Too Educated for Entry Level?

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Can too much education hurt your chances of getting hired? Some workers and recruiters say it can, especially for entry-level jobs.

Carrie Reiling, an editor in Irvine, Calif., said she had difficulty finding a job in the Washington area several years ago with a master's degree in international relations. "My salary and job expectations were in line with the nonprofit associations in which I wanted to work, and I had three D.C. nonprofit internships under my belt and some international experience, but I just couldn't seem to find anything," she said.

She waited tables and worked as a receptionist for more than a year, before she finally got a job with a government contractor.

After a few months at that job, her supervisor shared with Reiling that she had been wary of hiring her because of her master's degree. Why? "They didn't want me to leave after three months," she said.

Reiling isn't alone in discovering employers might view her credentials as a negative.

"I can say there is some real truth to having a master's or above hurting you in the job search -- but only if you have less than three to five years' experience," said Kate Warren, a recruiter in the international development industry.

Warren said that many of her clients frown upon hiring candidates with graduate degrees for junior-level positions. "Those with the graduate degrees always expected higher compensation and had a higher sense of entitlement to the kind of projects and level of work they should be doing. Most of the junior-level positions tend to be very administrative -- thus the day-to-day tasks do not require a master's degree to perform well, but rather an organized, motivated individual."

In some cases, it comes down to money. "Why hire a grad student for 40K-plus when you can hire a recent undergrad for 30K?" Warren said.

"And it goes beyond just the salary. The recent undergrads actually tend to perform better, and stay in their job longer, than the master's holders will. Obviously there are exceptions, but generally the B.A.-level employee will be much more eager to tackle the admin-level tasks . . . often required in this level of position. Generally speaking, master's students come in with a somewhat inflated sense of abilities or just end up generally frustrated with the 'mundane' tasks they are asked to do."

There's a common refrain among these workers, Warren said: "I went to graduate school, got myself into XX amount of dollars of debt to do this?"

So what do you do if you are willing to do the grunt work? How do you get employers to give your overeducated self a chance?

"I don't advocate for leaving off their degree," Warren said, "but I think it is important that they get across in a cover letter, and if it gets to this point, an interview that they are more than eager to roll up their sleeves. When hiring, I always appreciated when candidates were upfront that while they realized the day-to-day wouldn't be the most glamorous of tasks, they were motivated by the fact that these are necessary steps in reaching the overall goals and missions of the organization."

Here, Warren also sees a case for working a few years before pursuing a graduate degree. "If you go straight from undergrad to grad, you will be competing for jobs with recent undergrads -- jobs [in] which your master's will give you no edge and could actually be to your detriment."

However, she said, people who take entry-level jobs out of college, work their way up and then head back to school will find that their graduate degree will be more valued.

That can be true even when the degree isn't specifically required for the job. Nancy McGuire, a communications consultant who lives in Silver Spring, said that a doctorate wasn't necessary for her mid-level job, but that her PhD in chemistry was a definite plus. "My employer was looking for someone who could read some very technical publications and translate the information into lay terms," she said.

The subject matter doesn't even relate directly to her degree. "I'm covering everything from robotics to wireless communications to supercomputing, not a chemistry article in the whole lot," she said.

In the environment where she works, she feels that having a doctorate gives her influence she might not otherwise have. "The PhD also gives me some pull with the Ivy Leaguers on the project, since they tend to ignore mere mortals with master's degrees."

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