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I never feel comfortable calling myself an "expert" in any skill on the resume, because obviously I don't know everything on any topic. I know nobody knows everything, but I still have this fear that if I am not able to answer a handful of questions on the skill in which I am an "expert", it would create a bad impression. Is there a guideline on when a person can be called an expert in a skill?

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In the end, you should present yourself as well as your confidence allows, and as well as your interviewer is ready to accept. No matter how good you are, if you don't feel like it you can't pretend to it, and if the person in front of you can't handle it, you should avoid saying it. –  Morg. Mar 13 at 12:22
    
Yeah, but that's not really the point of this question. I am confident enough in every topic that I put on my resume, but my question really is how confident should I be before calling myself an "expert"? For instance, out of 100 questions asked on a topic, if I can answer 90 questions correctly, can I call myself an expert? What about 80, or 75? What if a different set of 100 questions is chosen? Essentially, what I am trying to understand is, when people say that so-and-so is an "expert" in a field, what is the "threshold" they choose? (It need not be quantitative.) –  Happy Mar 13 at 12:32
    
Actually it IS the point of your question. Expert is a meaningless word, to which your interviewer will give meaning according to his background. If the guy who knows how to make macros in Excel is his definition of an expert, well you're probably an expert. If instead his reference is a guy who routinely fixes MS and Intel compilers as well as the Kernel and other renowned code bases,... And those questions ? I've been asked irrelevant questions on topics I am an expert of. What's your approach then ? Tell them the guy who made the questions is not an expert ? This topic is not factual. –  Morg. Mar 13 at 12:40
    
If you put it that way, that actually makes a lot of sense. Oh well, looks like I didn't really understand my own question. I guess I am not an "expert" at asking questions. :) –  Happy Mar 13 at 13:43
    
Try "experienced" rather than "expert"? Experience is citable... –  keshlam Mar 13 at 16:03

2 Answers 2

up vote 35 down vote accepted

There is no universal guideline. This is a signaling problem. Part of the reason there are so many various certifications and degrees is to help solve this problem. With the lack of specific certifications, everyone gets to define their own expert, and the process ends up suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Signaling

While most managers will never admit it, as a society we're really new at trying to figure out who will be good at what in the information age. Unlike measuring who's a good welder (you can easily test a weld), figuring out who will be a good manager or a good programmer is not quite so easy. So we rely on signaling a lot of the time. If you hired 1,000 people out of the following 3 groups, which do you think would produce the most value as a developer?

  1. High school dropout who has never used a computer and has only worked hourly jobs
  2. GED-holder with a healthy online profile (github, SE profile, etc.) but no work experience
  3. BA in Computer Science with 3 years of experience at a tech company and good references

While I'm sure there are people in group 1 and 2 who would be better than some members of group 3, if you're going to hire 1,000 people, you probably want to take from group 3 as much as possible as they have a higher chance to produce value for your company.

That is signalling does.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

When people have to evaluate their own ability, they fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect. People think they are better than they are. For instance, in the Dunning-Kruger paper, after an exam each student was asked to evaluate how well they felt they'd done. The bottom 25% of test takers actually believed they were in the 60th percentile. People have a tendency to over-estimate their own skill.

So clever employers (and I do hope you are applying to clever employers) are going to give a lot less weight to what you write (expert/intermediate/beginner, etc.), and a lot more weight to the signals that you provide (certifications, degrees, good work history, work samples, accomplishments, etc.).

Who is an expert?

Here's what Google says:

a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area.

You do not have to be the best or know everything. If you are in a great office with brilliant people, you may feel like you are below average compared to them, but the people around you are so far above the average that you are well above average compared to other applicants.

If you have worked at several offices, and you find that you tend to know the most about a certain area/skill, I see no harm in saying that you are an expert in it. If you find that after several interviews (or jobs), you aren't quite as good at a skill as you may have thought you were, then you should adjust your resume to match.

As long as you can explain why you think you are an expert if asked about it, and you have the signaling to back up the statement, the employer likely won't question it.

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@Happy, due to Dunning-Kruger in the larger population, if you sell yourself short then you will fall even further behind. Dunning-Kruger means your evaluation will be placed on a scale -- regardless of how honest you are, your answer will likely be discounted due to Dunning-Kruger so you shouldn't be hesitant. If you get a 70 on a test, but due to the curve that ends up being counted as a B+, you'd be foolish to say you got a C- by ignoring the curve. Your choice, but if you are too conservative you may miss opportunities to show your skills if your resume seems lacking. –  jmac Mar 13 at 5:49
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Interestingly enough, Dunning & Kruger found that underperformers overestimate their capabilities... but overperformers actually underestimate them! Once you know a lot about a given field, you understand how much you don't know. –  Stephan Kolassa Mar 13 at 7:40
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Your statement about Dunning-Kruger is incorrect: not everyone overestimates their ability but only people who do badly. People who do well tend to underestimate their performance. Kruger and Dunning's paper, "Unskilled and Unaware of It", Psychology 1:30-46, 2009 (PDF) is well worth reading; most of it's just running prose and you can skip the statistical analysis. –  David Richerby Mar 13 at 8:57
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@David, using the popular definition of the D-K effect in line with the Lake Wobegon, "All children are above average" -- I realize that it's more nuanced, and have read the study, but the general point is that because the unskilled describe themselves far better than they are, the importance is to have the appropriate signals and account for the fact that self-evaluations will be looked at with a grain of salt. –  jmac Mar 13 at 10:29
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I would love to read more about the D-K effect, but from what you write, it seems that those who rank very low seem to think they don't rank that low (which is one of the reasons they do in fact rank so low...). The truth is that the more you know, the less you think you know, and the less you think you know, the more you learn. The corollary is that the less you know, the more you think you know, and the less you learn, thereby perpetuating ignorance and cultivating excellence among those who show either of those traits. –  Morg. Mar 13 at 12:20

I think expertise has a close relationship with the experience. If a person has long experience though he is not has educational qualifications with him in relevant field I think still he can be a expert in that area. There is no any measurement to measure "experts" but if he can solve the issues in that area than his colleagues he will become expert there. There may be thing experts also can't answer but they can solve majority of issues.

When turning to your problem, calling your self as "expert" is something you should decide. If you can self confidence to answer all questions (majority of the questions )in your area you can called your self as expert. If you do not have confidence means still you have fear that you may not find out the answer. If you have good enough knowledge and experience explicitly you will get the confidence to called your self as expert. :)

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protected by ReallyTiredOfThisGame Mar 13 at 15:54

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