Tuesday, April 03, 2007

 

'Overqualified'

In a discussion in the comments section last week, one freeway flyer commented that he keeps adjuncting for a living because whenever he tries to find a non-academic job, he's turned away for being 'overqualified.' He can't get a tenure-track line, due to the lovely economics of higher ed, but non-academic employers assume (accurately or not) that he'd decamp at a moment's notice for an academic job, so they don't want to invest their time and training in him. (Presumably, many non-academic employers – and non-academics generally – have a much rosier picture of the economics of higher education than is actually the case.)

I ran into that one myself a lot in grad school. Since summer courses were few and far between, and TA stipends didn't cover July or August, I had to find regular scut jobs to pay the rent. I got turned away from a surprising number of very low-wage, low-skill places, on the grounds that they didn't want someone who would be gone in a few months.

The 'overqualified' term is unfortunate, since it's sort of inaccurate. On its face, it's a direct assault on any notion that employment and merit are somehow correlated – if the best applicant always wins, then 'overqualified' should be a nonsense term. But it's usually really more about fear of flight risk, a clumsy sort of psychoanalysis about likelihood of sustained motivation, and, sometimes, letting people down easy.

Flight risk is a very tricky reality. I'll admit, I've been on both sides of this one. When I was at Proprietary U, I was on several search committees on which some very strong candidates didn't get interviews because it was painfully obvious, to us, that they wouldn't stick around for more than a year. That might seem arbitrary, but there's a very real cost to high employee turnover. Between search costs and learning curves, you don't hit the sweet spot of productivity immediately. I don't think it takes nearly as long as some of my tenured faculty like to believe, but it's rare to hit it in the first year. Even for experienced instructors, there's usually an adjustment period to a new setting. From the employer's side, if you know you're being 'settled for,' you're the port in the storm and no more than that, then you can expect bare-minimum performance, iffy attitude, and the need to advertise again next year.

At least there, we were in the same industry in which we suspected the candidate wanted to work. I'd imagine the misgivings would be even greater for non-academic employers. If Adjunct Bob showed up at my marketing company, doctorate in hand, with years of ongoing teaching experience, I'd be wary. Did Adjunct Bob have an epiphany, or is he just looking for a spot to land until the job he actually wants comes along? If I'm not desperate, I could see not wanting to take the chance.

The psychological issues here are major and sticky. What can be passed off as 'flight risk' may be fear of being overshadowed. Or the fear of flight risk may be out of proportion to the actual likelihood of someone leaving – I suspect that's true more often than people think. As Bitch likes to say, we aren't brains on sticks; sometimes people take positions that aren't immediately obvious fits on paper, because there are other factors in their lives – spousal ties, family ties, whatever – that offset the apparent imbalance. The employer can't ask about those, though, so information not available is information not considered, even when it would actually be relevant.

And it's fundamentally degrading, as an applicant, to have your motives questioned. How do you respond to “I'm just not sure you'd be happy here.”? Especially if part of you agrees?

(This is where my inner Scandinavian gets his back up. My private thoughts, personal demons, and deep motives are my own, thank you very much. As long as I behave appropriately, how I feel about it is none of your damn business. This is also why I experience motivational speakers as unethical and coercive.)

I think the disparity between the popular image of what it means to have a doctorate, and the actual economic realities of higher education (especially in traditional fields), is making this issue much more salient than it should be. If job opportunities were thick on a ground, the obtuseness of one prospective employer wouldn't matter all that much – you'd just move on to the next one. But full-time jobs aren't thick on the ground. Worse, the shortage of full-time academic jobs is often a secret to non-academics, who just assume that education is the key to success. So an unlucky would-have-been-English professor may be shut out of tenure track opportunities by sheer numbers, and shut out of good corporate gigs out of a misplaced sense of flight risk. This just plain sucks.

Has anyone out there found a good response to the 'overqualified' line?


