Being overqualified

by Eszter Hargittai on August 21, 2006

I was catching up with a friend recently who, after receiving a Master’s degree, decided to move to a professionally less-than-ideal location for personal reasons. She’s been doing okay by picking up work here and there, but it’s been a long process. She was explaining to me the frustrations of being told that you are overqualified for a job. I could definitely see her perspective and was nodding throughout her desciption of various recent experiences. But after the responses I received to my recent post here about outsourcing advice, I am starting to understand the other side’s position better. A few people emailed me offering their services. The problem is, pretty much all of them seem to be overqualified, which puts me in a difficult position.

My motivation for looking into outsourcing was twofold: 1. to see whether I could find additional assistance with work since undergraduate students don’t always have as many hours to give to a project as is necessary and there are a limited number of graduate students locally; 2. to see whether I could save some money by hiring people elsewhere.

Certainly, removing the geographical constraint of the job helps and clearly there are people out there who could use some work that is open to a flexible schedule. However, it’s not at all clear whether there is much money to be saved.

First, my impression regarding outsourcing services available online is that they may be cost-effective if you need highly qualified people (specialized tech skills, for example), but there was nothing on the various Web sites that made me think I would necessarily come out ahead by hiring people from elsewhere for the jobs of interest to me (some data entry, transcription and such). I pay undergraduate students $8-$9/hour and the sites I saw didn’t seem to compete with that well.

Second, I got responses from people who sound like they would be very responsible and could definitely do the job well, but they seemed overqualified. Years ago I paid graduate students $10/hour so today that seems inappropriate. However, I wouldn’t want to pay more for these tasks than I do to people working on them locally. I have no idea what the going rate is in various fields. I know in computer science it is much much higher, but what is it in humanities fields? Perhaps what seems inappropriate to me would be fine for some people who are really just looking for something flexible to supplement their income.

I definitely know from experience that I don’t always do a very good job of estimating what may be a perfectly acceptable job and wage for a student. I sometimes feel badly about giving out very simple tasks, but then I remind myself that I was just fine with cleaning bathrooms and dishes – those were two separate jobs:) – in my first year in college and was outright happy later on with my job in the library and doing simple tasks for professors.

But when it comes to graduate students or people with advanced degrees, this all gets trickier. I do not want to insult someone with an advanced degree by suggesting a rate that seems way too low to me. At the same time, the potential employee does not want to mention a rate with the fear of asking for less than what I am willing to pay. Regarding this latter point, the potential employees don’t know that I won’t pay people in similar situations less than what I already pay others. (I would if the person lived in a country with much lower cost of living. Thus my inquiry about outsourcing.) That is, if an undergraduate student came to me to volunteer his or her services for free in my lab, I would still only hire him or her with pay, because I believe that a person will take the job more seriously if he or she is getting paid for it. Moreover, because others in the lab are getting paid, I believe everyone should unless there is a different payoff to the assistant. For example, an undergraduate student might work without pay on one of my projects if he or she is getting course credit as per his or her preference.

Of course, it is too simplistic to see this as nothing but an hourly wage issue. It is completely possible that people with more training or background with related work would do the job more efficiently and thus would not cost more on the aggregate even if their hourly rate is higher. But this would require quite a bit of logistics to figure out. (There is some cost to starting work with a new person and training them for a task so you don’t want to get too many folks involved.)

I will be hiring for a full-time position soon. I will make sure to post the salary up front to avoid the above complications. If people see what a position pays then it should be fair to assume that even if they are overqualified, they are willing to work for the offered amount if they decided to submit an application. That still doesn’t solve all concerns, by the way, given that the employer may fear losing the employee to a better opportunity. But at least it removes one point of confusion.



Cranky Observer 08.21.06 at 9:19 am

> But when it comes to graduate students or
> people with advanced degrees, this all gets
> trickier. I do not want to insult someone with
> an advanced degree by suggesting a rate that
> seems way too low to me.

