Few words make a graduate student or postdoc on the non-academic job market as anxious, resentful, or confused as this one. As a general rule, it means an employer is looking at the fact of your degree rather than at your specific skills and evidence of them. What it means in specific cases, however, heavily on context, which in turn influences how you should respond.
If a hiring manager says to you “you seem really overqualified for this job” at the interview stage, it may mean several things:
- The job is entry-level, and the manager fears you will grow bored or leave quickly. Focus on why you are interested in the job and how your skills (not your degree as such) are a good fit.
- The job is entry-level, and the manager could hire someone straight out of college or university, believing s/he will be easier to train as the employer wants. Focus on how you have learned new skills and areas throughout your time in grad school, especially ones you learned quickly when needed.
- You are more qualified than other applicants who are suited to the job. Focus on how your skills are a good fit, and on how quickly you have learned new skills and areas in the past. Your value to an employer includes your adaptability and proven ability to learn new things quickly.
- You are more qualified than other applicants who are suited to the job and therefore require a higher salary than lesser-but-adequately-qualified people. Focus on your proven ability to learn new things quickly, and understand the value of those skills in the marketplace. That requires research ahead of the interview and / or salary negotiation to understand the salary range for that job and where your skills might place you in the range. You want to focus not only on what you will be paid but on what your skills are worth, and for that you need current data.
- The hiring manager doesn’t understand what your skills from your PhD are and instead focuses on the fact of your degree, interpreting it as you being “overqualified.” This response means that you have not articulated, either in your job letter or on your résumé, what your skills are, which (presumably) include the ability to assess, research, and solve problems, and write and present descriptive information and analyses, and make persuasive cases. (Here’s a guide to how non-academic job descriptions are structured and another guide to their common terminology, with rough academic skill equivalents.)
- The hiring manager doesn’t understand how your skills from your PhD are relevant to the job s/he is hiring for and focuses the fact of your degree, interpreting it as you being “overqualified.” Focus on why your skills can help the employer address his or her challenges as laid out in the job description. You must have a specific example of a demonstrated skill you have that the employer needs; the only way to counter generalized worry about overqualification is with specific examples of how your skills can help solve an employer’s problems.
If a hiring manager says to you “you were just overqualified for this job” when you are rejected for the job, you have a couple options:
- You can say “thank you for your time” and let that be the end of it, especially if you did not like the job or the people much as you interviewed.
- You may ask “Can you tell me what skill you need that I lack?” This question may lead to a polite nothing, but it may elicit a remark that would allow you to say something like “ah, in that case I regret I did not discuss [demonstrated instance of that skill and its measurable results].” You will probably not change the employer’s mind that way, but you may get yourself a second look if the person to whom they offer the job instead of you says no, or if the hiring manager cannot find a candidate s/he wants more than you.
If you don’t get a specific reason why you were rejected and you say to yourself “I must have been overqualified for the job” — please don’t say that to yourself unless it has been said to you. You are telling yourself something that may not be true but will influence your future behavior, true or not. When you are rejected for a job (as you will be, because everybody is rejected during the application process, and usually a lot more often than they get a job), ask why, if you can. If you are told it’s because you are overqualified, ask what that means. You will not often get a helpful response, but the few you do get will be very helpful.
Finally, remember that it is not an employer’s job to understand what skills you have gained from your graduate work and to know that many of them are transferable to his or her workplace, even though that is almost certainly true. In your job letter, résumé, and interview, it is your job to articulate your skills and show how they can help an employer address his or her problems.