Comments:
My primary suggestion is to explicitly deal with your qualifications (and desire for the job) in the cover letter. If the job represents a significant pay cut, deal with the pay issue in the cover letter as well.

If you come across as sincerely wanting the job (rather than using it as a placeholder until something else comes along), you should at least get consideration. It shows that you have thought about the same issues that the employer has.

As a secondary suggestion, make sure your resume looks like a resume, rather than an CV. You don't want it to scream academic.
 
I will be retiring this summer from a tenured professor position that I have held for over 17 years in an allied health profession department. I designed the curriculum, hired the original faculty, got the program through three sets of accreditation over the years. Now I want to find a part-time position in that allied health field after a little vacation. A job in a hospital as a staff person with just enough hours to help pay my property taxes. I've begun my job search to find out that most of the administrators I talk to are < 35 y/o, female with only an entry-level degree in my field. I got the "overqualified" line three times out of four during a phone interview. Those who used that term told me I wouldn't be happy in a staff job since I had been an previous director/administrator, a college professor, not to mention I'm 62 y/o. I also think they are worried that I will come in and take their job eventually - not leave and go to another job. Whatever happened to that pie-in-the-sky concept that older employees are more reliable, dedicated, etc? In my case job flight isn't of concenr, but the meaning of overqualified is different in every employment situation. So what's a professor emeritus to do?
 
I think the problem with accepting a pay cut is that in the non-academic professional world, accepting pay cuts is looked upon with suspicion. From what I've been able to tell, it's simply not done.

And there are pay cuts and then there are pay cuts. Most starting salaries for entry level corporate jobs where I live are in the 20's and 30's. If an applicant has made, say, in the 40's -- either as an adjunct, or as a full time non-tenure track -- then explaining why one would be willing to take such a drastic pay cut is not going to be easy. And it isn't that the corporate job is going to assume you will go back to academe; they simply assume, perhaps rightly, that you will leave for more money at the first opportunity.

Another thing I've exerrienced is that often the people doing the hiring do not have any illusions about the grandeur of the entry level position. They know it sucks. That's why they want fresh faced 22 year-olds for those slots. Woe be to the 30-something, or (gasp) 40-something academic with a Ph.D. applying for some generic office admin. asst. gig.

And this brings me to another insight. Many friends in the corporate world have told me, completely straight faced, to leave my Ph.D. off of my resume when applying for entry level work. I don't have a problem doing that, but it rasies another, and often deeper problem; namely, how to explain that huge gap in my employment history when I was in grad. school, and after when I was teaching at "elite" SLAC.

And the funny thing here is I haven't even broached the non-academic world's general skepticism and disdain for "intellectual types" with no apparent marketable skills.

And DD nails it when he mentions the wide gap betwen the academic and non-academic world in terms of their perception(s) about education. Most don't kow about adjunctification, and they don't really get it when you explain it -- or they just flat out don't believe you and figure you're covering for something.

I've come to the conlcusion that the only real option for Ph.D.'s is some sort of re-training. In other words, go back to school, which isn't always feasible.
 
I got around the "overqualified" problem by moving into a related field where the Ph.D. isn't nearly as much of a liability - in fact, it's a serious plus: academic librarianship. I researched long and hard for careers where that's the case. There was a series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed a while back (maybe 5-6 years now) on just this topic.
 
Another possibility is to get some real-world experience in the field that you're trying to move into. Then, you can say that you're moving into the new field because you find it more interesting than college teaching, and you know this because you've done both.

Now, of course, that brings up the question of how you get experience without previous experience. :) I'd suggest a 2-month contract gig, interning, or working in that field at a nonprofit. (Make that flexible adjunct's schedule work for you!)

The internship, contract gig, or whatever will also get you thinking and talking like a native. In my second career as a Web designer, I found I had to learn how to imitate a marketing professional if required--if I didn't, my clients would ignore me, and we'd never get the project done.
 
