How to Apply for a Job When You’re Overqualified, with Phiona Martin

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 184:

How to Apply for a Job When You’re Overqualified, with Phiona Martin

Airdate: March 27, 2019

Mac Prichard:

Today’s episode of Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by Sneaker School. It’s an online certificate program from the Fashion Institute of Technology and Complex Media.

Sneaker School lets you explore career paths in the footwear industry and students get first-hand advice from some of the biggest names in the business.

To learn more about Sneaker School, visit sneakerschool.com/mac.

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps professionals find fulfilling careers.

I believe that lifelong learning is the key to a successful career. And to get a better job, you need to learn the job hunting skills that will help you find the role of your dreams.

That’s why we’re here today. Every week on Find Your Dream Job, I interview a different career expert. We discuss the tools and tactics you need to find the work you want.

This week, I’m talking to Phiona Martin about how to apply for a job when you’re overqualified.

Mac Prichard:

Phiona Martin is an industrial psychologist. She focuses on careers, talent, and leadership.

Here’s a common question from her clients: How do I apply for a job when I’m overqualified?

Phiona says you must address the concerns an employer may have about your application.

These include: Earning less money will make you unhappy. And you might become bored and unproductive.

As a result, you’ll keep job hunting. And you’ll leave as soon as you find a more satisfying, better-paying position.

Successful candidates, Phiona says, tackle these questions up front. And they pitch themselves in ways that put an employer at ease.

Want to learn more? Listen in now at the Mac’s List studio as I interview Phiona Martin about how to apply for a job when you’re overqualified.

Phiona Martin is a registered industrial psychologist. Her work focuses on careers, talent, and leadership.

Phiona’s key experience has been in the consulting, education, and corporate environments. As a thought leadership enthusiast, she provides expert opinions on career development on many media platforms, including her own career advice website.

Phiona joins us today from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Phiona, thanks for being on the show.

Phiona Martin:

Thank you so much for having me, Mac. I really appreciate it.

Mac Prichard:

Well, it’s a pleasure and our topic today is one we get a lot of questions about. It’s about how to apply for a job when you’re overqualified.

Let’s start with a strategic question here, Phiona. Why do you see people apply for jobs for which they’re overqualified?

Phiona Martin:

Mac, that’s a really great question to sort of kick off the session.

There are a couple of reasons why someone would apply for a role that’s beneath their qualifications or experience and some of the common reasons are, for example, relocation. Sometimes people move cities, sometimes just to another city or to a city where the industries are not well-developed. They then end up being almost forced, I guess, to relook at the level of positions that they will consider.

In some cases, people just want to settle in as quickly as they can in their new city, maybe start earning an income, so in that case, they might compromise in terms of the roles that they typically would apply for.

Another reason as well is what I think we commonly see these days, is retrenchments or layoffs. Companies are constantly in a state of restructure. It’s no longer a ?. I think most of us in our circles, in our networks, know at least one or two people who sort of been laid off due to a retrenchment or restructuring. In fact, some of us have even been in companies where that has happened a few times, so because of that being quite prevalent, that’s a common reason where, in order to start earning an income people would then consider roles that might not be to their standards in terms of experience.

Economy is another key one. Sometimes the economy tanks, maybe the industry that you’re in is not doing particularly well. Basically, in a bad economy, people will become a little bit desperate so they end up, perhaps, considering also roles that are less than their qualifications.

Sometimes it’s just a shortage of jobs in an industry. As I alluded to earlier, some industries are not so well developed or they go through a bad patch and so, in that case, it’s hard to get a job within that field so people end up looking within other industries. Perhaps they have to downgrade in terms of the roles they consider.

Mac Prichard:

Another group that comes to mind as you list all those different examples, Phiona, are people who have been in one career and they want to switch to a new sector and they might be 15, 20 years in the workforce and they’ve got a lot of experience, but on paper they look overqualified for a job in that new career they want to be in, don’t they?

Phiona Martin:

Absolutely. That’s a such a perfect example. I mean, career switching has become quite common. In fact, the projection, I think, is that people are expected to switch careers 3 to 4 times, especially as we enter the 4th industrial revolution. That’s a common one.

