why employers don’t want to hire overqualified candidates

When you’re applying for jobs, being told that you’re being dismissed because you’re “overqualified” for a job you know you could do well is incredibly frustrating. After all, having higher qualifications than what a job requires should be a good thing, shouldn’t it? To job seekers, being told they’re overqualified can feel like being told by a date that they’re too funny or good-looking – and leaves them wondering why it’s a deal-breaker.

So why is being overqualified so often seen as a bad thing? It’s understandable to be rejected if you’re not qualified enough, but what’s the concern about the overqualified?

When hiring managers label job candidates overqualified, here’s what they are thinking.

1. We can’t pay you enough. Employers will often assume that if you have more experience or education than the job requires, your salary expectations are probably higher than the role pays too.

2. You don’t really understand what the job is. Hiring managers will worry that in your quest to get hired somewhere, you’re being overly optimistic about what the work will be like – for instance, that you think you’ll be doing high-level office administration when what they need is someone to run the front desk. Or that the ad might say data entry, but you’ll assume that surely you’ll be able to quickly prove yourself and take on more interesting work – when they really just need someone who will do data entry and be happy with it. Related to that…

3. If you take this job, you’ll be bored. Hiring managers often think that someone used to do higher-level or more interesting work can’t possibly be happy with less challenging responsibilities, and they assume that you’ll quickly get bored, then frustrated, and then want to leave.

4. You won’t be happy working for a manager with less experience than you. If you have significantly more experience that the hiring manager, she may worry that you won’t be happy or comfortable taking direction from her, and that you’ll think you know better. What’s more, if the hiring manager isn’t entirely secure in her skills, she might worry that you do know better and that you’ll be judging her decisions – which can lead to her passing on your candidacy altogether.

5. You’ll leave as soon as something better comes around. Because hiring managers often can’t understand why someone would want a lower position than what their background might qualify them for, they often assume that you’re only interested in the job because you’re feeling desperate. They figure you’ll take it for the paycheck, but that you’ll leave as soon as something more suited to your background comes along.

So what do you do if you’re hearing that you’re overqualified for jobs you actually want? The best thing you can do is to understand the concerns above and address them head-on. And you can do that by explaining why you’re genuinely interested in the position. For instance, you might explain that while your kids are in school, you want a job with stable hours that doesn’t require the level of responsibility you’ve had in the past – or whatever is really true for you. (And that’s key – it needs to ring true for you; don’t make something up.)

And if you know hiring managers are likely to worry about your salary expectations, you can also say explicitly that you’re clear about the lower pay that comes with the position, and that it’s fine with you.

Ideally, you’d address this in the cover letter, to avoid having your application discarded before you’ve even had an interview. But once you get to the interview stage, be prepared to discuss it again, and probably in more detail.

Overall, the idea is to understand what worries managers about overqualified candidates and address their concerns head-on, proactively, and genuinely.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 101 comments… read them below }

  1. Jessa*

    Also sometimes overqualified comes across as “we’re being age discriminatory but we can’t say that, so we’ll say overqualified.” And you really can’t weed those out between the two.

    The other issue is you rarely get to the point where you CAN explain that “yes I do want that job the way you have it there, because, well…list of reasons,” even if you put it in the cover letter, in this economy you come over as desperate and they don’t believe you. Particularly if you’ve been unemployed for any length of time. Because they toss the resume before you get the chance to talk to them.

  2. Mike C.*

    I’ve never understood why there is such a problem with “overqualified” candidates. I understand the concerns that hiring managers might have and the useful of addressing them preemptively, but like any other concern a hiring manager might have, why don’t they simply ask about it rather than making a ton of assumptions?

    Because either you have a candidate that is clueless, or you have a candidate whose skills you can get at a significant discount in exchange for whatever it is they are leaving their old job for (better work/life situation, etc). Even if they leave, you’re still gaining a great skill set for that time, take advantage of it!

    1. Cat*

      I think that’s true if the benefit you get from the candidate outweighs the transaction costs of bringing them on board. But a lot of time, those transaction costs are going to be so high that the candidate’s greater value in the role isn’t going to pay off in a year or two or however long you estimate the candidate will stay. And it’s not just the costs of hiring and setting up a particular employee; it’s also that even a candidate who is generally overqualified will have to be brought up to speed on things that are specific to that company and, depending on the company, that can be significant.

      I actually had a similar situation recently (though with slightly different issues involved). We had a candidate with absolutely stellar credentials – seriously, top 1% in the country for our profession – but who (a) fairly clearly had no special interest in our particular niche except insofar as it was adjacent to what she wanted to be doing (you can never know for sure but it was pretty obvious); and (b) had a history of staying in jobs for 1-2 year stints and no more. While I have no doubt she could have done a fantastic job for us, we had to assume she would only stay 1-2 years with us; and no matter how brilliant and accomplished she was, the learning curve associate with our particular niche means it takes a year or two before we’re really getting significant added value out of people who aren’t previously experienced with us.

      So in that case, it was a variety of issues, but I could see that playing out in a straight overqualification situation too.

      1. Mike C.*

        Sure, opportunity costs have to be carefully measured, but I’m willing to bet that many hiring managers are undervaluing the extra skills, experience and established professionalism that an overqualified candidate can bring to the table.

        1. Joey*

          True. But at the same time I’m willing to bet that many overqualified candidates overestimate the value of their “overqualified” skills and underestimate the day to day skills that are actually needed for the job.

        2. Cat*

          I suspect it depends on the workplace. At mine, there’s a serious tendency we have to fight against to be dazzled by shiny credentials and to end up with people who aren’t really happy doing the given job as a result. (Of course, that doesn’t always means the shiny credentialed people are “overqualified;” sometimes they just have shiny but not particularly relevant credentials.)

