Recently I’ve been reflecting on the topic of PhDs being “overqualified” after the issue cropped up in a couple of conversations with colleagues and coachees. Some of the concerns were voices by people usually on the hiring side who wondered out loud about their dilemma related to current recruitment round and what their approach should be to candidates with doctorates applying for entry-level jobs where the PhD or a graduate degree was not even a “nice to have” but quite irrelevant. Other concerns came up in conversations with PhD holders currently in the process of job hunting and trying to overcome what they felt was a stigma of having a doctorate on the job market and having to field questions during interviews or receiving feedback after the interview where the doctorate was mentioned as a reason for not choosing them as a candidate. And I could clearly hear the frustration in their voices, after all, they were trying to do their best on the tough job market but felt the double whammy of having to deal with feelings around “failure” to secure an academic role and the doubts about the value of the PhD itself, now that it seemed more like hindrance than help. Before veering into the territory of doom and gloom I do want to add that there was a happy ending for at least one of the persons involved and so wanted to share some strategies that they adopted as well as strategies that come recommended from those involved in recruitment.
First of all, if you feel you’re frequently struggling because of being “overqualified” as a result of completing a PhD, check your own assumptions – that is, if you feel that your PhD was a waste of time and left you completely unemployable, chances are, you may be unwittingly transmitting that message in your responses. And no, this is not about the power of positive thinking, it’s more about integrity of your message and making sure that if you’re trying to transition into non-academic jobs, you’re doing yourself a disservice by believing your PhD puts you at the bottom pile in terms of your desirability to potential employers. It doesn’t, and you’re not a failure for considering non-academic roles; in fact, given the current state of the academic job market, only a minority of PhD holders manage to secure lectureships so my recommendation would be to let go of that particular stick to beat yourself up with. Instead, you may want to think about ways in which your PhD does make you qualified for a lot of jobs, although that transition may require some time and perhaps a creative approach to reinventing your career (and this is where coaching or mentoring could be immensely helpful!)
Secondly, have a closer look at your application materials. If you feel that the “overqualified” hurdle stops you from even getting to interview stage, are you sure that your cover letter and CV use a language that is meaningful to employers outside of academia? Are you perhaps still making references to the fact that you passed your viva with no corrections? That’s a fantastic achievement but sadly somewhat meaningless outside of the world of academia and including that fact shows you may be slightly out of touch. There may be other achievements, however, worth putting on your CV, such as any collaborative projects you developed during your studies and anything that could show off your team-working and communication skills and proactively addressing concerns that some recruiters may have about taking on board someone with a PhD. Are you insisting on putting together a full list of publications for roles that don’t require any but where you would benefit instead from teasing out the fact that you’re great at report writing and undertaking research? If you need any help figuring out how to identify any potential traps, Chris Humphreys, a PhD in Mediaeval history turned project manager, has a great talk on that topic.
Thirdly, if you are having to tackle the badge of “overqualification” at interview stage, stop and think what actually the question is behind the question being asked by the interviewer. That is, you got quite far in the process and technically, being invited to an interview means that at least on paper you are potentially hireable. So if you hear a question during the interview along the lines of “aren’t you overqualified for that position”, do feel free to have a rant internally (and then rant to anyone who cares once you leave the building) but for the duration of the interview, try and put yourself in the shoes of your interviewer. What is the question behind their question? Is it their own insecurity? Are they voicing their own personal bias about people with PhDs? You probably know the stereotype of lonely genius, incapable of interacting with anyone… The job interview isn’t probably the best time for awareness raising about what truly goes on during the doctorate, at the same time, you can pre-empt some of those concerns by focusing on your team-working skills and ways in which you will be able to make a contribution to your potential future employer. If the unspoken question is about the interviewer’s concern that you will be bored when taking a low-level entry job and force them to go through the hassle of recruitment within the next six months, have an answer prepared about how the job fits within your larger plans and so on. And no, you can’t win them all and there will be occasions where the bias of the interviewer will win but preparation will be able to help you manage at least some of those situations. Speaking of preparation, this also extends to using your references strategically if you are in a position to do so. That is, if you know that being “overqualified” may be a concern on the part of the recruiting panel, you may try briefing your referees to showcase your team-working skills and perhaps strategically de-emphasise the more academic aspects of your experience.
Last but not least, talk to others, as my recent interactions show, this is not an isolated issue and you may benefit from a chance of thinking things out loud and perhaps adopting a slightly different approach. I would also be really interested in hearing from the readers of this blog about whether being “overqualified” was something they had to manage during their post-PhD journey and if so, what was the outcome?