Sorry to turn you down, but you’re overqualified

Sorry to turn you down, you're overqualified article, by Chris Humphrey

I recently answered a question over on my Facebook page, about what to do when your job application is rejected because you’re ‘overqualified’. This is a frustrating response for applicants to receive; and researchers transitioning out of academia may encounter it more than most. In my experience being labelled as ‘overqualified’ is shorthand for a number of scenarios on the employer’s side:

  • We only want to hire at the very bottom of the scale, but we didn’t want to say so in our advert.
  • We want to hire someone who’ll stay put and not wish to develop/progress in the role (and you seem like a very capable person who would want to progress in the role/organisation).
  • You seem very intellectual and we’re worried you won’t fit in/you’ll get bored/your head is in the clouds!

So how can you avoid getting this response to your applications? Here are some suggestions to help:

1. Do some digging before you apply
If you have a contact ‘on the inside’ of an organisation, e.g. made through informational interviews, you can try to determine exactly what they’re looking for, in terms of salary and experience. This will help you to rule out vacancies where they’re just looking for an entry-level candidate. It can be a very difficult thing to detect from the job advert alone – a salary range can give a false impression.

2. Speak the employer’s language
Are you using the language of a ‘fellow professional’ in your application (see my article on this topic)? Being able to speak the employer’s language is very important, and if you don’t use terms they’d expect to hear, it’s easy for them to think you don’t know their industry, business or profession. Remember, you’re a professional ‘X’ first and foremost, where the ‘X’ is a job title or role that the employer recognises from their industry, with a complementary PhD.

3. Reduce the degree of distance
For some jobs, it’s important to reduce the perceived intellectual gradient between you and the interviewing manager or HR department. You should come across as an approachable colleague with relevant experience and expertise, rather than as a know-it-all who’s fresh out of college with lots of degrees!

So give your cover letter and resume to non-academic friends and family, and get them to give you some honest feedback. Avoid obviously academic language in your application, like your ability to ‘challenge orthodoxies’ for instance (which was the case with one researcher who wrote to me for advice about rejection). It’s not dumbing down, rather, it’s adjusting your communication style to connect on a more personal level with the hiring manager.

More resources

In my presentation on ‘How to translate your skills into language employers can understand’ I show you how to analyse a job advert and really get to grips with the challenge of speaking an employer’s language. Just subscribe to my monthly newsletter and I’ll send you the slide deck by return.

In this video from, some helpful careers experts (including me) do their best to answer the question of ‘How do you convince non-academic employers that you are not overqualified?’. How do you like my nerdy headset (I have ear buds these days)?!