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Let's say you apply for a job opening. Everything is good, you get along with the interviewer, you seem like a good personality fit with the team, you have the requisite skills, the work interests you and the compensation is satisfactory.

Except one thing: Eventually, the interviewer remarks that you seem overqualified and asks you to explain.

There are several reasons that companies have for being averse to hiring overqualified staff. However, my impression is that there is really no reason why an overqualified employee cannot thrive in their assignment if they want to (even on a permanent basis).

So, what explanations can be given by an applicant to explain being overqualified? What arguments tend to be more successful? Which ones are not productive?

Is it even sensible or ethical to seek positions one is overqualified for? I decided to remove this part because it invites tangents. I am interested only in answers that deal with what arguments can be made by an overqualified applicant during an interview.

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    Recruiters want someone who will stay in the job. Overqualified candidates can get bored easily and leave as soon as a better opportunity is found. That means the recruiter has to do the hiring again. Nobody likes re-work. – ingo Jan 15 '15 at 5:20
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    That's the trouble with asking general questions instead of questions that apply to your situation. If you are overqualified for the position, WHY do YOU want it? Everybody has their own PERSONAL reasons, depending on their circumstances. If you are asking for some magic incantation that's going to work for everyone for every situation, forget it. First of all, your request does not make sense. Second, the incantation does not exist. Third, the incantation wouldn't work even if it existed. Voting to close as your question is too broad. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 15 '15 at 9:36
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Vietnhi Phuvan makes a good point in the comments - there is no single answer, or even group of answers, that will answer this question. OP should make this more specific (maybe "senior applying for junior roles in same industry?), this question is otherwise mega broad.

For example, I'm a CFA approved stockbroker, and I apply for a bartender in a club. Now, I'm obviously overqualified for this role, but I can probably argue that I'm a bit burnt out, want to work in a bar, passionate about partying, I don't know, something along those lines. That sounds like a fair argument.

Now, take me as the CFA approved broker, and watch me apply for a role as a, I don't know, children's bus driver? Again overqualified, but this time if I use that "passionate about partying" line they're probably going to call the police and lock me away.

So the first question you should be asking is why am i applying for a role that i am overqualified for?. You don't mention that, and if you had a valid reason I imagine you wouldn't be asking this question... so to make this answer even vaguely useful, I'm going to assume you need the money. Also, that you're a senior {something} applying for junior {something} roles.

The problem with explaining this is that finding people is hard, and everyone suspects that the first job they give someone who is currently unemployed is just going to be used by that person as a springboard to a better job. Hiring you from Alpha company to Beta company - well, you're giving up Alpha, there must be something about Beta that you like, that goes above and beyond just giving you a paycheque. Hiring from unemployed to Beta, and they'll suspect you want the money. And that means that you'll then jump from Beta to Alpha because you're actually more keen on Alpha's domain, tech, whatever. And now the folks at Beta have to hire again. Yuck, pass.

Sadly, this same argument is doubly true when you're overqualified - they'll just assume you're going to cut and run.

None of this is helpful to you, but I do have one semi-generic response that might come in handy. Apply for roles that are outside your domain - banking domain? Apply to ecommerce companies. Ecommerce domain? Apply to Marketing comapnies. That way, you can explain that you'd like exposure to the domain, and you feel that while you have a lot of value-add from experience in {old domain} you'd like to get more exposure to {new domain} to feel comfortable working there.

Again, this is only in the case where you're a senior {some role} applying for a junior {some role}, not where you're that burnt out broker trying to drive children to and from school. That ship has sailed man.

Oh! Or just fudge your CV a bit and make yourself sound more junior. You didn't lead that project - you were lead in that project, for example.