You don't mention it, but this is field-dependent. Most of my husbands friends from graduate school work in the high tech industry. It seems that there is sometimes some tension within companies between the PhDs and the others, but supposed overqualification is not an issue. Of course, they all make a lot more than I do, so the issue of taking a pay cut doesn't apply.
 
Leaving the Ph.D. off the resume seems to be key. Everyone I know who successfully moved from an academic job to an industry job that wasn't intimately related to the dissertation work omitted it. They listed themselves as research assistants (or something similar) to account for the time during graduate studies. For the time following, one of my friends listed themselves as tutor/instructor. I suppose leading with the 'tutor' part of that equation makes it less intimidating.

The "job" title of research assistant also helped explain the move into a new field. It seems that most of the people doing the hiring lately have bought into the idea that research at a university is lonely and boring... of course you would want to leave for something more exciting/interesting!

Just some things I've noticed as a few of my friends from grad school (hard sciences mostly) have made the move from adjuncting to jobs that don't want a Ph.D.
 
Years ago, frustrated with adjuncting, I applied for a job as a tech writer. The person in charge (an ex-teacher herself) told me she wasn't interested in hiring teachers, especially college teachers, because we're too independent, not "team players," and because supervising a gang of former teachers would be "like herding cats."
 
Inner Scandinavian? These are Scandinavian traits?

Suddenly my life makes much more sense!
 
I work for a large state university in a low-level administrative capacity. I was hired several years ago, highly overqualified (and I and my supervisor both knew it)--I wanted a career change, I needed a break from private sector management, and I had great expectations about working in what I hoped would be a stimulating environment that would welcome intellectuals (and the quirks that come with a passion for truth-seeking and wrangling matters to the ground until someone cries uncle). Turns out an office is an office and if there is anyone around solving the world's problems then I have not heard a word about it. I enjoyed my job for a while and mined it for pleasure as I could but have found that I am too much the entrepreneur for long term employment in the state's keep. But--and I think that this is a useful observation--the university asked for an inch (from an entry-level job) and got a mile (I'm not a rocket scientist; I just have skills and experience that exceed the demands of my job) and that ain't bad. Associated costs noted, I'd hire me even if I knew that I wouldn't be around for the long haul because I've done a lot with a little. Then again, I think that this is the way an entrepreneur thinks.
 
I work for a large state university in a low-level administrative capacity. I was hired several years ago, highly overqualified (and I and my supervisor both knew it)--I wanted a career change, I needed a break from private sector management, and I had great expectations about working in what I hoped would be a stimulating environment that would welcome intellectuals (and the quirks that come with a passion for truth-seeking and wrangling matters to the ground until someone cries uncle). Turns out an office is an office and if there is anyone around solving the world's problems then I have not heard a word about it. I enjoyed my job for a while and mined it for pleasure as I could but have found that I am too much the entrepreneur for long term employment in the state's keep. But--and I think that this is a useful observation--the university asked for an inch (from an entry-level job) and got a mile (I'm not a rocket scientist; I just have skills and experience that exceed the demands of my job) and that ain't bad. Associated costs noted, I'd hire me even if I knew that I wouldn't be around for the long haul because I've done a lot with a little. Then again, I think that this is the way an entrepreneur thinks.
 
I don't know if this helps if you're already mired in the adjuncting world, or if you're not a science / engineering student, but the author of this book has talked at my school a few times and done a good job of helping the grad students here pull their heads out of the details of their dissertations and work on framing the skills they've gathered as useful ones to future non-academic employers.
 
Thanks for addressing this, DD! I notice that almost all the respondents are coming from the science/engineering side rather than, say, English or Art History, and I think it's a whole 'nuther ball game for humanities Ph.Ds. That said, I don't know what the secret is for humanities majors, sigh.

I assume we expect a pay and status cut down to the bottom of the totem pole ---- which means we'll be competing against our own fresh-out-of-school students ---- and I'm not sure that us older and overeducated ones would have an advantage. Young inexperienced newbies are not only cheaper, but haven't built up the same ability to be jaded or challenge (or sometimes even recognize) systems and their power relations, i.e. an excited newbie with a first job will put up with a lot more shit.

