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Job-Hunt Adventure Series: Overqualified

I began my job hunt in January 2016 with high hopes. I had just handed in my PhD Dissertation. With only my oral defence left to do, this freed me up to finally return to full-time work. This was my chance to pull myself out of poverty and debt. I was stoked!

I made use of every (free) career service and career counsellor I could. I revisited notes I had taken during last year’s Beyond the Professoriate Conference (this year’s conference is on May 7 and 14). I revised my résumé over and over and over. Each job application would take me an hour or two so that I could implement all the best practices: tailor my résumé, tailor my cover letter, somehow keep my cover letter under one-page, research the organization, etc.

With all the career counselling appointments, reading up on job-hunting, actually trying to implement what I learned (upgrading my LinkedIn profile, making a snazzy new format to my résumé and cover letters, networking), and applying to one to four postings a day, I was working more than full-time. It was exhausting. But it was paying off, as I got more and more interviews.

But I just couldn’t seem to land a job.

I’m good at building rapport, and I felt good after all the interviews. Although my PhD is in Education, the majority of my contract and volunteer work over the last eight years has been in communications. So I felt qualified, that I had the right experience, and that I was a good fit for most of the jobs I was interviewed for.

After nine interviews, I had six rejections, and I withdrew from the selection process for two jobs. Only one interview resulted in a job: as a Crew Leader for the 2016 Canadian Census. And I’m grateful for that, and happy to be working full-time. But it is a temporary contract, and not in the field I wanted.

In the hopes of helping other job-seekers, especially those who, like me, did a PhD, I want to discuss the feedback I got from one unsuccessful interview: that I was overqualified.

The person who emailed me the bad news that I had not been selected for the position gave some feedback in the email:

Unfortunately, you were not the successful candidate but that’s only because we felt you are overqualified – you could and should be contributing to an organization at a much higher level than required by this role. You were very impressive and gave a great interview.

This person very kindly agreed to a brief phone call with me so I could clarify the feedback. And later sent me a job posting for a position they felt was a better fit!

Let’s pause for a TIP, job-seekers! See if you can get feedback if you don’t get the job. It can’t hurt, since you already didn’t get it. Keep in mind most people are awesome and genuinely want to help others. And who knows, they might then think of you for other opportunities.

Back to our story: My perspective was that I had been out of the full-time work world for years, and I was willing to accept more junior positions as long as they were in interesting organizations and there were opportunities to grow. This was why I applied for the above position.

I sought feedback from colleagues and career counsellors, and one retired manager told me that if a candidate was thought to be too experienced or too educated for a position, managers felt they wouldn’t stay long in the position.

Navigating "overqualified"
Navigating “overqualified”

And a career counsellor thought that perhaps I had been aiming too low. She said the qualifications listed on a job posting were the employer’s wish list, but some qualifications were more important to them than others. And that was not something I could guess from a job description. She suggested I try applying for more senior positions, and let the potential employer decide if I was qualified or not. In other words, don’t take myself out of the running prematurely.

After this interview, I made sure to prepare more thoroughly for the “so why do you want to work here/have this position?” question we sometimes get asked during an interview that can be such a gift. If asked, I emphasize how much I want to work for the organization, and if it’s a more junior position, that I am happy to accept it because the organization is so awesome and the work sounds meaningful and interesting. Something like that to try to address their concern I would not stay long.

Since I am now working full-time and preparing for my PhD defence (in less than two weeks!) I have not had time to research further how to address the “overqualified objection” a potential employer may have.

So I’m planning to ask about this at the 2016 Beyond the Professoriate Conference, an online conference for PhDs and PhDs-to-be who are looking for a non-academic career. Day 1 is on May 7th, and Day 2 is on May 14th. Check it out!

Then maybe I’ll have a follow-up blog to share!

Have you been told you were overqualified? What strategies have you found effective? I’d love to hear in the comments section!

Shine Bright,