Of course, if you’re entering into a new career you almost have to start from the bottom because you, typically, would not have had the exposure, experience, or skills within that field in spite of your age or the number of years that you’ve worked.

Mac Prichard:

You shared examples, Phiona, of when people apply for jobs for which they’re overqualified and why they might do that. Maybe they’re new in town, maybe they’re following a spouse, maybe there’s been a lay-off.

Are there instances, though, when you recommend to others that they doo’t apply for jobs for which they’re overqualified?

Phiona Martin:

I think that when we, at the end of the day, and my approach is always looking at the person’s context. What do they need right now? What is their immediate need? I find many times in cases where someone is looking for a less qualified jobs, if there’s an element of desperation in that they need to get an income…perhaps your finances are oppressed, maybe your house or your car will be repossessed.

In that case I guess the window to a little more picky might not be there but if it’s a case where maybe there isn’t a high-level desperation and you can take your time in choosing your opportunity, I would then say wait, so that at least you don’t take a step backward in terms of role and you put in more effort and more patience instead of waiting for what is at your appropriate level.

I think it depends on the person’s context.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. Let’s talk about it from the employer’s perspective, Phiona. When an employer, or hiring manager rather, gets an application from someone who is overqualified, what concerns do you see that hiring manager typically have about a candidate?

Phiona Martin:

The concerns from employers are actually quite valid.

Typically, employers view an overqualified candidate with suspicion and that’s normally sort of their default position. Some of the reasons with this is that, first of all, they almost sort of realize that you’re desperate and they consider you to be a flight risk because their perception is that you’re going to take this job just in the interim until something better comes along and then off you’re going to go.

In essence, recruiters or employers don’t want to go through a hiring process put in effort, time, and money only for you to leave 4 or 5 months or 6 months later when you find something else. So, you’re considered a flight risk.

Another consideration they have is that if you’re overqualified, it’s likely that you’re potentially going to be highly underutilized in the role. They feel that you’re going to get bored. Inasmuch as you might be desperate or you might consider a lesser role now, they feel that the work is not going to challenge you, it’s not going to stimulate you, and after a while, you might get demotivated and in essence that might move you to want to leave.

The third concern is that because you come with a lot of skills and experience and perhaps that was commensurate with earning a particular salary, their concern is that you, because you have so many skills and qualifications, you’re going to come at a high price and often the position is paid lower than what your previous job was, you’re not probably going to earn the same salary or amount of income. They worry, “Would you consider to take a lesser income and if so, how long are you going to be happy or satisfied earning maybe significantly less than what you were before.

Another one is if you’re an experienced professional and you’re in a role where you are overqualified, it might be that your manager, your direct line manager, has less experience than you. They might be concerned that you might struggle to report to someone with less experience than you.

Those are among the concerns that employers have.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, yeah, that’s an excellent summary and I want to go through each of those in a moment but first let me ask you this, when you work with employers and you see them hire overqualified candidates, Phiona, why do hiring managers do that? Why do they say yes to people who might bring these risks into the workplace?

Phiona Martin:

I guess at the end of the day it might be put through a compelling case. I’m pretty sure we’ll cover it a little bit more later but if you put through a compelling case and if the motivation is right, the motivation cannot always lead to success. There are some people who actually opt to take lesser positions than they’re qualified for – I’ve personally have had that experience where I opted for a less challenging role because at that time I was looking for more work-life balance.

I think if you’re going to present a company a case in particular, if they buy into your reasons as being genuine, they might, in that case, consider you.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. Well, let’s talk about how to make that case. Again, you listed a number of concerns employers might have. That people are going to leave, they might get bored, they’re going to be unhappy with the salary, and others that the person is reporting to might actually feel threatened by the experience and skills that a more senior person brings to a job.

When someone is a candidate for a position and they are overqualified, how do you recommend they talk about those issues, both in application material and in a job interview?

Phiona Martin:

In essence, one of the first ways that you can present your case is through the cover letter because, in essence, that’s where an employer will probably be first introduced to you. In the event that maybe your cover letter isn’t read or it’s not requested, here are some of the ways that you can position yourself as a worthy hire.

