How to Get a Job You're Overqualified For

If you’re a veteran developer looking for a new role, you’ve probably bypassed plenty of postings because you felt you were too experienced. Sometimes that’s valid—you have no desire to go backwards in your career.

But sometimes there are very good reasons to go after jobs for which, on paper, you appear to be overqualified. Maybe you want to change directions in your career, master a new programming language, or join a company whose mission you feel truly passionate about and want to help however you can, regardless of job title. There may very well be room to grow and space to achieve great things in a role that seems beneath your experience.

What you fear

When I wanted to write for the tech industry after a decade in academia, I hesitated at too many “entry level” writer positions simply because I had 10+ years experience writing professionally. It wasn’t that I thought the jobs themselves were beneath me; I wanted to do them. But I didn't think I would actually get one; I was afraid hiring managers would take one look at me and decide I was overqualified.

My fears around being “overqualified” were simple. I thought a hiring manager would see me as biding my time, looking for something to keep me busy until something better came along—and nobody wants to hire an employee who’s just looking for a stepping stone to bigger things. I was afraid previous management experience might indicate an unwillingness to work with nobody reporting to me. But none of these things were true. In fact, I was trying to move from a career where I was successful but unhappy into one where I could be excited to go to work every morning. I knew I’d have to start lower than I’d been previously. I wanted to start low.

While I was an accomplished writer, I had nearly no experience in the field I wanted to write for; from that point of view, I was entry-level. And I had an edge over other entry-level writers, because I had already proven my abilities during my career. I was able to present myself as an accomplished writer with strong foundational skills, plus the ability to learn the domain knowledge I would need to shift my focus.

From expert to junior

If you’re a lead PHP developer now, you might be a junior .NET developer somewhere else. Not because you’re an entry-level programmer, but because you’re entry-level at .NET. If this is the case, it’s important to convey both your experience and your new goals in your application materials. Rather than shying away from jobs that ask for much less experience than you have, try to make a case for yourself that shows you’re qualified in the important ways, but you still have room to learn and grow in some area. Make that position clear in your cover letter by explaining that you’re making a career change. Then go on to show how you’ll apply the experience you have to learn to do this job just as well as you’ve done others.

Check your ego

Something else to consider is whether you’ll be comfortable reporting to your new boss. Are you applying to a job where your manager is much younger than you, much less experienced, or has a title that would report to you in your previous role? If so, first take good look at yourself and come to terms with those possibilities. If you know you’d bristle at reporting to somebody less experienced, you may want to rethink this job. But if you can check your ego, do so, and present yourself as a team player who wants to work hard and help the company succeed, whatever your title and reporting structure. You can be confident in yourself as a developer and still show humility and readiness to grow.

If you honestly relish the opportunity to do this job, and don’t care about titles, make that clear in your application materials. Humility is an undervalued virtue that can serve you well.

Reframe your experience

Do your previous titles look more senior than the work you did actually did? Some may assume that a “manager” doesn’t spend much time coding. If that’s not true, address that by making an effort to communicate your actual day-to-day work. Just because you were a “director,” for example, doesn’t mean you had dozens of direct reports and spent your days behind a desk barking orders. Use your resume and cover letter to show hiring managers who you really are, and the work you really did, especially if you’re applying for a job with “junior” in the title when you were a “senior developer” at your last gig.

Don’t get hung up on seniority

There is no industry-wide standard for what a “senior” or “junior” developer does every day. Whether you identify as a developer, a programmer, or an engineer, a junior or senior or lead, don’t let your job title make too big a statement about who you are or where you’re headed. Your cover letter should make that statement, and you should use it to distance yourself from any titles that seem like they might get in your way.

The bottom line is, if you’re passionate about doing a job, and you’re able to do that job, there’s no reason you can’t land the job. But you need to be aware of the hiring manager’s perceptions, and do what you can to alleviate any concerns about your “overqualification.”

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