How PhDs Can Avoid The Overqualified Label To Get Hired

“We regret to inform you that we will not be moving forward with your application due to concerns that your qualifications exceed those required for the role. 

We feel it would not be a good fit. Thank you for applying.” 

Oof, that’s part of a rejection email a PhD sent me.

An employer had sent it to them after the first interview. 

Another PhD told me this recently…

“I feel like I’m both overqualified and underqualified for the jobs I apply to Isaiah.” 

Which do you feel is more of a problem for you? I asked. 

“At first I thought it was the fact that I didn’t have enough skills, but I’ve had 2 first round interviews now and both employers asked me why I wanted to leave academia for the position.” 

And? I asked? 

“And I answered but they didn’t seem to like my answer and kept asking me why I wanted to leave the top of academia for their company? I wasn’t even at the top of academia though. I was just a postdoc.” 

That’s the top, I said. 

Less than 2% of the population has a PhD and far less than 1% ever do a postdoc. 

You are at the tippy top of the academic ladder. 

And if you’re not addressing this head on during the interview, and ideally long before, even in your cover letter, then employers will question your true intentions.

Of course, this is something I had to learn the hard way myself too. I remember my first industry interview…

I was still a PhD student and I started applying early. 

The first question the employer asked me after some niceties was-

“Why are you leaving academia for this role, isn’t it a bit beneath you?” 

I was floored by how casually this was asked. It seemed like the hiring manager was knocking her own company and the role? 

Why would she ask me if this role was beneath me? Beneath me? Was this a trick? 

I’m broke and don’t have experience, and I’m pretty sure I lack 30% of the skills on the job posting. In fact, I’m ready to beg you for this job. 

Needless to say, given my headspace at the time, I bombed that question and I didn’t get a second interview. 

I didn’t realize until much later that my wordy, jargon filled, academic-style resume made this employer question me before the interview even started. 

Why PhDs Are Often Seen As Overqualified & What You Can Do About It

Being seen as overqualified is something that we PhDs have to face when trying to transition from academia to industry or even from one sector of industry to another. 

This feedback of being overqualified, while disheartening, is rooted in various concerns from the employer’s perspective. 

Employers’ apprehensions about overqualified candidates stem from fears of high turnover, disputes about early promotions, and a lack of engagement. There’s a worry that candidates with extensive backgrounds will find the work unchallenging, leading to job dissatisfaction and a disruption in the workplace dynamic. 

Furthermore, studies in Frontiers of Psychology and the Journal of Vocational Behavior validated these concerns, indicating that employees who view their roles as beneath their capabilities often exhibit lower job satisfaction and higher instances of counterproductive behavior. 

Understanding why industry employers may view PhDs as overqualified and recognizing the signs can empower candidates to navigate job applications more effectively. There are several common reasons why employers see PhDs as overqualified and what you can do about it. 

The first reason PhDs are labeled as overqualified is by default. Yes, by default. Employers may resort to labeling candidates as overqualified in lieu of providing concrete feedback. This generic response can mask deeper reasons for not proceeding with a candidate. 

I know this one is not entirely helpful but if hiring managers don’t know what box to put you in, they’ll just say you’re overqualified by default. The only action you can take to avoid this one is to request specific feedback from recruiters to understand areas for improvement or clarification. 

The second reason is that the employer perceives you as someone making a short term commitment only. 

Employers often fear that highly qualified candidates, such as those with PhDs, view the position as a temporary stepping stone, anticipating their departure for better opportunities. 

The key to avoiding this is to clearly articulate your interest in the company and the specific role, demonstrating long-term commitment. 

The next reason we get labeled as overqualified is because employers think we will demand pay raises quickly. They realize you’re probably broke coming out of academia but they know you’re hungry for growth. You will want to get a raise soon and if they don’t promote you, in title or salary, you will leave, using your new found industry experience to advance somewhere else. 

The best action you can take here is to again express your desire to be somewhere longterm and show flexibility regarding promotions in title and salary. Make them understand that you understand you may not be promoted for 3 years. You can push for faster of course, if you get the job. 

The next concern is that PhDs may struggle to adapt to new, industry-minded methods, such as innovate or die, versus publish or perish. 

The key here is to show the employer you are extremely adaptable and that the reason you want to get into industry is to do something translatable. 

Finally, there’s the intimidation factor. Impressively qualified candidates, or impressively educated candidates like you – same thing in their eyes – can unintentionally intimidate hiring managers, leading to their rejection in favor of less threatening applicants. 

How can you avoid this? You need to talk about more than your niche skills. You should go beyond transferable skills too. Talk about common personal hobbies, memberships and affiliations that humanize you. 

Being labeled as overqualified can indeed sting, yet it signifies you have a wealth of education and skills. The key is to strategically present your background in a way that aligns with industry needs while seeking environments that appreciate the depth of your expertise. This starts with how you prepare your resume…

Resume Strategies That Ensure You Won’t Be Seen As Overqualified

Navigating the job market as a PhD can be a daunting task, especially when faced with the label of being “overqualified.” 

This designation, often seen as a polite rejection, can leave many highly educated individuals feeling undervalued and overlooked. 

However, with the right resume strategies and job search strategies overall, it’s possible to overcome this obstacle and present oneself as the perfect candidate for the role. By tailoring your application and emphasizing your fit for the position, you can turn the tide in your favor. 