          1. Katie the Fed*

            I have one of those. He has a PhD, and is really brilliant, but when it comes to ACTUALLY PRODUCING…not so much. And he thinks most tasks are beneath him, cause of the brilliance and all.

            1. De Minimis*

              Did he qualify for a higher grade due to his education? That must be even more frustrating if so.

              I am a *bit* overqualified for my job, but only on paper–thankfully I was able to make it clear at the interview that I was still essentially an entry-level hire.

              When I was still looking, I used to get really frustrated when people didn’t seem to understand the typical career path in my profession and thought I was an overqualified applicant who would bolt at the first opportunity, when in fact I was applying for jobs that were about right for an entry level person.

              1. Rana*

                Yeah, I’ve fallen afoul of that dynamic, too. I have a Ph.D., so when I apply for entry level jobs outside my field (which is appropriate, because I lack experience in that other area) it clearly confuses people. Am I overqualified (says the Ph.D.) or am I underqualified (says the lack of experience)? Unfortunately, I never found a good way to thread that needle, which is why I’m now working for myself.

                1. sharonda*

                  I couldn’t agree with you more! I was told recently that I had more education than the people on staff and mind you this was a certified, professional position. The hiring manager undervalued my skills. Although he reluctantly offered me the job, I turned it down and accepted another offer for the same position with someone who valued what I brought to the table and who never once questioned my qualifications.

            2. Joey*

              Maybe I’ve just had bad luck, but I’ve seen the same with phd’s- really smart, but usually produce at a much slower rate.

              I always wonder:

              Is it a function of the phd educational environment?
              do they learn that quality should never be compromised in the name of speed?
              Are they so consumed with the complex that they can’t keep their brain focused on simple tasks?
              Are these the same people that would be successful professors?
              When schools hire professors do they even care about these things?
              Is this one of the root causes of why our colleges don’t generally do a good job of preparing graduates for the real world?

                1. NL*

                  Very quickly, as I need to get back to work:

                  1) Yes, I think so (on the first 2 questions). I was actually occasionally penalized for concise writing in grad school. Clarity is sometimes rewarded, but brevity rarely is.

                  2) On complex vs. simple, I have no idea. I don’t have that problem.

                  3) Some of them might be successful professors.

                  4) When schools hire professors, they are mostly concerned that the hire will be able to publish frequently in in prestigious journals or with prestigious presses. If it is a teaching institution, they are probably also concerned about the quality of teaching.

                  5) Many professors go straight from undergrad to PhD with very little understanding of the real world. Or, maybe they worked retail in college, but the typical white-collar office environment might be new or alienating to them. So many faculty members have no idea about the real world & do not see preparing students for it as important. They see their jobs as imparting knowledge, not training for the real world.

                  I really hate the PhDs who think they are above everything. As someone with a PhD who doesn’t mind making copies or whatever, it made it that much harder to get hired, because I had to fight all these stereotypes (that are totally based in reality, don’t get me wrong).

                2. Joey*

                  Wow! Makes me think I should start teaching classes on how to quickly develop a great one pager. That probably encompasses the most valuable skills you’ll need in the corporate world.

                3. SC in SC*

                  To add to the discussion, one thing you need to consider for is the approach of most US programs. For those who obtained their degree in a research oriented program there is rarely an end to the research. It is often an open-ended process that may have a general direction but doesn’t necessarily have a final product or goal. In the business world it is just the opposite. The end goal is all that matters and business is rarely tolerant of detours and “research for the sake of research”. My experience is that some graduates have a hard time making the adjustment.

                4. Mike C.*

                  Well consider when every professional statement you make is subjected to constant scrutiny and debate, and I think that explains the lack of brevity.

              1. Lora*

                Is it a function of the phd educational environment?
                Yes. Academia is poor, and to them labor is cheap–they’re paying a grad student a pittance from either a grant or from department money, or perhaps their students are paid by a fellowship and are free labor. If it takes a grad student 8 weeks to do something a robot could do in 8 minutes, that’s fine, because academia can’t afford the capital equipment of a robot. In business it’s the opposite. It’s the concept that Time Is Money that is hard for them.

                do they learn that quality should never be compromised in the name of speed?
                Are they so consumed with the complex that they can’t keep their brain focused on simple tasks?
                Nope, focusing is not the problem–they’ve stayed focused on a tiny piece of a tiny problem for several years.
                Are these the same people that would be successful professors?
                *shrug* Eh, not necessarily.
                When schools hire professors do they even care about these things?
                Schools care about how much grant money and prestige you bring. That’s all. Everything else, including teaching skills, are ancillary concerns.
                Is this one of the root causes of why our colleges don’t generally do a good job of preparing graduates for the real world?
                Nuh…it’s more complicated than that. Historically, college was meant to be liberal arts only, and employment-type education was carried out by trade schools and polytechnics. There’s a struggle there. But also the naivete & conceit that NL mentioned. And educational inflation in every sense–grade inflation that gives overly positive feedback, inflation of what jobs really honestly require a bachelor’s vs a HS diploma and some experience, inflation of the real value of the degree (you could consider it marketing I suppose by the schools) to students who get dumped on an unkind job market. Smarter people than me have written much more on the subject, so I will shut up for now. I can post links if you like.

                1. Joey*

                  But the focus on “real world application” is getting overwhelming isn’t it? Are professors thinking about how they can add value in the face of crazy increases in the cost of education? Hopefully they’re not waiting for someone else.

