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What being "overqualified" really means

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If you've been working for a while, chances are you've found yourself in an interview with someone who tells you you're "overqualified." Interviews are quite a nerve-wracking situation and at first it sounds like a compliment. But if you're like most people, you're left bewildered, wondering what the interviewer meant. Today we're going to address this as a response to a question from one of our subscribers.


I've enjoyed your articles very much and have used some of the information in my job search successfully. However, I have two pressing questions I want to ask.

What is a job seeker to do when they are told repeatedly in interviews they are allegedly over-qualified? I have been on interviews for positions that are almost exactly like the one I was laid-off from recently. However, interviewers flat out tell me that although I have impressive and desirable credentials, they feel I'm over-qualified.

My second concern pertains to compensation. In the rare events that I haven't been "over-qualified", I have managed to avoid discussing this taboo, yet all-important topic since this is what really drives companies to hire a particular candidate.

In the unfortunate event the topic comes up before getting an offer, I have given a "range" as to what I'd expect based on area living standards, what such a position fetches for in the industry as a whole, and obviously my credentials. I have tried various tactics from selling myself extremely short all the way up to "no way in hell" for pay ranges, but regardless, I get the form letter saying thanks for interviewing, but keep looking for a job.

It's a catch-22 here it seems. On one hand I'm over-qualified, but when I'm not, I apparently ask for too much money even if I just state a reasonable range and justify my given range. Am I over-simplifying this or is there something else going on here that I'm unaware of?


Thanks for your email and for the compliments!

It sounds like when employers say you're overqualified, they're looking at your qualifications and realizing that they'd have to pay you a salary that's on the high-end of the salary range. And it sounds like you're expecting that high-end salary yourself.

I think in a good economy, employers can afford to hire "overqualified" individuals. Sometimes, if the job market is tight - as it was a few years ago - employers might have no choice because the less expensive and less qualified people are all working elsewhere.

I'm not sure what kind of work you do so it's difficult to get into the particulars..

One option would be to go for a job with a lower salary. By now, you probably know the types of companies and positions that are not willing to pay for your qualifications. You could go into interviews with these companies and explain before they even start asking you questions that you really want to work for their firm and you're willing to work for a salary on the low end of the range. By preemptively addressing the salary question, you make it clear that you're not expecting a higher salary. This will make the employer more comfortable with the idea of offering you the position and help alleviate their concerns that you would jump ship as soon as a sweeter offer comes along. Another approach to getting a job with a lower salary would be to remove some of the qualifications from your resume. You don't want to lie on your resume, but you can legitimately omit certain facts. For example, if you graduated Phi Beta Kappa or Magna Cum Laude, you are not obligated to list that on your resume.

If you want to get a job with a higher salary, you might want to try working for a different type of company. There is often a difference in salary between jobs that are in the company's "line of business" versus support/staff jobs. For example, an accountant working for a corporation to help maintain their books and records or do their taxes, would be working in a staff job that the company would view as an expense or cost center. Companies work hard to minimize their costs (and therefore salaries) in cost center departments.

That same accountant might be able to get a job at an accounting firm like KPMG Peat Marwick, whose primary business is accounting, at a higher salary because their time is being billed out to clients.

Even if you're not working in accounting, there are many types of professional positions where their consulting counterparts pay more than the staff jobs inside corporations. The downside to consulting jobs is they often require more hours and can be more stressful because of the demands by the clients.

If you've been working for a large company, you may be able to get a higher salary by working at a small business. Small businesses often pay higher salaries because they don't offer as many of the intangible benefits as the larger firms - such as after-work company events, a company cafeteria, and the prestige that comes with working for a well-known firm. However, the difference between what businesses of different sizes pay narrows when there's high unemployment because the small businesses don't have to work as hard to attract people that might otherwise work for larger companies.

One place to go to research different industries and possibly map out a plan for transitioning to a different type of company that might be in a better position to pay you more for your work is the Vault Reports web site. Vault surveys people working at all sorts of companies about the pay, work environment, etc. and makes reports available on their web site. For more information about Vault or to visit their site, go to this web address:

Another way to find out about the best places to work to maximize your salary is to network with other people in your profession and talk to leaders in your local professional association. If you don't know a lot of people in your profession, you can attend networking events to meet them. Here is a brief (but not exhaustive) list of places to go to find networking events:
- Technology Executives Networking Group (TENG) - For Technology Executives. Website: www.theteng.org
- Financial Executives Networking Group (FENG) - For Finance Executives (CFOs, Controllers, etc.). Website: www.thefeng.org
- ExecuNet - General networking for executives making $100,000+. Website: www.execunet.com
- Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) - Website: www.ieee.org
- Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) - For I.T. Professionals & Computer Scientists. Website: www.acm.org
- Crain's Business Publications - Publisher of Crain's New York Business, Crain's Detroit Business, Crain's Chicago Business, et. al. These publications list local networking events in these major cities. Website: www.crain.com
- If you don't know if there's an association for your profession and/or industry, one way to find out is through the American Society of Association Executives' web site. They have a search engine to let you search through all of the professional and trade associations in the U.S. Get to it by going to www.asaenet.org and clicking "Directories" on the home page.

Once you know the type of company you want to work for, the next step is to start generating leads, which then leads to interviews. We have several tools listed on our website that are effective in generating job leads.

About the Author

Scott Brown is the author of the Job Search Handbook (http://www.JobSearchHandbook.com). As editor of the HireSites.com weekly newsletter on job searching, Scott has written many articles on the subject. He wrote the Job Search Handbook to provide job seekers with a complete yet easy to use guide to finding a job effectively.


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