The first thing I would say is, address the elephant in the room. The elephant is there, it will always be there, so it’s actually better if you bring it up front because, as I mentioned, employers initially look at overqualified candidates with suspicion. “Why is that person here? Why are they considering this job?” So, it’s actually in your interest to address that up front.

Another thing that I’ll also suggest is, look at what’s different about that role and look at what’s new? Perhaps you were a sales manager and now you’re applying for a sales rep but it’s in a different industry so the way you would position is to say, “Look, inasmuch as I reached managerial level in my previous role, this is a completely different industry to me. It’s got a different client base, it’s got different products, so in essence, it actually is a learning curve for me, from the role that I was in.”

Sometimes, it could actually be the company. Maybe it’s the position at your dream company. It’s sort of common for people to take a step back to get a foot in the door of that particular company. You could focus maybe on the benefits of that company, and say, “You know, I’ve always wanted to come work in this industry. I’ve always wanted to work at that company and am willing to come in at this particular level.”

Another thing you could actually do is to sell being overqualified as a benefit to the company because, you know, those are the concerns I mentioned earlier. You can actually spin it and say, “No, it’s actually a benefit that I might be slightly more experienced than what the role requires.” What are some of these benefits that you could highlight?

For example, you could mention that you’re well-positioned to kind of mentor other team members because of the wealth of knowledge that you have. You could also position it as giving the company good bench strength.

Let’s say a senior person or your manager were to leave, you are able to quickly step into the position because you have the experience and you have the skills. You almost give the company a good bench strength in the event that there should be some sort of vacancy.

Sometimes you can also highlight the benefits of being in a lesser role. As I mentioned, and giving this personal example, I took on a lesser role because at that time I wanted to have a little bit more time in terms of my kids and my other home responsibilities. You could even position and say, “Look, my previous job, being in a managerial position required a lot of travel, it was a lot of long hours, and I’m really looking to get more time to spend with my kids or maybe take on a hobby.” And actually, position it as being a benefit in a light stage where you want more time in. “I’m not really looking for that challenging type of role.”

Mac Prichard:

Okay. We’re going to take a quick break, Phiona. To summarize, acknowledge that there’s likely to be a concern, have an explanation for why you want to do this, and talk about what’s in it for the employer, the benefits of the experience that you bring.

I also want to talk more about application materials and the interview itself.

Stay with us. When we come back, Phiona Martin will continue to share her advice on how to apply for a job when you’re overqualified.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Phiona Martin. She’s an industrial psychologist. Her work focuses on careers, talent, and leadership. Phiona joins us today from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Phiona, before the break we were talking about this week’s topic, how to apply for a job when you’re overqualified, and I love the strategies that you laid out for how to acknowledge that an employer’s going to have concerns about someone who’s overqualified, that there are reasons why you want this position and it’s important to share them in application materials, and also talk about the benefits to an employer of what you bring when you are overqualified.

What else would you like to add? I know we were in a very good conversation before the break.

Phiona Martin:

I guess maybe just one more tip to add to that is I guess using your network to circumvent the “overqualified objections”. As we know, particularly when you get an internal referral, it helps you to circumvent. If someone vouches for you or puts in a word for you, that might actually also be a tactic that you’re able to use to not have to over-defend your position as being overqualified.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so look for either a reference or perhaps someone inside the company who can put in a good word and also reinforce messages you might want to deliver about why you want this job and what you have to offer.

Phiona Martin:

Right.

Mac Prichard:

Great.

Well, let’s talk about the application materials. When someone’s putting together a resume or updating their LinkedIn profile and other online materials, some people are tempted or actually concerned that if they list all of their experiences, that’s going to take them out of the running.

How do you recommend people handle this? Particularly if they’re 20 or 30 years into the workplace. Should they list every position and every educational credential they have?

Phiona Martin:

I think this is a really good question and also quite a delicate one because it might cross certain grey areas. I think personally for me, in terms of hiding experience, I’m always wary to advise it because sometimes, the employer might interpret it as you misled them or you omitted information, it might even border on lying, so to speak.