                2. Lora*

                  Are professors thinking about how they can add value in the face of crazy increases in the cost of education?
                  They have an oversupply of students willing to pay the price–often more than they even have classroom seats and dorm rooms available for. What incentive do they have to do so? The majority of income in many universities isn’t even from tuition, it’s from endowment investment strategies, research grants, patent royalties, IP value from spin-off companies, stuff like that. Tuition is still a respectable component, don’t get me wrong, but Harvard rakes in its cash mostly from investment funds. The students are more of a Long Tail than the main customer–the real customer is industry, government and investors who buy their IP.

                3. Rana*

                  Joey, professors have little to no say in the economic side of education; if anything, if they’re adjuncts, they’re getting even more of the short stick than students are. That’s what the administration is concerned with, not the faculty.

                  Professors are about developing and imparting knowledge; the assumption is that the students want that knowledge or they wouldn’t be there. The idea that one has to “market” one’s knowledge or justify it economically isn’t part of the culture.

                4. Joey*

                  Its actually kind of sad and really difficult for me to comprehend that professors don’t “own” the problems with the education system.

                5. Rana*

                  Tell me about it. Some of them, it’s a case of “can’t be bothered”, but for most, it’s “lacks the power.”

              2. Sophia*

                Some I agree with NL, some I don’t. My thoughts as a PhD on the market this fall:

                Is it a function of the phd educational environment?
                -I’d say it depends. A lot of pressure is to produce, produce, produce, but often our products (depending on methodology) take a lot of time to complete. For example, from the collecting of data to being published, my very first paper took about 3 years. Granted, I was doing much more than just writing this one paper, papers are under review for journals for 3+ months at a time (and if its rejected you have to revise it, submit to another journal, and wait for their answer) and this was my first paper so it was a big learning curve. I think academics (caveat I am in the social sciences) see papers as works-in-progress, knowing revisions will have to be made after per journal feedback, and many times people have multiple projects they’re working on in addition to teaching etc. Not sure if that answered the question?

                do they learn that quality should never be compromised in the name of speed?
                -Again, like most industries it depends. Putting together a conference paper will be much faster than say, working on a book. It depends on the product and deadline.

                Are they so consumed with the complex that they can’t keep their brain focused on simple tasks?
                -I have found this to be the case for some people, particularly very famous academics, but again, not all and its not the case for me.

                Are these the same people that would be successful professors?
                -Probably not, since being a professor requires a lot of time management – pressure to publish/research in quality / prestigious journals, teaching 2/2 or 3/3 course loads (and not more if you’re lucky), departmental service, undergrad and grad advising etc

                When schools hire professors do they even care about these things?
                -Yes. They want to see what you’ve accomplished during your grad school years, and what potential you have as a faculty member. The thing is with grad school, because it takes so long to publish (especially for the first time ) and because you’re completing coursework and other requirements, its often difficult to have many publications before going on the job market. Though this depends on method (qualitative vs quantitative for instance). If you’re lucky enough to be in a program that encourages the writing of at least one journal quality paper as a requirement before you start your dissertation, hopefully you’ll have that published beforehand. Sometimes people stay an extra year or two in grad school, particularly if they don’t have a published paper, to publish something from their dissertation.

                Is this one of the root causes of why our colleges don’t generally do a good job of preparing graduates for the real world?
                -Not sure what “this” is in the question. And I generally agree with most of what NL answered for this question, though many people in my cohort did have work experience and are older than the cohort below us – who mostly went straight from undergrad to grad.

              3. Rana*

                The quality versus speed is indeed a factor, though, honestly, one generally becomes really efficient to compensate for it (I had to unlearn all that efficiency when I was temping, for example, or I’d end up doing a “day’s” worth of work in the first hour and risk getting sent home early). People can be incredibly nitpicky – as in, you got someone’s name wrong in a footnote as leading to scepticism about your skills nitpicky – but that’s why you learn to not make mistakes in the first place.

                And, no, hiring committees don’t give a rats’ about efficiency. Basically, the only person who is penalized by inefficiency is the professor him- or herself. If you’re efficient, you can balance your research projects, your service requirements, and your teaching obligations, and have something resembling a social life. If not, your work is your life.

                And I think that, right there, is what a lot of people fail to understand about academia. There is no such thing as “work time” and “personal time.” It’s all part of the same pool. You think about work all. the. time. Watching tv? That’s time you should be spending grading. Hanging out with friends? You should be organizing your notes. Eating dinner with your spouse? Sorry, you should be finishing up that committee report.

                So the idea that you should be doing stuff within an eight or nine hour window at a set time of day is outside the culture and the training we receive. Instead, we expect to work at 3am, or 4pm, or whenever the time’s there, and if a project takes 20 hours, you take 20 hours to do it.

                Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t deadlines and time pressures. But it’s more like harvest time than factory work; you have periods of relatively low demand (like summers, which is when one works on slower-pace projects like research and writing) and periods of high intensity (like when grades are due) when it’s all hands on deck – only you’re the only hand.

                That’s the other thing people don’t get – professors do not have back-ups. If you’re sick, the work doesn’t get done… and it still needs to be done. A sub can fill in for one lecture, but they can’t grade your student’s work; a research assistant can collect sources for you, but they can’t write the analysis. And so on.

                And the more time you carve out, the more you expect to fill it with more work, because that’s how you get ahead in your career. So burnout is a real issue, if you don’t learn to pace yourself.

                1. So Very Anonymous*

                  All this. I have a PhD, and taught college, and I agree with what Rana’s saying. (I work in a university library now). I think one thing that could be more profitably taught in PhD programs is how to speak and write concisely when necessary — in other words, how to turn the academic speak on and off. …. Just the way everyone else has to learn how to adjust speaking/writing for an audience. I’d bet that Jamie, when she needs to, can speak an entire language of ITness that would have me thor0ughly, utterly lost.