So you would prefer to not insult them and watch them starve to death? That seems a bit cruel…

You were explicit and complete in your job description. It is a task with specific deliverables and of limited duration [1]. Why do you need to be concerned about the motivations or state of mind of the person applying? Hire him; if he does the job, pay him. If not, don’t.


[1] Meaning you don’t have the “you will quit in 6 months” issue. Of course, whenever I have heard that my next question is, what is the average length of time a new hire stays in that position? To which the answer is inevitably, ‘4 months’. So if I sign a contract promising to stay 8 months, which promise given my track record I am very likely to keep, how are you worse off?


moriarty 08.21.06 at 9:20 am

I don’t really understand what this has to do with over-qualification. I always assumed the same job would pay the same. Do “over-qualified” people expect higher pay because of their irrelevant qualifications? I wouldn’t think so. (And if their qualifications are relevant, then they are in fact over-q’ed.)

Maybe you should choose what you’re willing to pay ahead of time, and tell people upfront what that is.


Eszter 08.21.06 at 9:34 am

To clarify, my post asking for outsourcing advice was NOT a covert attempt at getting people to write to me offering to work for me. It didn’t occur to me – perhaps naively – that putting up that post would result in people sending me emails of that sort. So there was absolutely no reason for me to mention a rate in that entry. The whole point of learning about outsourcing options was to see how rates are determined elsewhere so why would I have a set rate ahead of time? (That is, I know what I pay now, but I wanted to find out whether I could pay less to those whose cost of living is considerably lower.)

Moriarty – If you read the post to the end you should have noticed that that is precisely what I said I would do with an upcoming position.


Chris 08.21.06 at 10:20 am

In your post, you mention hourly wages, but have you considered compensating workers on the basis of the amount of work done? For example, twenty dollars for transcribing two hours of audio/video with an error rate of no greater than 5%. Or twenty cents for each survey response that is entered into a database. (I’m pulling these out of the air.) It solves the logistical problem of wondering how to compensate people better who do the work faster.


99 08.21.06 at 10:24 am

$8/hour? Given the proposed minimum wage raise is to $7.00, how much better were you looking to do?

Perhaps you should clarify — are you looking to offshore or outsource? There are probably only four areas (maybe three, SF, LA, NYC) where oursourcing within the US can make sense for clerical work, unless you are shaving points on a very large scale to maximize profit. And if you are looking to rationalize/exploit the labor market to that degree, simply tell your current $8/hour monkeys you are looking to offshore, but they can tack two hours on gratis at the end of the week to make up the savings and keep their job. I’ll print you up the yellow smiley faces to put on their shirts.


JR 08.21.06 at 10:27 am

People who are less sensitive than Eszter don’t like to hire over-qualified people because, frequently enough to matter, they get bored, make careless mistakes, don’t get on well with other workers, and leave after a short time. There is such a thing as being too smart for a job.


moriarty 08.21.06 at 10:41 am

Moriarty – If you read the post to the end you should have noticed that that is precisely what I said I would do with an upcoming position.

Sorry, I kind of glossed over that.


Eszter 08.21.06 at 10:49 am

Chris – Yes, but it’s difficult to figure out what’s reasonable. And you may well be compromising on quality. (Linking it to error rate is an interesting idea.)

99 – When I talked about the possibility of lower wages I made it clear that I was talking about people in places with a lower cost of living. I don’t know how you missed this bit. The meaning of the word outsourcing is not restricted to country borders. The rates I pay right now are in compliance with university rates for undergraduate research assistants.

Thanks, JR, for elaborating on that point. I tried to make it in the last paragraph, but maybe didn’t dwell on it long enough.


Chris 08.21.06 at 11:07 am

I think you’re making the question of what’s “reasonable” more difficult than it needs to be. If you’re starting from a place where you’ve budgeted X number of dollars to process Y items, the price per item is X/Y.

