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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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  • Alexis Anderle

    I have an issue with this, as those who spend the time obtaining an advanced degree do not always have a full-time job simultaneously. If you don’t list your master’s degree on your resume and the potential employer questions why you have been under or un-employed for the last few years, what is the candidate to say? … “I didn’t want to come across as overqualified” or “I have been unemployed for the last few years”… I fear that this will worsen the candidate’s chances. I’ve bee advised by a few career counselors that it is always best to put your latest and greatest academic achievements on your resume.

    • Alex, I totally get that this doesn’t seem fair. You worked hard for your post grad. The point I am trying to make is that if hiring managers want an MBA candidate, they will list the MBA as a qualification. If they don’t list it, they don’t need it. As it relates to landing an interview, we want to put as little friction into the system as possible. And if a hiring manager thinks you are qualified but the MBA makes you over qualified it also psychologically says “This person has an MBA and will want more money”. Remember, Hiring managers do NOT want to underpay. You may be willing to take less, but they don’t want to pay less.

      Couple of notes on career counselors. . .unless they have been an internal recruiter, they really don’t know what the system is like. Yes, you should put your greatest academic achievement down, but lets caveat that with “We are going to apply for position that fit our qualifications. No hiring manager wants to wonder if you are going to bored with the job and an MBA or Masters puts you in to a different category.

      Let me try this: Back in 2008, the market crashed. Folks graduating with a Bachelors got out of school and couldn’t find a job. So they went back to school and graduated in 2010. They applied for entry level jobs and the hiring managers just figured that someone with an MBA is going to want significantly more money than a bachelors. They don’t have time to ask the questions of all the candidates. They just go directly to the bachelor degree’d candidates.

      I am not saying I like the system, I am trying to report ON the system and provide a work around so we can land an interview.

      Hopefully this helps,


      • Alexis Anderle

        Thank you for the reply!

        • Of course, and thanks for having the professional courage to ask for some clarity. I edited my answer by adding a few more details. After I read it, I realized I might not have made sense.

  • Thinkinginpictures

    Many jobs now ask you to list your highest level of education achieved. HR is on to it! You can leave it off your resume, but you can’t leave it off your application. Anyone thinking you can do this should reconsider their approach.

    • I personally think you can leave it off your resume. It isn’t like you are leaving a criminal record off the application. Hiring companies will conduct a criminal background check and we will be caught if we leave that off. Unless this is an application to the CIA, FBI, military contract etc, I personally would leave it off. HRN

    • Why can’t you leave it off your application?

      • Thinkinginpictures

        I would think it pretty obvious. In hopes of not being overlooked or discriminated against for entry level positions. Happens all the time- just do a quick google search on the topic. HR’s job is to find that candidate who they think won’t leave and give them the best ROI at the cheapest price possible. There is a gluttony of over qualified job applicants applying for jobs outside their field or low entry positions out of need. It’s a typical narrative for HR departments- candidate is overqualified, candidate won’t stay, we don’t think you’d be happy with what we’re offering in this position, etc. IT’s terrible but it is reality.

  • Deb in Tex

    It stinks. I’ve got a PhD in organizational leadership and have no prospects. I get turned down for even entry level jobs.

    • Deb,
      Sorry to hear about getting turned down. I re read my post and I think that having an MBA or a Masters and no experience is very different than having a PhD. I don’t know of many recruiters that would hire a PhD for an entry level position. This IS over qualified. Entry level means 4 year degree or equivalent experience. I would assume that an PhD candidate will be bored very quickly and I will pass on that candidate when applying for an entry level position. If you really are looking for entry level, I would ONLY list your 4 year degree and very little experience. I would also expect entry level pay.

      There is a big difference between a PhD and a person with a Masters / MBA with zero experience. PhD generally implies research or academia, and not entry level. If you are looking for entry level, leave your PhD off the resume OR look for positions that are looking for a PhD. Hope this makes sense, HRN

  • Svetlana LosAngeles

    Candidates may feel that they were over qualified for the entry level position, but in most cases I felt as if the company was getting lucky.

    • Svetlana

      I am a prostitute and alcoholic just look at my face . No one would hire me. Lana Shapoval

  • Pamela Kennedy

    No, actually, when you’re “overqualified” for the job, people ask you “what are YOU doing HERE” all the damned time. Or, hell, maybe it’s all racism and maybe it’s true that the only US state in which I really stand a chance is Hawaii. Where it’s majority-minority and minority rules. Hell, maybe I’m packing and calling the airlines for a reason. Not just to go overseas to get my PhD for FREE but then to not come back to the Lower 48 with it ever again.