Over-Educated and Under-Experienced

February 10th, 2011 § 1 comment

Degrees like an MBA or JD can in many instances help to land you a great career opportunity but the real danger of being over-educated exists as more and more people choose to go back to school. Today’s question comes from a job seeker who wonders if he attended too much school for his own good:

How does one discuss their past if their work experience is limited but education is advanced? I always feel like interviewers want me to explain how my previous jobs have primed me for the current position (and I can only answer honestly and in a limited capacity). Am I just flat-out not qualified?

Education is important but experience is what makes an individual successful in the corporate world.  There is a reason why top MBA programs take few (if any) students coming straight out of their undergraduate education. They understand that advanced studies provide the greatest rewards only when there is the context of real-word experience to enhance it. If you speak with MBA graduates a few years out of school they’ll tell you that the classroom, even through case study, can’t prepare you for the gamut of decisions to be made and situations you’ll be placed in when working in a real job.

A 2006 survey of S&P 500 CEOs reveals that at that time, 62% of them had earned at least one advanced degree, more than half of those being MBAs. The same survey also provides some interesting insight into how where you go to school might affect your success. I was surprised to find that while the Ivy League is present as the most commonly attended undergraduate institutions in the top 200 companies of the S&P index, Rutgers and University of Wisconsin are the most common universities attended by CEO’s of the bottom 300 of that same index. A degree can certainly improve your chances for success but even at the very top run of the corporate world there are many self-made men and women.*

Regarding a situation like the one you have described, interviewers are most often put off by a sense of entitlement that can, depending on the individual, accompany the advanced education. If you’re highly educated but lack practical experience, there’s no obfuscating this fact. Your resume shows exactly the balance between years of education and the time you’ve spent in the workforce. Assuming the interviewer has read your resume, why then, would they ask a question that has no good answer? What they’re really looking to see is how you handle this. With experience comes maturity and though you may lack the practical experience they’re looking for, you demonstrate life experience with maturity in an answer that would sound like this:

Mr. Interviewer, the practical experience I can draw on for this role is admittedly limited as I’ve spent the last several years pursuing my [MBA/JD/etc]. First, let me address my internship experience during my schooling that I feel is relevant.

This beginning to a lengthy answer serves to properly set the interviewer’s expectations. With limited truth to speak to, leaving any potential for the expectation that you have significant relatable work experience will only serve to disappoint the interviewer and hurt your chances of moving forward with the hiring process. After speaking to your internship or any other real corporate experience, continue as such:

I also think that there are specific and significant portions of my recent degree program that can relate to this role.

Provide specific examples of your coursework, providing the context surrounding the course itself and, if possible, speaking to deliverables you produced while in that class. This piece of an answer in particular requires good preparation. The parallels you’re drawing here are not from real work to the role but to education which was not what had been asked. Irrelevant fluff here will only serve to hurt your case.

Finally, close the loop on this question/concern by bringing back your interest in this specific role:

I applied for and am interested in this role particularly because my research on ABC Company tells me that this is one of the more junior positions you would hire for within this department. While I believe that I will be able to draw on both my internship and educational experiences, there is still a lot I need to learn. Despite the advanced degree, I’m realistically looking for a more junior position so I can build my practical skills. I also feel that, given the opportunity, I can use my advanced education to outperform expectations of an employee at my level.

Often when a question is asked there is more to be learned from how an interviewee considers the question and frames their answer. Simply saying, “I really don’t have a lot of experience,” is a much shorter way to summarize the above and, at its base, covers the same basic point. How you talk about a lack of experience and, most importantly, the maturity you can exhibit in understanding your own shortcomings can demonstrate to the interviewer that you are well-prepared to take on new challenges.

* Source: SpencerStuart 2006 CEO Survey: http://content.spencerstuart.com/sswebsite/pdf/lib/2005_CEO_Study_JS.pdf

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