If you haven’t budgeted the amount yet, but you have an existing worker who is already doing acceptable work for an an acceptable rate, you take the hourly wage you’re paying that worker divide it by that worker’s output to get a unit price per item that you’re paying.

Linking this to an acceptable error rate is crucial to keep people from submitting poor work and gaming the system, but this would be already be within the system in the status quo (I hope).

The advantage of this scheme is that it neutralizes the “overqualified” issue. If someone can’t apply their “overqualifications” to do the work better, you really shouldn’t be paying them more than someone who isn’t overqualified. If they can apply their advanced skills and do the job quicker, the task may become very worthwhile for them. They put their skills to use and are compensated in line with their increased productivity, and you get your work done for the same price (and maybe quicker) as if you would have hired plain unskilled labor.


Eszter 08.21.06 at 11:19 am

Chris, I think you’re assuming to understand the specifics of my project too much and/or basing your comments on too many unsubstantiated assumptions. (You’re also perhaps assuming a bit too little about my ability to come up with simple calculations.)


99 08.21.06 at 11:34 am

Um, no, you didn’t make it clear.

Regarding this latter point, the potential employees don’t know that I won’t pay people in similar situations less than what I already pay others

The above seems to indicate you are willing to pay a fixed minimum regardless of location (unless you want to qualify situation to mean location, not job situation, which I took it to mean).

You mentioned some ‘sites’ without qualifying if they used workers inside the US or outside, and didn’t make clear if your interest in cost savings was absolute or relative (meaning you want to reduce your labor cost in total, or simply on a per unit basis). If your current scale is only marginally more than minimum wage ($8 — which might be a lot to an undergraduate, but isn’t considered a living wage in most metropolitan areans), it’s a material question, since legally there isn’t any way for you to reduce labor costs past a certain point without offshoring.

I don’t know what your experience with temp or outsourced professional labor is, but in the areas I’ve worked, temp labor has always comes at a premium to full-time hourly rates, for several reasons: it is on-demand, which means your total labor expense may be reduced, but your hourly rate increases; you are moving all your payroll tax and insurance liability to the outsourcing firm (are you charged back tax and benefit costs on your budget?), and; in most cases, you are expecting to receive specialized, highly skilled labor that will be more productive.

Even if you are offshoring, there’s a carrying cost from the firms, and they are competing against well paid labor in metropolitan areas, meaning they can advertise a rate that is competitive in their markets, but still might seem dear to you.

I’m still not clear on what you are saying: that labor isn’t as cheap as you’d like it, or it’s discomforting that this insufficiently cheap labor pool is awash in highly skilled workers forced bargain their value away, and creating a frustrating management problem of them not being able to degrade themselves for perfectly rationalized monkey work?

This is absolutely an hourly wage issue. It’s wonderful to watch people tie themselves up in knots (or not, at all) about labor exploitation.

If you don’t think this is the case, answer this: where do you derive your sources of income? Shifting your costs to external markets deflates your local labor market. Once we’ve quashed the evils of minimum wage and dried up any possibilty of sustaining work, you can brings those data entry contracts back — by then, all those MAs will have learned to not put their advanced degrees on their resume, and you won’t have such a thorny problem.


Chris 08.21.06 at 11:36 am

I’ll admit that I’m basing my thoughts on the task you described in the “Looking for outsourcing advice” post and your descriptions above – “some data entry, transcription and such”. If there’s something special about the work you need done (such as open-ended research or literature mining), it might be helpful to include those descriptions in the post in addition to the more menial tasks. I’m pessimistic whether there’s a grand unified theory of compensation that fits all scenarios.

Also, I didn’t mean any insult nor was I underestimating your ability to come up with simple calculations. It’s often human nature to make situations more complicated than they need to be and god knows that I’ve jumped through all kinds of unnecessary hoops when a simple solution was staring me right in the face.


abb1 08.21.06 at 11:41 am

Would you hire an under-qualified 9th-grader in a sky-high-cost-of-living country on a part-time basis? I have one here.