There is a way, of course, that you can represent yourself by trying to minimize what some of your achievements and what your experience are without necessarily hiding it. My one concern is, particularly with everything online these days, about taking out too much of your cv, is that if an employer or even a recruiter in their search might come across perhaps your LinkedIn profile, maybe a profile that was done through a recruitment portal or whatever, they might come across some of the information that you omitted and how would that be interpreted? That’s first of all a way I can tell candidates to be careful.

At the same time, as with a resume, you don’t have to put entirely everything because we tweak our resumes to suit the roles that we are applying for. It’s just, I think, a matter of how you present it. Some of the things that you can do is…I don’t think it’s necessarily malicious…For example, but the role requires you to have a diploma or a degree and you have a Ph.D. I guess leaving the Ph.D out, which is what many people lean towards, or to conceal certain qualifications may be justified because the Ph.D. was not necessary for that particular role.

For me, I think it’s better to leave out a qualification that’s not needed than to put in one that you don’t actually have. That could be the one thing that you do.

At the same time, the risk of that is, should a position arise, maybe a year or two into the role, where a Ph.D. is required, it’s a matter of, how do you bring up that additional experience that you concealed without potentially getting yourself into an awkward situation? That’s a consideration that job seekers might want to make if they want to consider to omit stuff.

It might actually be something to bring up in…for various reasons…in the future.

Another thing, I think what I would recommend is a competency-based CV or sometimes I’ll put it as skills-based CV, which basically focuses on your skills and less focus on your chronological history. Typically, a competency-based CV or skill based CV or sometimes you’ll see the functional based CV it’s got, more or less, the same elements that you would have in your normal resume.

I’m sorry. I’m using the word CV because here in South Africa we use CV and I know in the US, you use resume, so I’m using them interchangeably. Just in case it confuses anyone.

In essence, this type of resume contains more of the same elements but it’s just that by your skills-based resume, you’re more focusing on your skills and almost deemphasizing your chronological history.

What you could even do is to put the skills that you have obviously matched to the type of role that you’re applying to and then under your chronological history, you can almost put brief bullet points whereby you just focus on the companies you worked in terms of the years.

For people who started working, maybe many years ago, I don’t necessarily think that you would have to put your entire experience from that 1984 or ‘85, because you know ageism is a real thing in terms of that type of discrimination.

Another thing that you might potentially do, although I’d say it borders on deceit so be careful about this one, is you can omit titles and maybe just put the department that you worked in. For example, if you were…an HR manager within an HR department and perhaps now you are applying for a lesser role. You could then put the company name and put HR department and then the length of time that you were there.

Although, I must be honest, probably in the interview, if they don’t see the title, they might become a little bit curious and say, “So, what exactly were you doing in the HR department, for example?”

Another thing that you could do as well in terms of tweaking your resume is to just deemphasize or remove ..  so if you were at a strategic level and doing a lot of managerial stuff, now maybe you’re going to be more on an operational, tactical level, better leave out the strategic projects you did and the big achievements that you had as a manager and more focus on some of the operational things that you were doing so that you at least align with the level of your CV with the level of the role. It’s not going to cause too much anxiety for the employer if they see all these grand strategic things yet the role is about two levels below what you were doing.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so be honest, be consistent in the story that you tell across multiple platforms, and I like your suggestion about considering a functional CV, or resume as we say here in the United States, because it does give you the opportunity to focus on your skills and not that chronology that might alert to some hiring manager or might raise concerns among some managers that you might not be happy or it would put the overqualification issue at the center.

Now, Phiona, when somebody’s in the interview room, what about money? I’d like to talk a little bit about that.

How should they deal with the question about salary, you brought this up, as a concern managers might have at that start when we were talking about overqualification. How do you recommend people talk about their salary needs?

Phiona Martin:

That’s also a good one because it’s often at the front of the mind for employers.

Typically, and I know that the etiquette is to not bring salary up unless the employer brings it up. That’s the advice that a lot of job seekers get. Even if you’ve not come to a stage where salary’s being explicitly discussed, you know, in your motivation or in selling yourself in the interview, you could weave it in.

