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Overqualified because of my Masters degree


Is my Master’s degree hurting my job hunt?

Am I overqualified?

I recently received an email from a reader with a question about their job search as it relates to their Master’s degree and being overqualified:

1.  I appreciate the request for candor and 2. I am always flattered to be considered an advisor.  The reader asked a common question and I thought it would help to share my thoughts here.  The question revolves around recent graduates with Masters degrees and little or no job experience.

I think the question is popping up more frequently because, a few years ago, the job market wasn’t that strong for recent graduates and a number of people continued with their education and pursued advanced degrees.  Below is the reader’s email: 

HRNasty- I am hoping you can help me.  I am 26 and graduating with my Masters of Arts in History and have very little job experience (mainly from working at a movie theater for five years and as a graduate assistant for a year and a half).  I plan on looking for jobs in the academic field, or as an academic, career, or financial aid advisor.  I do not want to teach for multiple personal reasons.  I have some backup plans that I have also been looking at, but these are what one would consider being entry-level jobs.  These include management training, a district executive job with the Boy Scouts of America, liability claims trainee, as well as warehouse supervisor, and a few others.  The point is that each of the jobs I have just listed has bachelor’s degree requirements, but no experience necessary.  Would these be jobs I would be passed over for due to being overqualified?  I am extremely fearful that I am not going to find a job anytime soon with a Master’s degree in History, regardless of the economy. I mean, these are jobs that are not even close to my field and the reason  I’m looking at them in the first place, aside from the fact that they are available, is that they are near my family and jobs that I think would be satisfying .  Please correct me if I am wrong and don’t worry about being blunt, as honesty is the best policy.

And my response: 

Congratulations on your Masters and thanks for stopping by.  First and foremost, you have a “high class” problem.  Although we can work around being both under qualified or over qualified, I would much rather be an overqualified candidate than an “under qualified” candidate.  I never thought I would answer a question about “too much education”.    

Your short and “Nasty” answer is the following question:

Who said you had to list your Master’s degree?  If you are fearful that you will be disqualified because you have a couple of extra years of education, just don’t list it.

The above isn’t something I would always recommend, so allow me to provide a caveat. 

As the applicant, you need to have confidence in this resume, not me as your advisor.  If you feel like listing your Masters will hurt you AND it is NOT related or required for the position, don’t share that information.   (If you are applying for a job in an art museum and they only require a Bachelor’s degree, I would list additional education.  Since this experience is related to the position, this can set you apart from the competition.)

You will obviously land yourself in trouble if you state that you have a degree that you have not earned.  No company is going to fire you because you didn’t list a degree that you worked hard for and earned.    

You mention that you are worried about being overqualified for entry-level jobs that are looking for a 4-year degree with no experience.   For a majority of the positions out there that require a 4-year degree, I don’t think you will be overqualified.  I say this because you mentioned that you don’t have any “real world” experience.  If you had 3 years of experience and a Master degree that may be overqualified, but with no real experience, as a recruiter, I wouldn’t recycle your resume.  Personally, I think there are a lot of companies that would appreciate an extra couple of years of school and maturity in their entry-level positions.  Those two extra years of education right after your 4-year degree for many entry-level positions doesn’t say “overqualified” to me.  What they give me hope for are dog years of maturity.  Remember, I am not looking at you with the expectation that you have acquired the Holy Grail of knowledge.  I am looking at you as a candidate that has had a couple of extra years to “discover you”.  

Try not to think of your Master’s degree presenting you as overqualified; think of yourself as “bringing more to the table” than the competition.  Realize of course that these positions are budgeted to pay salaries commensurate with “entry-level with no experience”.  Your goal is to get in the door and prove you can do the job better than your peers who may or may not have an advanced degree.  When I have posted a job opening in the past for an entry level person, I would be excited to see an applicant with a Master’s degree.  The catch here is that I want to see Grad School started right after they finished their 4-year degree.  If the job required a 4-year degree from “any college”, we would be excited to get someone from an Ivy League school or someone with Masters.   

Candidates may feel that they were overqualified for the entry-level position, but in most cases, I felt as if the company was getting lucky.  I worked for a Fortune 500 company in the financial industry and there were a number of folks with Masters degrees who accepted entry-level positions that “only” required a 4-year degree.  We didn’t really care what the degree was in as long as there was a degree.  The degree was attractive because the training programs for various positions could be 4, 6, or even 9 months long and the company wouldn’t recoup their investment on the new employee until they worked for 18-24 months.  The advanced degree was an indication that the individual possessed good study habits and wouldn’t quit the training program.  The company knew the ROI on the training program and the best indicator of future performance was prior performance, or in this case, a 4-year degree.  The company wants to know that their training efforts are safe bets.  An advanced degree can hedge the bet.  

If you feel like there is a very “entry level position” and your Masters will hurt you, don’t mention your Master’s degree.  Only list your 4-year degree.  It isn’t a lie, and perfectly acceptable.  If I find out 6 months after I hired you that you do have a Master’s degree, you will respond with something like the following: 

“Yes, I have a Graduate degree, but it’s in History and not at all relevant to this position, so I don’t look at it any differently than a 4-year degree.  It isn’t what makes me or identifies me as special.  We have plenty of folks working here with 4-year degrees and 5 or 10 years of experience and they know much more than I do.  Even someone with only 2 years of experience knows more than I do at this company.  I really enjoyed school, it was always a goal of mine to get a Master’s degree, but I don’t feel that degree adds value to this company.  My growth here will add value..”

Booyahhhhhh.  Humble and very well put.    

You could also add a bit of self-deprecating humor with something like “if I had an MBA from Wharton, trust me you would have heard about it”. . . .

Said this way, we are all still “equals”.  No one is “overqualified”.  No one is going to ask you “you have a Masters, what are you doing here?”   You are here because you enjoy the team and the work.  

Here is the truth about a Master’s degree.  At the end of the day, I am confident that most companies will have some VERY smart employees that do NOT have a Masters degree.  A few of these employees without the advanced degree will outperform the candidate with an advanced degree.  The guy I report to doesn’t have a degree, but he will run circles around me on any topic blindfolded.  Don’t get me wrong, we have some UBER smart employees with advanced degrees, but without any real experience, I don’t think the extra education is going to make you appear overqualified.     

If your Masters is related to the job, list it; if it isn’t, don’t list it.   I am not saying to hide it, I’m just saying don’t call attention to it. 

Hope this helps,


nasty:  an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. E.G.  “He has a nasty fork ball”.

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