One possible solution might be to move into "semiacademic" industries (grant writing, certain nonprofits or research organizations? any others?) and businesses where some people have PhDs and therefore understand what that means a little bit more. But then you can run the risk of whether your terminal degree outranks that of your potential boss, which will also keep you from getting hired.
 
Thanks DD. Now I understand why I also can't stand motivational speakers. (Thanks, Inner Scandinavian.)

Another good book is "What color is your parachute". You can't change careers if your attitude about your skill set classes with their attitude about your attitude and skill set. You have to sell yourself as a positive addition that brings critical thinking and analytic skills. That is how my niece turned a history degree into a job working with actuaries in the (pseudonomous) insurance industry.
 
I think one big thing is to, if you really are changing careers, not put your massive investment in preparing for your earlier career at the top of your resume in pride of place. It gives the (possibly correct) impression that you're settling and looking to slack off and/or move on.

The second is not to start out at the bottom. Consult, if you've got enough of a reputation, or slip in at the "skilled white collar" level (editing, design, etc.) where possible. People are going to reasonably ask, "Are you going to be happy being treated like you're just as qualified as the guy you taught six months ago?"

That link to the Amazon book looked pretty useful.
 
I have a J.D. rather than a Ph.D., but I too seem to have the "overqualified" tag attached to me. Practicing law was not for me and I decided to go back to my pre-law-school career: social services administration. I eventually found my current job, but not before losing out on several promising jobs because I was regarded as overqualified.
My resume clearly demonstrated my experience and interest in social services administration, but the concerns mentioned in your post (and some of the comments) seem to have carried more weight with those potential employers.
As annoying as this experience was for me, I imagine things are even worse for Ph.Ds who have been adjuncting for a while. The perception seems to be that lots of people go to law school and then end up doing things other than practicing law, but people who get Ph.Ds either end up teaching or something is wrong with them.
 
I have not applied outside academia, so I have never personally received the overqualified, but from what I hear, in my field (econ/business school) the corporates will just put you in the same positions as the masters' students they recruit and disregard any qualifications they find useless or excessive.

And about those "offsetting" parameters that they cannot ask about? Eh, no.

On the (acad.) job market for TT positions, I got lucky and had 14 flyouts, and Every.Single.School asked if I had "a partner or OTHER mobility constraints" or something along the lines.

My male colleagues fared a little bit better, but come on. Saying "well, we can't ask so we don't even want to call this person" is just a lazy excuse.

Apart from outright asking like I experienced, one could say "you seem to be very well qualified compared to the job description. What in particular makes you interested?" Then they can make the private decision to say "family issues in this area" or just prepare a better canned answer.
 
Well, I was ABD when working outside academia, but my approach was to translate my historian skills into "real-world" skills. And I answered the 'overqualified' question by saying, "well, I haven't done this before ..."

It's definitely important not to underestimate the position level one can manage, though. I applied for an office manager job, desperate to find some kind of work and only having experience as an exec assistant or waitress. I got the 'overqualified' speech, and then the offer of a position in sales support and training, at the lowest end of the salary range, with a promise of a review in 3 months (after which I was making the top end). My boss, who had a Poli Sci BA, said he figured someone with an MA and teaching experience could learn quickly and do the job. He was right.
 
"Whatever happened to that pie-in-the-sky concept that older employees are more reliable, dedicated, etc?"

They are bagging groceries and taking orders at McDonalds.
 
I have recently graduated with a PhD but had the advantage of having started my own business prior to starting it, and the two have trotted along quite nicely together. Has anyone else done this? Before I took my BSc and PhD I had an HND and employers in retail establishments said I was 'overqualified' then - obviously I was ambitious and is came across in the resume and interview - so, what can one do? Perhaps try to be less enthusiastic and intelligent and one will get far. :-) GINBIN Mats Phys.
 
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