For example, you could be talking about why you’re excited for the role in spite of it being less than what you’re used to and then you could also mention and acknowledge that you realize that a more junior role will also mean a cut in salary and that’s something that you’ve thought of and that you’re willing to compromise on.

Even, I guess, before they ask, just find a way to strategically weave it in as you’re motivating yourself for this role so that at least, by the time you come to salary discussions, you’ve almost planted the seed that you are aware that a lesser salary is likely what you may have to settle for.

Mac Prichard:

When someone has been laid off from a position, how do you recommend they talk about that layoff and address that concern you brought up about…well…a manager might have, that you’ll only be here until you find something better?

How do make the case that, in fact, you want to be there? Even after you’re coming from a layoff.

Phiona Martin:

That’s a great question as well.

A layoff in many cases is not the fault of the individual. Many cases it’s structural, it’s economic, it’s got common factors. I’ll say, when talking about it, first of all, be very brief. Normally it’s very traumatic. It’s got a lot of anxiety and emotions that are attached.

I guess if you are asked about your layoff, just be very brief in explaining it and be very positive and mention some of the highlights that you had while working for that particular company. I guess, irrespective of how your layoff was handled, for example.

In essence, I think going back to the point that I said earlier, highlight some of the things that excite you about this role. You might even say, “Being laid off has been an opportunity for me to relook at my skills, recalibrate what I want in the market.” Particularly if it happened unexpectedly, you could almost use it as a learning opportunity to say, “Look, I guess finding myself in the job market after 4 or 5 years of being at the same company, I feel like this is really refreshing to think about what I want to do and I’m feeling really energized about this industry or this type of role or gaining the skills of being in a different market.”

Mac Prichard:

Good.

Well, Phiona, tell us what’s next for you?

Phiona Martin:

I think you know.

Next for me, I absolutely love producing community developing content and so you’re welcome to have a look at my blog which is at phionamartin.com. I’m going to be producing a lot of content there.

You can also follow me on my social media. My website has links to most of the social media platforms I have.

Mac Prichard:

I think we first met on Twitter and I have looked at your website. It’s excellent.

Phiona, thanks for joining us.

Phiona Martin:

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Mac Prichard:

It’s been a pleasure. Take care.

There was a lot of wisdom in that interview today.

A couple of key points for me were Phiona’s emphasis on getting in front of concerns that employers are going to have about your application when you’re overqualified for a position.

She suggested, and I think this is excellent advice, that you talk about this in your cover letter.

If you’re struggling with how to do a cover letter, we’ve got a guide that can help.

It’s called Simple Rules for a Winning Cover Letter.

You can get your copy today.

Go to macslist.org/coverletter.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.

Join us next Wednesday when our guest expert will be Shawn Lipton. He’ll share networking tips for new college graduates.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

Is it ever a good idea to apply for a job when you are overqualified? Perhaps you’ve moved to a new city, or you’re trying to get a job at your dream company. Whatever the reason, many people pursue smaller, lower-level roles that put them at risk of being labeled “overqualified.” Phiona Martin says you can get hired for a job where you’re overqualified, but you must be able to answer a hiring manager’s specific concerns about hiring you. Phiona joins us on this episode of Find Your Dream Job and shares the most common questions you will be asked, how to give genuine answers, plus tips on preparing for your interview and writing a great cover letter.

About Our Guest:

Phiona Martin is a registered industrial psychologist. Her work focuses on careers, talent, and leadership. Phiona’s key experience has been in the consulting, education, and corporate environments. As a thought leadership enthusiast, she provides expert opinions on career development on many media platforms, including her own career advice website.

Resources in This Episode:

  • Phiona is passionate about career and professional development. She shares helpful content for standing out in the workplace on her website, phionamartin.com.
  • If you’re struggling with how to craft a compelling cover letter, we’ve got a free guide that can help. Download Simple Rules for a Winning Cover Letter.
  • From our Sponsor: Sneaker School is an online certificate program that lets you explore career paths in the footwear industry and learn from some of the biggest names in the business. Visit sneakerschool.com/mac to start mapping your career in the sneaker world.