Eszter 08.21.06 at 1:51 pm

99 – In your quote of what I said you skipped an important part, the sentence following the one you quoted:

Regarding this latter point, the potential employees don’t know that I won’t pay people in similar situations less than what I already pay others. (I would if the person lived in a country with much lower cost of living. Thus my inquiry about outsourcing.)

I added the parentheses a few seconds after I posted the initial entry so if you were reading this through an RSS feed that picked it up immediately then the post you got may not have contained that additional note.


99 08.21.06 at 2:14 pm

That’s a bit of a dodge, isn’t it? You were looking at labor rates quoted by intermedaries (sites) and wouldn’t be able to determine cost of labor or living. Are there oursourcing firms that expose their cost of labor? That would minimize their profit potential (though I expect your are in the minority, worrying about living expenses for labor).

You can presume a cost of living based on published rate, but considering how the US gov’t calculates the poverty line, how could you trust information on cost of living in a remote culture (without resorting to catcalls of cultural imperialism on your part)?

Though it might seem like I’m harping one only one half of your point, but the overqualification portion smacks of ridiculous arrogance, or bad managerial skills. You offer a position, you offer a wage/rate. If your interviewees have the requisite skills and accept the rate, they are perfectly qualified. You actually bear a burden as labor management to ensure that is the nature of employment relationship. Most employers exploit any number of extraneous skills or attributes (willingness to work additional hours without compensation, assuming duties not described in the initial agreement, etc.) without comment or additional negotiation, and only bother to notice when it doesn’t work to their favor (their highly qualified employess are “bored” as noted by a commenter above, for instance, because they can’t manage them or the work product).

Though your margins may be next to non-existent, or the profit/value you extract through your employee relationships might not be strictly monetary, you can probably pretend you aren’t exploiting labor. But you are (and I’m not being sarcastic or saying you are an exception — we all do it to one degree or another if we have employees), it is your job to maximize that relationship, not theirs (they are trying to minimize their exploitation). If you aren’t getting good value, it’s on you.


Kelly 08.21.06 at 3:29 pm

Starving grad student, will work for cheap! (Okay, not literally starving – wouldn’t want to give my uni a bad name, but currently starving; recently moved in, yet to unpack, and really need dinner.)

Seriously, one of the many reasons I’ve been in the process of changing careers is the overqualified demon. I worked in the computer industry for 10 years, and after about 6 I started hearing that I was overqualified for the positions I wanted. Problem was, I didn’t want to move in either direction that the standard “career path” wanted me to move – into programming, or managing. I was happy where I was, breaking things and finding out why, then leaving it for someone else to pick up the mess I made.

After a while, though, the only people doing the jobs I wanted to do were entry level lackies, people who wanted to move into programming or managing, so I was extremely overqualified in comparrison. It was cheaper to hire someone else and replace and train someone new in a year, than it was to hire me – even when I seriously cut the rates I was looking to work for. (Well, plus the mentality – people had a hard time believing I was truly happy doing the job.)

Add in offshoring, and it was just time for me to say “I give up” and chase another career.

Which, I suppose, is a long way of saying, if you continually come upon being overqualified, it might be time to leave that particular job for another.


katydid 08.21.06 at 4:36 pm

If your goal is finding the cheapest labor (and your use of the term outsourcing, not subcontracting, suggests that’s the purpose), with a fixed quality expectation, I suggest that you let applicants bid for the job, i.e., introduce competition. If that seems impractical, then establish the wage you’re willing to pay–and you’ve already indicated that’s your plan!