                  These seem like skills that you need even if you do go on to be a professor. Teachers need to be able to express ideas clearly and concisely… and to be able to read their audiences and adjust accordingly. Grad students need to learn how to give an “elevator speech” describing their research (and another one for their teaching strengths) too, not just because it’s crazy helpful in networking/interviewing/talking to a wide range of people (i.e. not just others in your field) about what you’ve done/accomplished– but because it’s also a useful exercise to practice learning how to make ideas clear and concise and how to adjust for your audience.

                  THOSE to me seem like things that could be taught in graduate school, as well as, hey, undergraduate school, too. Good teaching skills and the ability to flex your writing to specific audiences seem like pretty transferable skills to me.

                2. Rana*

                  That is an excellent point. Certainly, the program I graduated from had a lot of people who were quite insistent on clarity of both speech and pedagogy (plus with the latter there’s a feedback loop – get too wordy or obscure, and you’ll pay for it later during the grading). However, some fields – and some departments – seem to pride themselves on obscure language and jargon, and evince a certain contempt for those who write “for the public.”

                  Some of it’s generational, some of it’s disciplinary, but it’s rather stupid to me. To me, a sign of mastery and intelligence is being able to explain your work to non-experts; if you can’t do that, something’s wrong with how you’ve been trained.

                3. Lora*

                  This reminds me–the flexibility and independence is A Thing. Yes, you are working and thinking and so forth all the time, but you can also structure it to work more efficiently for your brain to some extent (other than class times). If you’re a morning person, you can arrange your work so you do all the critical thought stuff in the morning and the more busywork-type stuff like grading in the afternoon and the reading as your bedtime story. If you’re a night owl, you can stay up till whenever, grant writing and editing manuscripts.

                  In industry, you work to your employer’s schedule. Mornings when you think best all scheduled with inane PowerPoint crap, and your “getting work done” time in the afternoon when your coffee has worn off? Tough. EH&S won’t let you work in the lab late, even though you had a training session that lasted all day and you need to tend a critical experiment? Too bad.

                  The other frustrating thing, which just occurred to me this morning: people with absolutely zero background in your field telling you how to do the most basic details of your job. It’s a bit like Mansplaining, only it’s more like MBA-splaining and Lawyer-splaining. There is zero respect for your credentials or expertise and the CEO’s previous experience was running McDonald’s, but he feels free to tell you how to cure cancer because he has a JD (true story). You end up grinding your teeth a lot.

              4. Tara T.*

                I know the reason! the PhD candidates are slower than regular candidates because they have learned to analyze everything. They are extremely detail-oriented and they want everything to be perfect, so they take longer doing things. That is why they “produce at a much slower rate.” I do not have a PhD, only a BA, but I am the same way myself. I want my work to be high quality.

            3. long time lurker!*

              As someone with a PhD, who now works outside of academia (and did non-academic work throughout the PhD program), I can tell you that I would be pretty hesitant to hire someone with a PhD unless they had significant non-academic experience. I am in the humanities, and the style of writing and type of hyper-narrow inquiry that’s encouraged in my former academic field is precisely the opposite of what most businesses want. There also tend to be issues with PhDs understanding the concept that you need to add value. I had a trainwreck experience with hiring someone with a PhD as a consultant – she did an absolutely awful job, unusably bad, and got extremely upset when I told her so. She seemed to think that her effort was more important than the actual result. Ugh.

              1. Katie the Fed*

                It’s kind of amazing to think that people could spend that much time/effort/money/opportunity cost on getting a PhD (especially in the humanities) and end up less employable than if they’d stopped at a M.A. Considering the dire prospects for employment with a tenure-track position in academia, I can’t think of a good reason for anyone who is not independently wealthy to get a PhD in humanities. Which is sad :(

                1. De Minimis*

                  I have a master’s in accounting and as part of our coursework one of our profs gave us a look at academic research done in accounting. It is to the point where it is almost an entirely different field that what we were doing [which was basically a slightly more in-depth version of undergraduate coursework.] It seems like it is entirely big-picture focused and not really about practical application at all. I’d guess it is similar for other fields.

                2. EE*

                  It is. I did a 1-year MA at a very prestigious university just for the intellectual joy of it, knowing full well that it only represented an opportunity cost whereas a PhD would prevent me getting on a career track.

    2. Tina Career Counselor*

      I suspect it’s also true that, in the case of making assumptions, employers simply don’t have the time to interview everyone anyway, and need to narrow it down somehow. I’m not saying it’s necessarily the right thing to do, but it takes significant amounts of time to bring people in for interviews, and the employer may just not want to be bothered.

      1. Cat*

        This is especially true if you’re flying people in for interviews. I’ve run into that before with candidates I’ve met at screening interviews on campuses – a candidate might be great, but I felt like the odds of them being interested were just not enough to justify paying to fly them back to our office for a follow-up. Granted, in those cases I had a chance to gauge interest in a conversation but the same would be true for resume drops.

      2. Mike C.*

        Yeah, that’s a given. I’m speaking more at the level of “initial phone conversation” rather than full blown interview.

  3. KayDay*

    In my experience #2 (you don’t really understand what the job is) is a huge reason why people get passed over for being “overqualified.” Candidates who are way more experienced than what a position calls for look as naive as candidates who apply to a way too advanced position. So addressing this briefly in your cover letter can really help, at the very least it says, “yes, I actually read the job description and understand that this is a lower level position.”

