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The Illusion of Being Educationally Overqualified

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The Illusion of Being Educationally Overqualified

Here’s a question I’ve received from potential employers: “How long will you be able to work here, because I suspect you’re going to want to go into the career that your Master’s degree is in?”

I am not here to say that job-searching is difficult when one finds themselves “educationally overqualified” because I think that topic has been worn out a bit. But I will talk about the implications the question above poses on “educationally overqualified” people (i.e., people who have a ton of educational experience, but minimal experience for the job they’re applying to).

Without a doubt: it sucks. I should start there. I honestly haven’t figured out how to gracefully answer that question without sounding like a pompous jerk. But the answer I’m generally trying to sputter out in the 30-second time frame I’ve been given to answer that question is: I don’t know, hopefully a year… ish. I don’t know because I actually am working on building my career in my industry of choice, just not while I’m (hopefully) at work here; and, a year-ish because I’m hoping that I can get something designed, prototyped, and shipped in the next 12-18 months or so. Also, I will be working in my field, but probably as an intern or volunteer at whatever firm, company, or garage willing to take me as either of the aforementioned roles. But again, I will be working here. Sure, I’m looking for the money here, but I am also looking to work in a job that allows me to think about something that is in no way related to education, academia, students, learning theories, or anything else that I will be putting my mind resources into 75% of the time I’m away from work. I want a job that requires me to think about something unrelated to my industry. Do you know how many chefs are in the education kitchen? Too many. Do you know what that means for my brain? Too many things to read, decipher, remove, and remember for/from future reference. My mind is constantly inundated with information.

My other response is, actually: everything is related to my industry. I can learn about learning as a barista by observing the following:

  • How people order
  • What kinds of questions people asked depending on how stressed or relaxed they appear to be
  • When people ask questions, in relation to the amount of time spent reading the provided materials (I mean menu)
  • How people walk across the parking lot after the first brave person crosses the icy lot of doom
  • and many, many more things

Maybe it’s just me, but I am constantly relating informal learning instances to what I have learned, and hope to learn, about education. I have a difficult time shutting it off actually. But that’s what makes me such a great customer service rep. I look for ways to help certain kinds of people depending on the way they interact with me. If they’re grouchy, they probably just want to get their coffee and leave, but I’ll try to cheer them up when I hand them their drink by complimenting them or validating their choice; if they’re chipper and talkative, I’ll find ways to engage them in a way that displays interest while maintaining efficiency; if they’re new to the menu, I will take their request for help (i.e., what do you like?) to quickly survey their favorite types of flavors (sweet or bitter, hot or cold, fruity or nutty, etc.). All of this ties into learning. I learn, they learn, we all learn, the end. I could literally go on for at least another 10,000 words, but I won’t torture you.

So the question shouldn’t be “when are you going to abandon me to go work your dream job?” The question should be, “How will your skills translate into this position to best serve our company?” Such a question leaves room for growth within the company, avoids putting the interviewee into the uncomfortable position of trying to avoid saying, “I don’t know, when I have the money to leave I guess.” Even if the interviewee only wants to earn some money and go, you’re inviting them to do their best work while they work for you. Appealing to their intrinsic motivation to work there, rather than their extrinsic motivation, will provide much higher-quality results if you decide to hire them.

Furthermore, asking how their skills will/can transfer into the job-in-question emphasizes your understanding that skills can transfer. It challenges the interviewee to step up to the plate and connect previously established skills to new work. That will provide value to the job. The assumption that a highly educated person is more qualified than someone with less formal education demeans the people already working for the company. Even if the question only infers that the job requires a long-term commitment, the long-term commitment should not be devalued. Assuming that your job is a means to an end, and not valuable experience, undervalues the work that you and your employees do everyday. I disagree with any job being invaluable, because we can learn from every experience (even if learning includes discovering what kind of job you don’t find rewarding; therefore, showing you what kind of job you should avoid in the future).

Finally, I think that such a question puts someone who is genuinely desperate in a mindset that they are unworthy of a job simply because they have an education that differs from the end-goals of the job. I mentioned a barista position above. Recently, I applied to a barista position because I was unable to find work in my area of expertise; however, I had come to terms with that and decided to work a part-time job to allow myself more time to find out what I wanted to do with my education. I had a plan similar to the one I am following now: work part-time somewhere, and then work part-time on following my dreams. I wanted – and still do want – to discover my place in education, society, and the world in general. A part-time job can do that for you. Plus, if the part-time job is open to learning more about what your skills and expertise are, maybe those skills and expertise will someday benefit the company willing to hire someone with the too much (or the wrong kind of) education.  A new perspective on a work environment should be welcomed as long as it is logically constructed and follows the work’s mission statement. But sometimes, if need be, the mission statement will be challenged. That can work too if the company finds itself behind the times and needs of their customers.

Summarily, value your work, value the interviewee, and value the process of learning. New skills, old skills, and transferable skills dictate the impact a person can have on a business. If the person appears to be “educationally overqualified” rethink your definition of education. Formal education does not inherently qualify or disqualify a person for a role; rather, it should not inherently qualify or disqualify a person for a role. The person’s transferable skills, new skills, and old skills (i.e., their takeaway from learning experiences) should determine their qualification. Those most willing to learn, to challenge themselves, and to explore their talents are those who will most benefit your company. People that take the chance to hear “no” are already doing better than people who may be qualified and unwilling to even try.

Summary: take a chance on those willing to learn, place a higher value on your job and the skills it provides you, take calculated risks to potentially grow your company. Who knows, maybe master’s degree student will take and share your kindness with others, or maybe they’ll use their formal education to create growth within your company.


Stephani Wilkes, She is Fierce! Contributor

Stephani Wilkes

Stephani is a curious soul who self-identifies as a philosophic, lifelong learner. She also likes to dye her hair various shades of red, purple, blue, and turquoise. Her personal interests include learning new things, empowering those around her, listening to the stories of others, and connecting previously disconnected dots.

Read her blog if you like a little bit of profanity mixed in with your professional research life. Her blog is used to communicate her cognitive tools interactions, her action research data/hopes/dreams, and her experience with testing new learning designs. Her research interests include failure communication, self-efficacy, research, games in learning, and many other topics (the list grows by the day).

Professionally, Stephani develops professional and technical documents. Additionally, she produces technical tutorials and research communication.

Connect with Stephani… Blog

  1. […] out my latest article at SheIsFierceHQ: The Illusion of Being Educationally Overqualified. I talk about placing a higher value on entry level, service industry, and customer service […]

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