Underqualified? Overqualified?

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood give advice on how to use networking to be just right for the job market.

March 1, 2018
 
 
iStock/aelitta

I have been applying for jobs for the past six months and getting nowhere. I can’t apply for senior positions because I don’t have the years of experience, but I also can’t get an entry-level job. What should I do?

Doctoral students and graduates often ask us about this. When you are rejected from an entry-level job or hear, “You’re overqualified,” it’s easy to assume that it’s because of your Ph.D.

But it’s unlikely your Ph.D. itself, or any terminal degree, that’s causing employers to pass on your candidacy. They just want to hire folks who will fill gaps on their team and help them solve problems. The specifics of your education are much less important to them than your ability to show you can add value to the organization.

For most entry-level positions, employers imagine hiring a traditional college graduate, so someone in their 30s with transferable skills but no relevant linear work experience is not the person they have in mind. In some ways you are overqualified: you’re not at the beginning of your career but you have been working in a different sector.

At the same time, however, you’re underqualified: your résumé does not compare to that of your contemporaries who’ve been working since college, picking up valuable industry-specific knowledge and gaining linear work experience.

You’re simultaneously overqualified and underqualified. So what do you do? Enter networking!

The task here is to make a case for yourself beyond what you can communicate in a résumé and cover letter. You need to find people who can advocate for you as a professional, who know you have the skills and knowledge to do the job even if you’re not the best candidate on paper.

Our panelists and speakers at Beyond the Professoriate emphasize over and over again how important networking is.

People with direct linear work experience or directly applicable technical skills can be successful in landing jobs in industry without networking. Consider Katie Wilkins, who has a Ph.D. in computational biology. She now works as a computational biologist in industry. To obtain that position, Katie did not do much networking. She submitted résumés to over 100 jobs, landed three interviews and got one job offer that she accepted. The lesson here is that landing a job at an organization or company where you have no contacts can take a long time -- even if you have specialized skills or experience. You have to get out there and meet people.

But I don’t have a network!

Yes, you do. Here’s one example of networking at work: Nick Gaylord, a Ph.D. in linguistics who now works as a data scientist, posted on his Facebook profile that he was looking for a new opportunity. A member of his network saw his post and sent a relevant job advertisement his way.

Reach out to friends, family and acquaintances from your undergraduate and graduate days and let people know what kinds of opportunities you are looking for. It’s a good idea to have done a bit of homework before you make this request so you can describe the type of work you’re interested in to them. What are things you love doing, that you’re good at, that people will pay you to do? What would a good work environment for you be?

You’d be surprised at whom your friends, family and acquaintances know. Don’t forget to contact the people you’ve met through your hobbies and other in-person or online activities. Ask for advice from members of your running club, indie music community or knitting group. They’ll be happy to help. When Larry Bruser finished his history Ph.D. and was looking for a position in public relations, he told his dentist -- who was a member of a variety of clubs and organizations and was happy to introduce Larry to his various contacts. You never know whom your aunt is having lunch with or your neighbor knows. Tell everyone!

But really, I don’t know anyone.

If you are stumped, it’s time to get active on LinkedIn. Find companies of interest where you live or would like to live. Use the LinkedIn search tool to find employees that work there and message them. English Ph.D. Erin Arizzi paid for LinkedIn premium so she could send messages to people outside her network and managed to set up over 100 informational interviews. Those meetings led to two contract positions. After a little over a year working at one company as a contractor, she was hired on a permanent basis.

LinkedIn is the most obvious place to do professional networking, but you can make similar connections and learn about new industries and opportunities elsewhere online. Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram or more specialized platforms can all prove fruitful.

What exactly is an informational interview, and how can I make the most of it?

An informational interview is an opportunity for you, the job seeker, to learn about jobs and companies. Note that it is not an opportunity to ask for a job. If a job is posted and you are reaching out to someone you have never contacted before to learn about it, that is not an informational interview.

An informational interview is common outside academe and can be as simple as a conversation with a family member, friend or someone from your alumni network. You can also reach out to people you don’t know through LinkedIn and ask to speak to them by phone or meet for coffee. Many people are busy, so a 20-minute phone conversation is often easier for them than getting together in person. If you are meeting in person, make sure you travel to a location that is convenient for them. Offer to buy the coffee.

In your LinkedIn message or email, ask directly for an informational interview. Be clear about why you’re reaching out to this person in particular. Is it to learn more about their job or what it’s like to work in that particular industry? Is it to learn about how someone with your skills and experience could make a career transition into that industry or job? Keep it short; you don’t need to go into too much detail about yourself.

When done correctly, informational interviews can lead to job opportunities, as happened with Erin Arizzi. Similarly, one of our community members, Libby Pier, had an informational interview with a person who was entry level at an educational consulting company. That employee told her supervisor about Libby and her talents. The supervisor was intrigued and helped Libby set up informational interviews with company employees. Eventually, she was invited to apply for a position, formally interviewed and hired.

Why would anyone want to talk to me?

You might wonder why a busy professional would be willing to help you out. Think of it this way: every organization is looking to hire talented individuals to join their team, and people will change jobs several times over the course of their own careers. You may be early in yours, but you are potential talent, and you’ll soon find your way in the working world. To have a successful career or grow an organization or company, employers need to meet new people. It’s good to grow professionally and expand the group of people you’re connected to. As Maren likes to say, you have to know a guy who knows the guy who can do a thing.

Also, most people land jobs through their network, so they want to pay it forward. They understand why you are reaching out. You’ll be surprised and amazed at how helpful people will be.

How soon should I start networking?

Because changing careers requires a lot of self-reflection, researching and networking, it will take time to find your next opportunity. In fact, it may require three or more years to find yourself in a nonacademic career path that suits you. That doesn’t mean you’ll be unemployed, but it might take months to find a suitable opportunity and a year or so to know if it was a good career move. You may also have to change jobs, companies or industries before you’re where you want to be long term.

So get started! Challenge the assumptions you have about industries, jobs and professions. Cast a wide net and talk to as many people as possible. Follow leads. If you are getting good responses from people in one industry on your list, focus your attention there. After a few years of working in a particular industry or company, you’ll understand yourself better and be able to move to another opportunity, leveraging the skills from your Ph.D. and your time in the work force.

The bottom line is that networking is the key to a successful nonfaculty job search. You need to connect with people who can help you learn about what’s out there and how you can best position yourself for an opportunity.

And remember: your first job is not your last job. You’ll need to continue to network even after you are happily employed. Say yes to opportunities that move you in the right direction.

Bio

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood are co-founders of Beyond the Professoriate, an organization that provides professional development services to individuals and institutions across North America. Have a question about your job search or exploring careers after your Ph.D.? Submit it here.

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