    1. AnonAdmin*

      Indeed, and I’ve seen too many resumes lately that scream “overqualified” and then the person hasn’t written a cover letter! I’m sorry, but if you don’t tell me why you want the position when your experience/skills are clearly beyond the position description, then you go in the bin.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes — I’ve talked to many “overqualified” candidates who, when talking about the job, made it clear that they thought it was much higher level work than what was clearly stated in the job posting, and even when I explained that it wasn’t still continued to speak as if there were room to make it higher level work … when there wasn’t (because I needed them spending 100% of the time on the lower level stuff). That’s pretty much the kiss of death if you’re overqualified for something.

      1. Lora*

        +1. Last job thought a senior buyer would be a great person to hire as a Purchasing Associate. One of my techs ended up doing 50% of the job and the admin assistant did the other 50%, because PA could not fathom the complex mysteries of Google Docs and collecting packing slips. Apparently he was a genius with SAP…which we didn’t have.

      2. ChristineSW*

        Not saying that this is true in your case, Alison, but might a scenario like this occur because the job listing was inaccurately written? (that is, the job appeared to be more advanced than it really was)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Sure, absolutely! But it happened enough when I know the ads were clear that I know that’s not always what causes it. Plus, I would clarify with these people on the phone interview, and it often still continued.

        2. Ruffingit*

          Sometimes the people don’t understand the job and sometimes the job ad is really horrible. It can go both ways. On the topic of bad job ads though, I have seen many of those and it does make me wonder sometimes about the person writing them.

          For example, I’ve seen jobs that required the person to be a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). Then, you read educational requirements and it says: high school/GED. UM…you can’t get an LPC without having a master’s degree. It’s literally not possible in my state or in any other that I know of.

          There are also job ads that are so poorly written, it’s actually impossible to know what the job is. For example, I’ve seen ones where it says Job Title: Associate. Requirements: Must be bilingual, able to use Microsoft products, and versatile.”

          And that’s it!! What the hell?? Associate of what/for what? Able to use Microsoft products and versatile applies to nearly every job I’ve ever had.

          My point is that writing job ads to actually explain fully what the job is and not use non-descriptive words would be supremely helpful. It’s the employer equivalent of core competencies. Just stop doing that and be clear!


    The issue is that you are assuming what the reason is for being passed on. It is very rare that an employer will give you a reason. You thereafter start to speculate. Is it my age? Is it my qualifications? Am I too short, to tall, too pretty?

    1. Forrest*

      I don’t think AAM’s point is to tell you exactly why you didn’t get the job but to give you some pointers of what hiring managers think so you can address them ahead of time.

    2. Joanne*

      I just assume that all bad things that happen to me are because I’m too pretty. It makes life so much more bearable.

  5. Brittany*

    I think this is an awesome question. My current job prefaced up front that I was very overqualified for the position and made sure to ask me quite a few times if I was sure I was interested. I kept re-iterating I was and here I am still 10 months later.

    I think it’s so hard because someone who is overqualified for a role could have a bunch of reasons why they are looking for something that may not even be lateral. Maybe a candidates last job was very high stress and they are looking for something more relaxed and less chaotic. I found it really helpful that my employer was straight forward with me and put the power in my hands to decide if I was still interested in the opportunity or not.

    1. KJ*

      We recently took this same approach with a candidate and it’s also working out fine so far.

    2. [anon]*

      Ditto. I am overqualified for my current role, and they knew it, and I knew it — but they hired me at 5 months pregnant and it’s pretty clear to all of us right now that what I value at this time (due any day now) is stability and a job that I don’t have to bring home with me after 5:30. My previous job was theoretically 40 (exempt) hours that routinely turned into 50-60.

      So I do good work when I’m here (and I have, at least, been able to use those overqualifications to do a bunch of stuff here that has been very helpful, that they didn’t even know they needed or to ask for) and then I go home and forget about it. And for a few years I think that arrangement will work very nicely for all of us.

      1. Ruffingit*

        You know, sometimes I think being able to go home and forget about the job is terribly undervalued. I can’t tell you how many high level professionals I know who have said “I am so tired of either doing or thinking about my work 24/7. I’m getting a job at Starbucks so I can just go home after closing up and be done with it.”

        I can see the value in that. Sometimes you get tired of work being the focus – either the main one when you’re doing it or an ancillary one in that you’re thinking about when you’re not doing it.

  6. Joey*

    What it really comes down to is risk. If I pass you over for being overqualified its probably because I think your reasons for accepting a lower job are much more credible if you actually have experience being “overqualified.”

    Its one thing to think you’ll be okay being “overqualified” and its another to actually demonstrate that you can successfully work in a position that youre overqualified for.

    So what it typically comes down to when I pass someone over who is overqualified is that I think someone else is more of a sure thing.

    1. SB*

      So it’s basically the chicken and the egg round robin again. You need experience to get experience.

      1. Joey*

        Unfortunately yes it makes it tougher. But that’s the case with anything involving risk. The decision makers job is to weigh risks. And the risk goes down the more you can show a successful track record.

        If someone else is less risky it would be foolish not choose that person.

      2. Anonymous*

        It’s always been that way. It was for me in 1972, we were in a deflationary cycle, and the only way to get a job was to have experience, or know someone. Networking was, and still is, mission critical for any job seeker. Networking defeats lack of experience.

  7. ChristineSW*

    Or that the ad might say data entry, but you assume that surely you’ll be able to quickly prove yourself and take on more interesting work – when they really just need someone who will do data entry and be happy with it.

    I made that mistake with a previous job years ago. I think I was still a little naive and I had been looking for quite some time. I lasted over 4 years….barely….before leaving to focus on my Masters.