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    I can think of a female employee and new mother who is taking a position that's at a lower level because she doesn't want to put in all that career building overtime and neglect the baby. Obviously, if Mr. Sniper Cat (see my logo) gave this as a reason during the interview, he'd be laughed out of town, which is worse for me than being locked away - being locked away is bad but at least, they are taking me seriously :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 15 '15 at 11:00
  • @VietnhiPhuvan heh, there should be a list "great generic answers and the times when they just aren't appropriate" – bharal Jan 15 '15 at 12:02
  • Good answer, although I'd contend that if you're a CFA approved stockbroker you may not have the minimum qualifications for a bartender or school bus driver. They have requirements too, and without the experience mixing drinks or the commercial drivers license, you're not overqualified for those positions, although perhaps you're over-educated. – thursdaysgeek Jan 15 '15 at 16:33
  • For the bus driver CFA (assuming he uses his savings to take a few months off after leaving his job and get the appropriate license), maybe he just doesn't like a stressful, high-responsibility job, and wants a position where he is not forced to constantly compete so he can focus on his life outside work more? – Superbest Jan 15 '15 at 19:42
  • @VietnhiPhuvan - You can think of an employee and a new parent who is taking a position at a lower level because the new parent doesn't want to put in all that career-building overtime and neglect their family. This is not gender-specific. It is important for those who are active at The Workplace to be gender-neutral in their comments to avoid propagating stereotypes. – nadyne Jan 16 '15 at 16:38
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There are several valid reasons to want a position where you are overqualified that are acceptable much of the time.

The first one is that you want to move into a different area in your career that will ultimately affect your growth possibilities. It might be the chance to learn a different but related technology (I might consider a DA position instead of a senior DA to learn Oracle instead of SQL Server). It might be a chance to get into a new business domain where there is more growth opportunity. It might be a chance to get into a larger company with more room for internal growth. This last is especially true if this company is one you ultimately really want to work for like Google. All of those are possibilities where you might stay long term at the company although you might be looking for promotion (which of course many people are).

Another is a change in personal circumstances where the more advanced position is simply not possible for the foreseeable future. This is trickier to discuss and less likely to succeed but will still work depending on the hiring official, the job and if you are willing to admit the personal reason. A new mother who wants less responsibility for a few years might be easier for a hiring official to accept than someone who is seriously ill. The need to move to take care of an older relative might be a reason to do this. If the new area doesn't have jobs at the level you are used to, it is possible that only jobs for which you are overqualified are available. On the other hand, while you might go through more interviews to get a offered a job, when you do you will know they are willing to accommodate your personal need.

Another reason is a limited job market and a job that is going away especially one for reasons beyond your control like a contract ending or a mass layoff. Yes they are going to have concerns that you might jump ship, but if the jobs in your area are truly few and far between, this could be acceptable.

Another reason is that you have found you do not like the duties at the higher level and would be happier moving down the chain to a lower position. This is typically when you have been promoted to management and would prefer to return to the technical field.

Moving to a new area could also be a reason to move downward especially if the new area does not have jobs at your current level. For instance a Senior Dev in the Silcon Valley might have trouble finding an equivalent position in say Martinsburg WV. But if your spouse has been transferred there, then people will understand that you will likely stay awhile even at a lower position because no higher positions are in the area. If the area has higher jobs, then discuss that you are trying to get your foot in the door at those companies and expect to move up there. They might be willing to try you out at a lower (and easier to hire a replacement for) position before giving you the more critical senior job.

You might also address the money issue more openly than if you were going for a higher position. After all many are going to be concerned that you will be too expensive. And if you are looking at jobs with lower qualifications, chances are they will have lower salaries as well.

Finally remember, the people who are unwilling to hire the overqualified screened you out before getting to the interview. So you do have a chance of being hired if you get the interview to be able to explain your reason.

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there is really no reason why an overqualified employee cannot thrive in their assignment if they want to (even on a permanent basis).

The key phrase here is "if they want to".

You need to convince the interviewer that you do really want to, and explain why that is.

You probably need to convince the interviewer that you intend to stay in the position for the long-haul, and aren't just going to jump to a better job (for which you aren't overqualified) once one comes along. That is a common worry employers would have.

You need to convince the interviewer that you aren't just planning to sit back, take it easy, and not work hard in this job which won't be a stretch for you. That's also another common worry in this situation.

You probably need to convince the interviewer that you won't get bored and leave for a more interesting position. This could easily be a worry.

So, what explanations can be given by an applicant to explain being overqualified? What arguments tend to be more successful? Which ones are not productive?

The successful explanations are the ones which are true for you individually.

The unsuccessful explanations are the ones that come from trying to guess what the interviewer wants to hear.

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What are your arguments against the usual reasons made against hiring overqualified employees? I personally tend to think they're overblown, but they're not the sort of things that tend to be universally irrelevant for particular candidates.