The concept of outsourcing is to do labor arbitrage and how would you know the competitive wage in many locations? Typically, in offshoring, providers compete for your business. You seem in a twist about your own motivations. Good! (I say this because I think the impulse to offshore is rational but not a good thing for the world, certainly not for local workers.) At least for long-run effects, offshoring drives down wages (but adds to a competitive pressure in the providing country, thus causing their wages to rise somewhat–note what’s happening in India and China: India is not offshoring some work to China as India wages rise)and makes waged workers all the more vulnerable. But for your short-term needs, either find cheap labor to do the task at hand, or establish a price below which you do not want to go on ethical grounds–and don’t worry about someone being overqualified. After all, it’s a short term proposition, you can monitor quality, and end it with little notice. You might offer an incentive for high-quality work performed within certain timeframes, sort of like standard construction contracts that earn bonuses based on the number of days the work is completed in advance of the contract delivery date.

With offshoring, it probably only makes sense if you have a recurring need, can establish performance metrics that don’t require hands-on supervision, and the relationship is sufficiently important to justify the time and effort is takes for you to monitor and deal with distance management.

My (unsolicited)advice? Hire locally since your need is temporary in nature. It’s not worth the grief you’ve already expended!


derrida derider 08.21.06 at 6:22 pm

ah, eszter has run into the sort of question that labour economists have only really begun focusing on properly in the last decade or so – the joint determination of wages and the hiring decision made necessary by costly information and its many consequences (including uncertainty as to productivity). Try googling “labour (labor?) market monopsony” or “Mortensen-Burdett models”.

Not that this theoretical stuff will help you much with your real life problem, of course. For that I’d agree with katydid – just do the simplest thing and don’t worry about it.


Witt 08.21.06 at 11:04 pm

I’ve been doing a lot of hiring lately, and the number-one red flag for me is a vastly overqualified person. The number-one mitigation for it is a frank cover letter. If a person admits to having followed his spouse to City X, or if even if they just say “I recognize that my degree is in an unrelated field; however, I am interested in this work because of Z, Y, and, W,” then I keep reading. And sometimes they make great hires.

It’s an easy problem for HR to address IF there is sufficient data. If not, I go with the probabilities. Way overqualified means, in my experience: a) abrasive to work with; b) book-qualified but no practical skills; or c) interpersonal concerns (creepiness towards co-workers, etc.) preventing the person from holding the position one would expect.


cm 08.22.06 at 1:42 am

witt: As far as I can tell, “overqualified” is a term primarily describing employers’ judgements of job applicants/employees, and in common parlance indeed means, or is a code word for, credentials/experience substantially in excess of those asked, with the clear connotation of disloyalty and being difficult to “manage” (allures due to high-level credentials, or knows better what plausibly works or not, or knows too much about how corporate organizations work, and knows how to evaluate people and their words & actions, i.e. may not call BS but won’t believe it either).

That may mostly fall into your categories a) and c).


Jon H 08.22.06 at 7:50 pm


Seems to me you should just come up with a number you’d like to pay, and offer that. If nobody is interested, or nobody you’d want to hire, raise the rate you offer. Don’t worry about what other people are doing, name the rate that works for you.

Don’t worry about “underpaying”. Whatever you’re paying people locally takes the local economy into account. You need to pay local people enough to get them to work for you instead of someone else, and that’s going to depend on the local cost of living, the job market, and the financial situation of the workers.

If you’re dealing with people working remotely, their local economics may be wildly different from yours. A person in rural Arkansas probably has a lower cost of living than someone in an urban center. A wage that would be a waste of time to someone local may be a very good wage indeed in Arkansas.

Let the candidates decide for themselves.


Jon H 08.22.06 at 7:55 pm

witt writes: “Way overqualified means, in my experience: a) abrasive to work with; b) book-qualified but no practical skills; or c) interpersonal concerns (creepiness towards co-workers, etc.) preventing the person from holding the position one would expect.”

What about “The job market for their skillset sucks (as so many do), is unlikely to improve any time soon, and the person needs a job.”

Why the shitty judgemental attitude? You’ve never been laid off, have you? You have a very unrealistic outlook on life.

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