    1. jesicka309*

      This is what I got sucked into – I figured I’d excel at data entry and then quickly move up and out….why else would they be hiring a university graduate with experience in the field? They couldn’t be expecting me to want to do data entry for years on end?
      This was after the economy tanked and I was just looking for a foot in the door…I think that’s the mistake a lot of candidates make. They think “yes, I’ll apply for the only jobs they have open, breeze my way in because it’s entry level, and hey, I’m way above that, and then I’m in the right company, and they’ll be blown away by how awesome I am, and move me into a more experience appropriate position!”
      Nope. :(

      1. Jennifer*

        I dunno, when enough people get laid off or quit these days, my office is moving people around into other positions. They’d rather hand the extra work off to someone there than to spend the money to rehire, especially when budgets get cut every single year by default.

  8. Edith*

    I read your article and am somewhat offended – in all the paragraphs you speak of ‘hiring managers’ and ‘they’ and in the paragraph about ‘hiring managers who have less experience’ it is suddenly a single – and FEMALE- manager. Care to explain why there is this sudden change? And then, in the next paragraph, there is again plural and them?

    1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      LOL, because Alison almost ALWAYS uses the female pronouns when referring to pretty much any hypothetical person? And that paragraph was the only one that really required, rhetorically speaking, a singular person?

      1. Anonicorn*

        The United States has a statistically higher female population. I’ve never understood why “he” should be the de-facto pronoun when it’s more likely to be incorrect.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      Kimberlee, Esq. beat me to it. Agreed. In every post I read that refers to a manager, Alison uses “she” or “her”. I think you’re reading too much into this.

      1. Anonymous*

        aha this is so funny that this just came up as I actually mentioned AAM blog today (during a discussion about pronouns) and the tendency to use female pronouns instead of the more common male pronoun as generic. I think it’s fantastic that ‘she/her’ is used as the generic pronoun here. It’s nice to have a generic person who shares my gender for a change.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          One thing I find interesting about it is that you really do start picturing a woman in all these instances — which demonstrates the impact on our thinking that using “he” all those years had in making people picture only men in positions of authority (or simply as the default, even without authority stuff).

          1. Ruffingit*

            I’ve participated in this discussion on another forum I read for general life/relationship issues. Anytime someone writes in regarding problems with a mother-in-law or someone else in the family, almost everyone in the comments section assumes it’s a female writing in. Someone who writes in with issues about work or a boss is assumed to be a man.

            When we’ve discussed why we assign certain genders to certain sets of circumstances, no one can really answer definitively except to say that they think more men write in about work problems and that relationship issues tend to be more women. Interestingly enough, the OPs have shown up to say “Nope, I’m a man” or “Nope, I’m a woman” depending.

            It’s just fascinating that we do the equivalent of assigning pink to girls, blue to boys so to speak in that relationship issues = pink and work problems = blue for a lot of people.

  9. Hooptie*

    I agree with everything in the article. While there are applicants that would be a great fit SOMEWHERE in our organization, I can’t take the risk of hiring someone and dedicating extensive training time to them only to have the employee start applying elsewhere in the company.

    My biggest interview turn-off? When someone says, “I just want to get a foot in the door.” That tells me that they don’t want THIS job, they want ANY job in the hopes that they’ll be able to either move up or post internally for something that is more appealing to them.

    Maybe I’m too sensitive about this, but there are applicants that would be great at what they do, but either are overqualified or their salary range is higher than what I can pay. For me, it is insulting to the candidate for me to offer a lower-grade position when I know that they can do (and are worth) so much more.

    I have hired overqualified employees before, and my experience has taught me (with 100% accuracy) that while they SAY they are ok with a lower level position during the hiring process, it doesn’t take long before they are visibly bored and are either posting for other jobs or exceeding the boundaries of the role.

    I recently hired a former manager who told us in her interview that she wanted to downgrade her life – she didn’t want to manage people anymore, wanted a 40 hour work week, and wanted to focus on her personal life. It has been a constant struggle for her to adapt to being ‘just an employee’ and to understand the constraints of her position without stepping on toes. I spend more time managing this person than I do my ‘inexperienced’ staff and that’s not what I expected.

    To quote Joey: Its one thing to think you’ll be okay being “overqualified” and its another to actually demonstrate that you can successfully work in a position that youre overqualified for

    1. Chinook*

      “It has been a constant struggle for her to adapt to being ‘just an employee’ and to understand the constraints of her position without stepping on toes.”

      I think this is a huge thing to remember when someone is overqualified. It is hard to change your mindset from being a manager to a worker with no authority. True, there is less stress and responsibility but you also don’t have the authority to change thigns when you see the managers “doing it wrong.” When you are “just” a worker, one important skill to have is to be able to trust that the people in charge know what they are doing and to not second guess them (and if you don’t, you need to get out of there).

      1. Ruffingit*

        That’s likely true for everyone though, not just managers. My experience has been that becoming overly invested in what “should” be happening in a workplace is a recipe for emotional disaster. Do your job and leave it at that. If management make poor decisions and run the business into the ground, they typically are the type who are not open to suggestions. Send your resume out and move on.

        One of my dearest friends who is nearly 25 years older than me and who I met at one of my first jobs out of college told me that changing things is not the goal in a work environment. It’s rarely appreciated or successful. Do your work, do it well, and move on was his mantra. 20 years after hearing that from him and having much more experience in the working world, I see the beauty of his counsel. Do your work, do it well, and move on. No need to become emotionally invested in the workplace or to even care what poor decisions management is making unless you actually have a reason to do so (that is, you’re part owner of or have some literal investment in the company).

    2. BCW*

      As for the foot in the door thing, I think that is somewhat normal. I mean honestly how long do you expect someone to work someplace and not have any desire for advancement. If I’ve been there 2 years, you can bet I’d be looking to move up in the company if my work has proven that I’m capable. It seems some of the commenters expect people to stay in one role for way longer than I would want to.

