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The Myth of the Overqualified Ph.D.?

  1. Jun 25, 2010 #1
    There have been threads here suggesting that having a Ph.D. can be a handicap in getting a job. This has been completely counter to my own personal experience, but I am fully aware that I don't know everything... :-)

    So, I would like to ask:
    1) Are you a Ph.D. who didn't get a job because you were considered overqualified?
    2) Were you ever part of a hiring decision where a Ph.D. was turned down because the candidate was considered overqualified?

    I don't want to hear what happened to your friend, I want to hear first-hand stories.

    I'm also not interested in hearing about candidates with only an MS who were hired over a Ph.D. because he or she was actually more experienced and qualified for the position than the person with the doctorate. I want to hear of cases when someone would have had a better chance of being hired if they hadn't had a Ph.D.

    Thank you for indulging my curiosity...
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2010 #2


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    Good question.

    I've heard of the same thing too, but have never encountered anyone with a Ph.D who had indicated that their degree made them overqualified and unsuitable for the job. In my line of work, we WANT "overqualified" people.

  4. Jun 25, 2010 #3
    Only a handful of PF members will see this thread and post here, so zero positive results doesn't prove much.

    When I was a student I knew one Post Doc at my university who told me that he was refused a teaching job at a US high school because he was overqualified; they thought that he would leave his teaching job the moment he found something closer to his level.
  5. Jun 25, 2010 #4
    Yes, I think so. However, it is never as simple as that. In one case we were trying to hire an M.S. level scientist. We rejected an applicant with a PhD, and gave him "overqualification" as the reason. But, really we would have not minded offering the job to him, but his responses to questions made it seem to us that he would get bored quickly, even though he stated he would be fine with the job responsibilities.

    I think this is a valid case because the reason why overqualification is a problem is the side issues such as the boredom and dissatisfaction which is possible when someone is overqualified. A similar thing happens in hiring PhDs for technical versus management track positions. An employer wants to hire someone into a position that they feel will make the employee happy and productive. A PhD applicant with goals of management will often be rejected for a pure research position, even if he has the ability and states willingness to take the job.

    I'm not sure the reason for the question, but an important point to make is that people with PhDs continue have the lowest unemployment rate, despite any of these issues.
  6. Jun 25, 2010 #5
    It is ashame that someone can be turned away for being "overqualified" in this job market. Even if they are willing to take the pay hit to get a job.
  7. Jun 25, 2010 #6
    Yet oddly enough, most positions which would put one in a managerial role require some experience. The applicant wanted to go on to bigger and better things, yet you didn't offer him a job which would have allowed him to do that? Ok---I understand...hiring someone costs money, and if they get bored and get a better offer, you're back to square one. You're not a charity.

    How is this not a Catch-22?

    Let me put it more directly, because this is a problem I'm facing right now, with a lack of entry level positions. Where does a well-qualified person looking for experience start? Or, perhaps, how does one gain experience in a field given a dearth of entry-level positions? Perhaps even more directly, what could the candidate have done to improve his chances of getting hired, other than answer arbitrary questions more enthusiastically?
  8. Jun 25, 2010 #7
    Internships, educational co-ops, research firms.
  9. Jun 25, 2010 #8
    I guess the candidate was turned away from a ``research firm'', evidently. If employers are not willing to take ``over-qualified'' candidates for research positions, how can job-seekers HOPE to find employment at lower levels, i.e. co-ops or internships?
  10. Jun 25, 2010 #9
    If you are referring to the actual case in which I was involved with, I have to first say that the questions were not arbitrary, but were directed to find out, not only the person's capabilities, but also how his own personal goals would mesh with the opportunities which were expected to be available out our company over the course of a few years. Also, the enthusiasm in the answer, while important, was not the critical issue.

    But, to answer your direct question, the candidate could have lied to improve his chances of getting hired. This would have been a very bad thing for him to do, and I don't support this type of unethical behavior. However, that is the honest and "direct" answer to your question. The fact of the matter is that he was not the most qualified person to hire once all factors were taken into account, and only his lying would be able to hide that fact. There was an M.S. level person, who was less capable in general, but just as capable for the job needed. More importantly, she seemed more likely to find the job challenging and enjoyable for the long period of time needed. The PhD applicant came across as just needing a paycheck since he would not be challenged by this job and would have preferred a research position if one was available.

    Anyone who has hired people knows the importance of finding a motivated person. Given two people with enough knowledge and capability, the motivated person will always outperform a non-motivated person. This is why I stressed that the situation is never as simple as just being "overqualified". It is the side effects of being overqualified that are relevant to an employer. There are some people who become unmotivated when they are not challenged. There are some people who will do a good job no matter what, but they may jump at a better opportunity when it arises.

    By the way, I have little doubt that this person found a job that was a good match to his training and capabliity. Again, PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate in general. It's also not fair to look at the situation from one applicant's point of view. No matter what the decision, one person is accepted and the others go home. All the employer can do is try to be fair to all involved and try to make the right choice for everyone's benefit. There is no formula that can be applied, but when 3 or 4 experienced people all come to the same conclusion independently, chances are that the right decision has been made.
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2010
  11. Jun 25, 2010 #10
    I didn't think I was conducting a scientific survey... but if it was as common as many people here seem to indicate, a few anecdotes should show up.

