Overqualified and Underemployed – Big Ego or Real Problem?
Overqualified and Underemployed – Big Ego or Real Problem?

overqualified because you have much more education than needed for your roleA lot of us grew up being told that we were wonderful and can do anything that we set our minds on. Sometimes, this is true, and we have unlimited potential and abilities. This may leave us feeling overqualified for our jobs. If we feel overqualified, does it mean that we actually are?

In 2014, Time magazine reported that “36% of respondents in a survey of more than 700 workers thought they were overqualified for their current jobs, and about two-thirds of those were looking for a new job they think better befits their skills.”

If we feel overqualified, does it mean that we are? From a dictionary definition, someone who is in a job that doesn’t require the degree they hold is “underemployed.” Unfortunately, it’s quite common since some estimate that over 40% of university graduates are overqualified, and it can be even worse for people with a graduate degree. Consider these criteria to help you decide.

Signs You’re Overqualified/Underemployed

You’re bored.  Boredom is a common sign that you’re overqualified. Sometimes this happens when you’re not being challenged or stretched … you’ve been there and done that. If you can manage your work half asleep or with one proverbial hand tied behind your back, you’re probably overqualified. But boredom could also be a signal that you’re in the wrong job because the job might be a bad fit. It’s important to figure out whether it’s a bad fit or if you’re overqualified. Either way, it might be wise to start considering alternative employment or a different role in the same organization if that’s an option.

overqualified because you know so much more than your boss knowsYou know much more than your boss.  If you’re getting more and/or better results than what’s expected for someone in your role to the extent that people turn to you instead of your manager/boss for direction and advice, then you’re probably overqualified.

You’re often looking for more work to do.  You typically finish your work quickly and then find something else that needs to be done and do it even though it’s not in your job description. Sometimes you’ll ask your boss what else you can do. If you keep getting the message that your employer doesn’t need or want, you to do more and has no ideas for what you can do it means you’ve already gone above and beyond what the job requires.” In other words, you’re overqualified.


overqualified because you're no longer learning at workYou’re not developing or learning.  Ideally, when you start a new job, there’s a steep learning curve. You need to learn new things in order to be successful. You’re exhausted at the end of most days and/or at the end of the week. If, however, you’re able to perform a new job well without any training or guidance you’re probably overqualified for it. You probably won’t have much room to grow in that role. Also, if you have way more experience than the job description requires, you could be overqualified. It’s possible to have more education than is required for the role but not be overqualified. Education isn’t always the same or better than relevant work experience.

Your salary has plateaued. You’ve been working hard in the same role, taking on challenging projects, and getting favourable feedback about the quality of your work. If despite these positives, you haven’t received a meaningful salary increase in a few years, you might be underemployed. In some fields, 2% – 3% annual raises are common, in other fields, it could be as much as 5% – 10%. Over time, these add up. Do some research to determine the current market value for your level of skills and experience in your region. If you’re earning below what the market pays, it may be worth re-evaluating.

Implications of Being Overqualified

When you’re pigeon-holed, it becomes difficult to be seen in a different light. So, when you’re an engineer who works a retail job at the photocopy centre, if you stay in that role long enough, you’re seen as a photocopier, not as an engineer. Others who see you in this role that’s below your abilities may eventually assume that your role is consistent with your abilities. What’s potentially worse is that you may start to see that your ‘lower than it should be role’ is your ‘real’ level. You may lower your own internal standards and expectations.

sometimes when you're overqualified, you should be planning to move along

If possible, you should plan to leave a job for which you are overqualified so that you can avoid being sidelined into an unsuitable role for the long-term.  Being overqualified often means that you’re underemployed … working but not earning what you should be earning. This isn’t trivial. Compounded over the long term, this will have a negative impact on your life-long earnings and standard of living. When this is serious, and your low pay makes it difficult to pay off student loans and/or other debts while sustaining other aspects of your life the financial stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health.


Do you need help navigating the world of work? Contact Dr. Helen today for a free and confidential initial consultation by phoneemail, or via direct message on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. If something urgent comes up, I’m also available by a voice or video on Magnifi, an expertise-on-demand app.


Have you ever wished you could get inside the head of a hiring manager? You can. Dr. Helen Ofosu is a Career Coach/Counsellor with a difference. She has worked for organizations to create hiring and screening tools. She’s created countless pre-screening tests, interviews, simulations, and role plays for organizations of all kinds.


Dr. Helen’s training in Industrial and Organizational (I/O) Psychology means she is a genuine expert in evaluating work-related behaviours. She uses those skills to help hiring managers tell the difference between people who say the right things during interviews and people who actually deliver on the job. In other words, Dr. Helen understands first-hand how job candidates are assessed.


More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.


I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.


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