      1. Hooptie*

        Two years is great, and I am extremely supportive that as people learn more about the company they will pursue opportunities in other departments. I actively encourage my team to learn as much about the business as they can, and if they go to another team it has ALWAYS been a benefit having someone in another department who knows how my department works. But they have to pay their dues first.

        There is a difference between hiring someone because they are (not over-) qualified and interested in my department, then helping them develop and grow into another position and turning down an applicant because it is clear that they only want to get into the company and move into another job.

      2. Ruffingit*

        I think it really depends on the job though. If someone tells you flat out that they are looking for a data entry person and nothing more, then you need to believe that. It seems that the issue others are addressing here is the belief that once you show your true, amazing skills to the company, they will want to lift you out of that data entry role.

        Sometimes that just isn’t the case. Not all jobs are foot in the door jobs. Some really are just what they say they are and nothing more. It’s the hiring for the latter jobs where the foot in the door attitude becomes an issue. It’s not a foot in the door job, it’s a butt in the seat job and that’s where you’ll stay.

    3. Rana*

      That’s a very good point. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I do great in positions where I have a lot of autonomy and a lot of authority, and I do great in ones where I have very little (or none) of both. It’s the middle zone that’s tricky – there, it’s a lot harder to anticipate what’s acceptable levels of taking initiative, and what’s over-stepping.

    4. Jen*

      I agree with all of this. I used to be one of those people who was like “That’s so silly to not hire someone who is a little more qualified” and then I moved to a new city and accepted a lower job because I was unemployed and I thought I was OK with the change but I was not. I was annoyed that my manager had less experience. I hated feeling like I wasn’t at the table anymore. I hated how many managers were condescending to me because of my title. I only lasted a few months there and had to leave because I was miserable.

  10. Miss C*

    I am about to start a new job in 4 weeks, for which I am pretty overqualified. I explained during the hiring process that I was looking for a better cultural fit than with my current workplace, and that I was eager for the opportunity to freshen up on technical skills that I’d not had hands on experience with for the past 4-5 years.

    They hired me, at the highest end of the pay range, and specifically let me know during negotiations that there was an opportunity for advancement in about 8 months, and they are interested in my management experience in addition to the technical stuff. Having read some of these thread, I’m now wondering whether I should approach the job as the more junior level job that I am hired for, and do that to the best of my ability for the next 6 months, or, if opportunity arises, do I step beyond the role to demonstrate my other qualifications?

    1. Joey*

      You talk to your boss about it. But first and foremost you really can’t justify taking on more when you haven’t mastered the junior role. So I would master junior first then let your boss know you have the capacity and desire to do more.

  11. QualityControlFreak*

    I had a recruiter tell me that while she thought my résumé was fantastic, I might want to “dumb it down” a bit to apply for entry-level positions. She shared some of the specific concerns cited in the article; employers would be concerned that I would be bored and looking to leave for a higher-level position soonest. I agreed that those are valid concerns, but said that honestly, since I actually WOULD be looking to move onward and upward from an entry-level job, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with trying to hide that fact from a prospective employer.

    Then one of the organizations I had applied to for a data entry job (which I was not offered) had a higher-level person retire. They still had my résumé; I was called for an interview and got the job. Boss told me later he thought I would’ve been bored silly with the data entry job. He was right.

  12. Victoria Nonprofit*

    This all makes sense, and I can imagine using it to help explain my thinking and enthusiasm if I were applying for a job that was more junior than my qualifications.

    I wonder how I would handle being managed by someone with much less experience than me, though. I don’t think someone’s age would be a problem for me, but if I genuinely had a better understanding the landscape/task/etc. than the person who was managing me? I think I’d struggle with that. Worth thinking about!

    1. Therapist*

      I was thinking about taking on an internship once and the woman who would have been head of my department there was so young. When I spoke with her on the phone, before meeting her in person, she told me how to submit my materials and then said submitting them was”breezy peasy, nice and easy” in a singsong voice. I was flabbergasted.

      Then, I met her. She cannot have been more than 25 years old and she was fresh out of grad school with her master’s degree. It was so obvious to me that she had no idea how to conduct herself professionally. Not that she was horribly unprofessional, just that she didn’t understand the nuances of workplace etiquette such as why you’d not say something like “Breezy peasy, nice and easy” to a possible candidate for any job.

      I’m close to 40 years old so I’ve learned some of the nuances now. I could easily spot someone who was “green” and while I think I could have worked with her, it might have been irritating for me to hear her speak to other candidates as she would to her friends. There were other things too that made me think she was just too young for her job.

      I didn’t take the internship for other reasons.

  13. Ed*

    I think part of the problem is too many people get advanced degrees in fields with no jobs. For example, my friend has a masters in musicology (or something similar) and her dreams of playing in an orchestra never worked out. Now she’s looking for a job and complains that nobody will hire her because she’s overqualified. Some may consider her over-educated but she’s not really qualified to do much of anything outside of music. And no company wants to hire someone that is dreaming of another career while you’re paying them.

    1. Yup*

      Suzanne Lucas from the Evil HR Lady column wrote about the “overqualified doesn’t mean what you think it means” phenomenon a while ago.


      It really speaks to what your friend is experiencing. Her advanced degree doesn’t really “over qualify” her for jobs in the music field — it just means that she has a ton of academic knowledge above and beyond what might be required for a given position.