    And sure enough, we have 1.5 cases already (counting your friend as 0.5 since I can't question him further :-) ).

    I am curious about stevenb's example though... so the candidate pretty much came out and said he would be bored and just doing it for a paycheck and wanted a research job? (Questions of lying aside, if he genuinely hadn't had such a poor attitude, would he have been hired?)

    Yes, I know, I'm asking if he would have been hired if he had been someone else...
  12. Jun 25, 2010 #11
    Absolutely. I was interviewed for several companies where the hiring manager was direct and honest that they did not want to hire me because they felt that if they hired me, I'd very quickly leave for a better paying job. It turns out that they were right, and if they hired me, I *would* have very quickly left for a better paying job.

    Also, the Ph.D. was not the direct reason for being overqualified. It was a Ph.D. with programming experience, that came across in the interviews as being extremely ambitious.

    No because every company that I've every worked at had managers that had Ph.D.'s. I have been in situations were the company was looking for a entry level employee and passed over someone with large amount of experience because they didn't fit the job requirements.
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2010
  13. Jun 25, 2010 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    No. I mean, there have been reasons I didn't get jobs, but being an overqualified Ph.D. has never been one of the reasons.

    I'm going to answer a qualified 'yes'. Once, in response to a job posting, we got a bunch of resumes from PhDs even though the advertised job was for a fresh-out engineer. There were lots of overqualified types applying, like people with 20 years experience.
  14. Jun 25, 2010 #13
    The problem is that you have to hire some one, and if you hire someone "overqualified" you are not hiring someone with just the right level of qualifications. Sure you are willing to take a pay hit *now*, but are you really willing to stick around with a low paycheck once the economy improves?

    I should point that that skipping over someone that is "overqualified" is likely to help a Ph.D. entering a field. In a lot of programming jobs someone with a masters degree and 10 years of industry experience is considered far, far more "qualified" than a Ph.D. that is fresh out of school, and so skipping over someone that is overqualified in that situation helps the newbie Ph.D.
  15. Jun 25, 2010 #14
    No, he didn't come out and say those things directly, and his attitude was good. He did say he was interested in research, but would do the job that was available.

    Remember I'm summarizing a long interview process in a few sentences. The bottom line is the posession of a PhD was a factor that weighed against him in this case. He wanted to do research and his PhD made him qualified to do research. Take either of those facts away and he was in an even match with the person we hired.
  16. Jul 5, 2010 #15


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    I work as an embedded software engineer for wireless systems/digital signal processing. Over the years I have personally interviewed about 20 applicants who had Ph.D.'s and voted "yes" to hire about half of them.

    The ones I rejected were not on the basis of having a Ph.D., per se, but because of a notable lack of at least two of the following: 1) demonstrable system-level understanding of the specific wireless system that our group works on (even if only at the "Wikipedia" level); 2) good understanding of the fundamentals of digital signal processing; 3) ability to answer some relatively straightforward C/C++ programming questions.

    All else being equal, I will give an edge to someone who has applicable work experience versus a newly minted Ph.D. If the candidate has both a Ph.D. and work experience, then I'm primarily interested in the latter and I don't give much preference one way or the other based on the Ph.D. itself, and usually don't ask much about it unless it is very directly related to the job under discussion.
  17. Jul 5, 2010 #16
    there is no such thing as overqualified. there is the issue of being too old, however.
  18. Jul 5, 2010 #17
    And you're not concerned about ceiling, at all? i.e., a candidate with 10-20 years of experience probably isn't going to get much better at their job than they already are (no offense, of course), but has all the skills you want; whereas a new Ph.D. probably doesn't have the precise skill set you want, but may have a much higher ability to acquire that skill set.

    I can understand turning candidates away for not being able to program (if the job requires a lot of programming) or knowing the rudiments of DSP (if it's a job where that's important), but do you really expect people to know everything about every wireless system that's out there? If you only want a Wikipedia-type response about wireless systems, isn't that something that you can read and learn in a few hours?

    It's just interesting to me that, on the one hand, employers say ``We want the best people. We want the brightest people. We want people who will contribute to the company'', but on the other hand they say ``Well, this guy didn't read enough Wikipedia articles on wireless routers, so he's right out.'' It's been my experience that the brightest people don't really care to know the details of every system around, but if you give them a manual and the internet, they can learn.

    I dunno---the whole world outside academia is somewhat of a mystery to me. In academia, at least as a grad student, you are judged by not only what you know, but by the promise you show. In industry, you seem to be only judged by what you know, and not by the promise you show. I'd just like to know what I'm up against :)
  19. Jul 5, 2010 #18


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    Is it possible to be over-qualified to the point at which a potential employer hesitates to hire you? Depending on the employer, yes. On the other hand, if you hire someone who seems to fit your needs, and (s)he turns out to be a barn-burner that vastly exceeds your expectations, you can get bit in the butt anyway if word gets around and a head-hunter recruits your "find" away to a better-paying job.
  20. Jul 5, 2010 #19
    Isn't being too old, the same as being overqualified at life? :rofl:
  21. Jul 5, 2010 #20
    I understand what you are saying here yet it is troublesome to think there may be some employers that would view a person's outstanding performance as a potential negative. Seems the sky is the limit... :confused:
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