However, my impression is that there is really no reason why an overqualified employee cannot thrive in their assignment.

For how long? The usual arguments worry that this person will become bored or disruptive.

But let's ignore that for now. What happens when this employee does thrive at the job? That alone presents problems:

  • You will feel pressure to promote the thriving employee. If you promote them out of the job you need done, now you're back to square one (plus a higher salary maybe doing a job you don't need). If you don't promote them, they can feel slighted, leading to the usual arguments.
  • Their peers will suffer. If I look at Bob the thriving employee - and he's just kicking ass and taking names. I am likely to be demotivated by that. Worse, I see that Bob isn't being promoted. So not only am I doing a poor job, but if Bob can't even get promoted, I won't have high expectations for my own career advancement. Or, if I'm a worse employee, I slack off a bit since I know that Rock Star Bob will take care of it.
  • Expectations may become too high. Even worse is when other people see Bob's productivity and start asking "why isn't the whole team being so awesome?". Sure, sometimes that's a valid question. If Bob is really overqualified though, you're simply not going to find many people of that caliber willing to "work down" to the role. Everyone brought in sucks in comparison, which reflects poorly on the team and the manager.

What arguments tend to be more successful?

In my experience, no arguments tend to be successful. The closest thing I've seen is technical folks who go back to technical roles after having more managerial jobs with the "I just would rather do this work". Still, they're not overqualified for the technical roles - they're just also qualified for what is commonly seen as a "better" role.

Why?

To me, the usual reasons are fairly solid ones. Worse, an applicant applying to a job where they are overqualified leads me to 3 particular red flags.

  • You don't want to get better. - I work with software engineers. Keeping your skills up to date is a key job requirement, so this might be more important to me than others. Sure, being overqualified in the first place means you can probably do that, but I would be highly concerned that changes in your life mean you now want to coast. I would also be concerned that I incorrectly evaluated your skill. What if you really have been working at it for 15 years but only know 5 years worth of skills (but 15 years worth of "talking the talk")?
  • You have no confidence. - It may be that you're terribly overqualified, but you think you're not that good. For skilled software developers (again, your industry may vary), a good portion of their value comes from interacting within the team. They advocate for good ideas, shoot down bad ideas, spread good ideas amongst the team. They are not going to excel if they lack the confidence to do that.
  • You can't make good decisions. - To me, the quality of a person comes from the decisions they make. Do they make good decisions or bad? Selfish or altruistic? Wise or impulsive? If you took a look around, and decided that this job you're overqualified for was the best choice for you at the moment... I would think that you were a terrible decision maker. And since pretty much any job is a series of small decisions, I would expect you to be a terrible employee; a untrustworthy employee.

What can you say to sway me? Again, I don't think there are arguments that would be successful. You would have to convince me that there are things I've overlooked that somehow makes you not overqualified. You would need to convince me that your decision to do this job is a good long term decision for you despite its appearance otherwise.

  • I actually did mention one arguments against them in my comment to the linked question. I think the same logic can be applied to many of your objections. Anyhow, by thrive, I meant actually do well and become an asset in that position (as opposed to get back on their feet and leave for greener pastures). – Superbest Jan 15 '15 at 4:32
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    I also disagree with your closing paragraph. It appears that you conflate a "good career" with ambition, but not everyone wants to make as much money or obtain as much power as possible. Anyway, that last question seems like it was a bad idea in retrospect, so I edited to remove it. – Superbest Jan 15 '15 at 4:35
  • @superbest - sure, I do expect a good career to mean ambitious, but not for money or power. People should have some manner of ambition to not be a fry cook all their lives. Yes, that comes with money and power, but there's more to it than that. People need to grow. – Telastyn Jan 15 '15 at 12:36
  • @superbest - I'm not sure I buy your arguments. "But companies do bad things, so that makes it okay for me to do similar bad things." but even beyond that, what happens when companies want to underpay/overwork someone that also is overqualified? It just exacerbates those problems. – Telastyn Jan 15 '15 at 12:41
  • @Telastyn you need to grow. But the fry cook may be happy doing her job and going home where she has different interests. Sometimes a job is just a job, and since we need fry cooks, why is that a bad thing? – thursdaysgeek Jan 15 '15 at 16:37

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