  14. Fee*

    Is ‘overqualified’ the same as ‘overexperienced’? I have been working for over 13 years but because I’m looking to move into a slightly different field I’m looking at jobs that could be considered ‘lower-level’ than what I have been/am currently doing. I’m in the UK where salaries (or at least a range) are usually included upfront in the job ad. Based on that I can see that some jobs offering similar salaries are pitched explicitly at graduates or people with one/two years’ working experience. I’m definitely not ‘over-qualified’ in technical terms for these, but do employers see someone with a lot of experience, including some (brief) management experience and make the same assumptions i.e. will be bored/want to move on quickly?

  15. Jennifer*

    I was just wondering: given how people are now out of work for YEARS on end, and are so desperate for just getting any work at all, no matter what it is, even if it’s fast food or dancing on the street corner with a sign, has this “overqualified” crap gotten any better at all? Which is to say, are employers realizing that even if you’re going to be “bored” or “we can’t pay enough for what you were used to,” or “you’re going to wish you were management,” that you just can’t do any better than this right now and you’d sell your soul just to get this data entry job?

    Seriously, I have wondered for years now why anyone would still insist that that kind of thing is a problem now. People are desperate for any kind of work they can get that doesn’t involve a uniform and a hat and they literally cannot afford to be picky. It just seems ridiculous to me that in 2013, “overqualified because they will leave the job in 5 minutes” is still genuinely considered to be a huge problem. If you get any job at all, the likelihood of you finding another job and leaving isn’t great at best. Or is this just something that’s only relevant in high level companies/management jobs these days?

    1. [anon]*

      Companies still self-select out of “overqualified” candidates. I heard it more than once during my 2012-2013 job search. And they totally can, because the labor market is in the employers’ favor and it’s easy for them to pick up a more recent graduate for cheaper and not worry about it at all.

      1. Jamie*

        I had this issue back in 2008. I know I’m posted this before – but I sent out well over 100 resumes to jobs at lower levels because I thought I could do what I did the first time and get in and move up. Not one single response. Not one.

        In desperation I started applying for higher level jobs I was sure I could never get and I sent out 5 resumes, got 3 interviews, and 2 offers (cancelled the 3rd interview after I accepted an offer.)

        Needless to say this was before I’d discovered AAM. But this is was a thing even before the economy pooped the bed – and to be fair in my case it would have been true. My intent was to come in entry level, wow them, and move up. I didn’t realize you only really get one shot at entry level. After that it’s like trying to reclaim your virginity…you can reset the bar but you can’t go back to original condition.

    2. Rana*

      has this “overqualified” crap gotten any better at all?

      Nope. From what I’ve seen, it’s gotten worse.

  16. Jazzy Red*

    Once upon a time, when I was unemployed and doing some temp jobs, my agency sent me to a very small business that needed an office person. They interviewed a few candidates from the agency, and selected one younger woman who was asking $2/hour less than I was. They also said I was over-qualified. She started the job, and one day they asked her to make hotel reservations for someone who was coming in from out of town. The girl went back to desk, then went back in to the boss and asked if the reservation should be for all night, or just the evening.

    The agency called me the next day and said they wanted me.

    1. Ruffingit*

      LOL! That’s awesome. This makes me think about the fact that hotels that rent “for the evening” tend to have a particular clientele (prostitutes). The possibilities of what the boss must have been thinking when the receptionist asked that just makes me laugh.

    2. Anonymously Anonymous*


      Once I worked at an airport location hotel near a large corporate area –so we mostly had business/ corporate people and families staying over after vacations. And there were no hourly rates at our hotel. One night I was in the process of training a new auditor when a guest came down to complain that he had been approached in the elevator. Then I remembered my suspicion about a couple girls checking in earlier —they were all sweaty (like they had danced and sweated out their hair and makeup—a hot mess) … (one even tried to say I took her credit card and never gave it back to her, yeah right) Anyway that was just enough for me to kick them out especially after the earlier incident. I went down to room and there was a line out the door (just rift raft off the street). I couldn’t believe my eyes. The guy I was training was scared–he pretty much begged me to let them do their thing..they weren’t hurting anyone. I went back to the desk and locked the the card keys then call down to the room and told them the cops were on the way. I never seen a place clear out so fast. Apparently they had done this at other hotels in the area.

  17. Jamie*

    I think about this sometimes and wonder if it’s possible to know if you would be happy taking a step down.

    Sometimes it sounds great. I was filling in for someone yesterday and doing a task I used to do years ago, and it was very….soothing.

    It was methodical and crucial to the business, but not complicated and there were no surprises. Just a very comforting routine that I felt I was providing a needed service, but nothing that really challenged me intellectually.

    But while the lack of frustration was nice, would the lack of challenge be soothing long term if I were to move on and step down? I don’t know myself, so I can see why an employer would be skeptical.

    Just musing aloud (atype?) but it’s something I do think about from time to time, but I really can’t figure out if that’s something that would make me happy long term or it’s just a transient fantasy in response to stress overload.

    Sometimes I wish someone would just tell me what to do with my life..I’m tired of thinking for myself.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I’m tired of thinking for myself. Me too! If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the couch cushion fort eating sugary cereal and watching cartoons. :)

  18. Anonymously Anonymous*

    I was reading on a board the other day.. that the jobs that *we* are applying to are like the leftover rummaged through stuff at the end of the day of a garage sale. All the good stuff is being set aside for friends and relatives…

    Anyway… Does being told your resume and cover letter are impressive count towards being overqualified? That was my last rejection letter.

    On topic: I’m thinking about the wording of the first couple of lines in my cover letter and how it would turn off some places. While I try to keep it upbeat because I do like my job, I can see them thinking I’m naive and don’t understand what they deal with or ‘she seems happy where she at–she won’t be happy here’. Definitely something to consider.

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