Went in for a salon receptionist interview and was told the overqualified crap. whatever. onto the next one.

  31. rob c Says:

    I have read this article and I have found it very interesting. I too have been told that I am overquailfied on numerous occasions. I have found that in the past that many of the perspective employers seem to be extremely insecure and threated by new blood. There is a new turn in seeking out employment it seems that over the last fifteen years or so I have found that many of the overly conservative business persons tell me that my degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and its no good. Also my experience isn’t worthwhile either. I am almost sorry that I went to college and got me degree because I’ve had to work low paying, dead end jobs with little to NO Chance for advancement and encountered a great deal of harasement and I don’t happen the connections social, politically or friendships to network. I might add that my degree is in communications and that Liberal Arts persons ARE NOT WANTED by employers and in my case I always have to work three to four times harder than the others employees and I am usually that the last one considered for the raise or promotion. In seeking a better job when I contact the employer I feel that I am in an “INTERGATION” and that the employer seems to be excessivly rude, arrogrant and seems to have a “CHIP” on their shoulder. If I show any type of hard work or ambition I find that my workload increases dramaticly more than anyoe else in my departments without a pay upgrade and the prespective employers love to point one flaws and I’ve also been in interviews and inquiring about jobs where I’ve been insulted,put down and baited so that I would lose me temper. I often wonder how did these people get to be not only employed by these employers but how they were assigned to human resources and how do they keep there job. I am presently employed in the Market Research Field collecting Data but the job is only part-time my hours have been cut dramticly, I feel that I could almost make more on umemployment. It is really bad here in Oregon’s Mid-Willamete Valley and ones needs to have connections and contacts to get in the door but I don’t have any and no one wants to or is willing to help me. I don’t know what to do

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