To counteract the overqualified label, PhDs should focus on tailoring their application to match the job’s requirements closely. The first step to doing this is to highlight your relevant experiences. Instead of listing all achievements, focus on experiences and skills directly relevant to the job. This approach can prevent overwhelming or intimidating employers and emphasize fit for the role. 

Second, customize your resume. Utilize resources like resume templates, especially the functional resume template, to streamline your qualifications. Highlight the skills and experiences that align with the job description, avoiding an exhaustive list of every accomplishment. 

Third, adjust your education details. No, don’t hide your PhD. Instead, consider omitting graduation dates to minimize age-related biases and remove outdated experiences that don’t contribute to your candidacy for the specific role. 

Ageism works in both directions, you could be too young or too old and dates can only hurt you in today’s AI resume filters so pay attention to this point. 

Next, communicate your flexibility. Be upfront about your willingness to negotiate aspects like salary, demonstrating a genuine interest in the role beyond financial compensation. 

Finally, seek the right fit. Aim for companies and roles that celebrate rather than suppress your qualifications. Finding an environment that values your expertise will be more fulfilling and conducive to long-term success. 

These strategies not only help mitigate concerns of overqualification but also position you as a valuable candidate who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to any role. But, it doesn’t end there. To further avoid the “overqualified” label, you also need to demonstrate business acumen…

Demonstrate Business Acumen To Go From “Overqualified” To “Perfectly Qualified”

“Isaiah, how can I show that I’m not underqualified or overqualified, but that I’m perfectly qualified?” 

Amazing question. 

I had a PhD ask me this recently and I was really impressed with their thinking. 

The answer I gave was simple: show them that you perfectly (or near perfectly) understand their company, the role, and business overall. 

Demonstrating relevant business acumen is the best way to destroy anyone’s overqualified argument. In other words, showcasing a deep understanding of business and industry operations can bridge the gap, transforming perceptions from being overly academically focused to being perfectly qualified for the corporate world. 

The key lies in demonstrating how your current knowledge and skills, no matter how advanced, can be applied practically within a business context. By aligning your current skills, academic or otherwise, with industry needs, you can position yourself as a valuable asset ready to tackle real-world challenges, drive innovation, and contribute to organizational success. Here are 4 key ways to do this: 

1. Understand industry structure and roles. 

Gain insights into how companies operate, including teamwork dynamics and departmental interactions. As a PhD, you need to know every department at any company you apply to. 

What are the names of their departments? How are they structured? What’s the hierarchy? What are all the job titles within each department? Is there a map you can download online? 

This knowledge helps in articulating how you can fit and contribute to the organization​​.

2. Understand the financial fundamentals. 

You need to know the connection between finance and making business decisions. This includes basic knowledge of profit and loss statements, budget management, and the financial health indicators of a company. 

PhDs should learn how their department fits within the broader financial picture of the organization and how their role impacts financial outcomes. Demonstrating an ability to contribute to the financial efficiency and profitability of a team or project can be a strong selling point. 

3. Understand the market. 

Having a solid grasp of the market in which the company operates, including competitors, customer needs, and industry trends, is invaluable. 

This insight allows you to articulate how your work can address current market demands or how your research can be leveraged to gain a competitive edge. It shows employers that you’re not just focused on the internal workings of the company but also on how the company positions itself in the wider industry. 

4. Understand the corporate strategy. 

It’s important to understand the company’s strategic goals and how your role aligns with these objectives. This means being aware of the company’s mission, vision, and strategic priorities, and how your unique skills and research can contribute to these areas. 

Demonstrating an understanding of corporate strategy—and your potential role within it—indicates that you’re thinking beyond your immediate job duties and considering your impact on the company’s long-term success. 

By mastering these areas of business acumen—corporate structure, financial literacy, market understanding, and corporate strategy alignment—you can present yourself as a well-rounded candidate who is not overqualified, but instead has the business savvy needed to perfectly fit into any industry environment. 

Now, all you have to do is convince employers you have the right motivation…

Tell Employers Why You’re Not Overqualified

Effectively communicating your rationale for transitioning can significantly alleviate an employer’s reservations about you being overqualified. 

As a PhD, there are 3 types of rationale you can use for this purpose. 

The first is a desire for translatable work. As PhDs, we often seek industry roles to apply our research in tangible ways—developing products, drugs, treatments, or services. 

We want our work to transcend academic publications, contributing to innovations that have a real-world impact. This motivation aligns with industry’s goal of solving practical problems and bringing new solutions to market. 

Second, and in a similar vein, we want to seek impactful outcomes. We are driven by a desire to see the immediate impact of our work, helping real people in real-time. This contrasts with the often theoretical or long-term nature of academic research. By emphasizing this, we can show employers that our goals align with the dynamic and results-oriented nature of industry roles. 

The third and final reason to give employers is adaptability and long-term commitment. PhDs like us are lifelong learners who thrive in new environments. We’re not just looking for any job; we’re seeking a career where we can grow, contribute, and commit long-term. Emphasizing this aspect can help dispel the notion that we are only interested in industry roles as a temporary measure.

In conclusion, PhDs often grapple with the label of being “overqualified” when navigating the transition from academia to industry, or from one sector of industry to another. This can seem like a major roadblock, but with strategic communication and a clear demonstration of business acumen, it’s possible to reshape this narrative. By understanding the structure and dynamics of the industry, embracing the transition process with patience and readiness for change, highlighting versatile skills that align with industry needs, and showing a commitment to lifelong learning, PhDs can effectively showcase their readiness for the corporate world.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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