The dark side of experience: what do you do if you're overqualified?

One can spend decade after decade in school preparing for a prestigious post-grad position, but at the end of the (graduation) day, experience reigns supreme. Or does it? Traditionally, job seekers are taught from a young age that the more they can pump up their resumes, build an impeccable skill set, and rack up impressive prior accomplishments, the better they’ll fare once it comes time to start sending out applications and climbing the career ladder.

Whether you’re looking for your first full-time job, or just hoping to start the next phase of your professional journey, it’s key to understand that modern hiring practices just aren’t as straightforward as choosing the most qualified candidate for a given position. That would make far too much sense, and anyone who’s spent a decent amount of time browsing job boards and navigating awkward interviews only to be ghosted by the end of the recruitment process will attest that astoundingly little about finding a job is simple or logical these days.

So, not all that dissimilar from Goldilocks in pursuit of the perfect temperature for her porridge, it’s become exceedingly common for hiring managers and decision makers to reject overqualified job candidates just as much as underqualified job seekers. While the disadvantages of inexperience are obvious, many overqualified applicants are left scratching their heads after being passed over for a job they could clearly succeed in if given a chance.

Too much of a good thing: Defining overqualified 

It’s never fun to get bad news about a job application, but there’s something especially frustrating about being passed over for being too qualified. Essentially punishment for being good at one’s chosen path, seeing this justification in enough rejection emails is often enough to provoke many job seekers to consider entering a new field entirely. Surely then they wouldn’t be overqualified, after all.

To put it succinctly, being deemed overqualified for a position means that a candidate appears capable of not just meeting the needs of a posted position, but absolutely excelling and thriving in that job. Every duty listed in the job description likely requires skills they’ve already mastered, and in many cases, applicants who have held more senior positions in the past are deemed overqualified. In other words, the candidate actually exceeds the experience level being targeted to fill the job. 

The risks of overqualification aren’t lost on many job seekers. A recent poll encompassing 2,000 Americans actively looking for employment found that while 39% worry more about being seen as inexperienced or underqualified, a smaller but still notable portion (18%) of applicants are afraid of being considered overqualified.

The case against overqualified workers

Fair or not, the most common gripe against experienced, highly qualified workers applying for positions that may be considered somewhat beneath their skill set is that they’ll end up being bored, unengaged, and hard to control upon being hired. These fears make a certain degree of practical sense; who wants to take orders from a manager with half the amount of their own expertise? Similarly, it’s tough to really get excited about a project if it’s a task that can be performed in one’s sleep.

Other top concerns include salary considerations and turnover rates. Employers worry overqualified workers will be quick to demand more money and walk out the door if they don’t get what they want. Less experienced workers, out of necessity more than anything, are almost always less inclined to play hard ball.

There’s even some scientific research supporting the notion that feeling like a big fish in a little pond leads to job dissatisfaction, company disloyalty, and excess stress. That study, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, found that when employees perceive their work as beneath what they’re capable of, they’re left feeling deprived of fulfillment and more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors on the job (leaving early, missing meetings, etc).

The case for overqualified workers 

Just because such biases and assumptions are frequently used to justify passing on qualified candidates, that doesn’t mean they’re always true. There are near endless reasons why a working professional may want to pursue a position that’s slightly off-trajectory for their career path. Perhaps a marketing manager is feeling fed up with motivating their team, and would like to pivot to a more creative role. Alternatively, maybe a long-time managing editor is finally burnt out on the grind of overseeing an entire publication and wouldn’t mind focusing solely on writing and editing in their next job.  

Meanwhile, a different scientific study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that when overqualified employees are empowered on the job, it helps promote higher levels of job satisfaction and lower levels of voluntary turnover. These findings just go to show that hiring a seemingly overqualified employee can, given the right situation, work out splendidly for employers and employees alike. An experienced worker will require less time spent training, start producing results quickly, and can even help educate their more junior co-workers.

How to work around being overqualified

So, what’s the best way for overqualified applicants to combat bias against experience? Tackling the issue head on is the best approach. This can begin with your cover letter, where you should address why exactly you want to work in a position that, on the surface, appears as a step back. 

The exact reason depends on you, of course; maybe it’s creativity, more time flexibility, or just a desire to get back to your roots. Whatever the catalyst behind your decision, discuss it in a transparent and genuine manner. If the salary range for the position is noticeably lower than what you’ve made in the past, consider adding that you are aware of the position’s payrange and willing to settle on a salary that falls within the employer’s budget. Also, if your current resume is full of skills, certifications, and accomplishments that just aren’t relevant to the job you’re interested in, don’t be afraid to remove certain items and customize your resume to align more closely with the position. 

Finally, once you’re invited for an interview, be prepared to talk about these topics in greater detail. It’s likely HR managers and decision makers will want to hear more about your motivations and career aspirations before making their choice. 

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