Further Questions: Do you think it is possible for applicants to be too qualified to succeed in a position?

Each week (or every other week) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question(s) are:

Do you think it is possible for applicants to be too qualified to succeed in a position? If so, at how and at what point in the process do you determine over qualification– from the application/CV/cover letter, phone interview, in-person interview, or something else? Do you ever include a maximum amount of experience that you will accept in your (internal) rubrics? What are the pros and cons of hiring an individual who is overqualified?

Donna wears glasses and a red t-shirt. She is feeding a bottle to a kangaroo wrapped in a grey blanket.

Donna Pierce, Library Director, Krum Public Library:

Can applicants be too qualified to succeed in a position? Yes and no. Yes, if they think they are “too good” to be doing this “low level” job. No, if they come into the position with an attitude of doing whatever is needed. Just recently I hired my 4th part-time person (myself and 1 other staff are the only full-time people.) This person was formerly a youth services librarian and a library director (at a library bigger than mine.) I am thrilled to have his expertise and experience to help me with programming, especially with the teens. His attitude is one of doing whatever is needed – nothing is “beneath him.”

Celia is running across the finish line of the Clarence Demar Half Marathon

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: Over-qualification is a tricky issue. Given the job market it is understandable that, for many (most?) people, having a job is better than not. Even one for which they are over-qualified. It is often pretty easy to see that in an application. I have hired individuals with an MLS in hand several times for positions that do not require more than a high school diploma, AA degree, or BA (ILL coordinator, Access Services Manager). When a high school diploma is the minimum requirement and an applicant has a higher degree I don’t usually think of that as an over-qualification, particularly if they don’t have any experience doing the work. When they have been doing similar work, had more authority and/or responsibility, or clearly have more advanced skills I know they may find the job less than satisfying. And they may be hoping, and still searching, to find a job that better matches their credentials even after they are hired.

But – I shifted my thinking about this a number of years ago and accept that an individual’s motivation for seeking employment is not my business. I certainly want to know why the job they applied for interests them. But I never ask why they would take a job they seem over-qualified for or whether they might be bored in the job. I assume anyone applying for, and accepting, a position will work hard at it to do well.

The challenge, of course, is that an individual in a position that does not challenge them or use their range of skills will result in their leaving. And these days turnover is always a scary proposition for those of us who have to jump through hoops just to get existing positions filled (not to mention time-consuming). But this happens all the time anyway – people find a job that pays more, is closer to home, has better hours. If a staff member with a MLS working in an hourly benefitted position finds a job that acknowledges and compensates them as a librarian then I am glad we were able to help them get there. And sometimes they stay even when I know they are not using their degree fully. And as long as they are doing good work, and seem happy, I can ask where they see themselves in five years, or how I could help them think about options, but the choice to stay or leave is theirs.

To be honest, the biggest challenge is often advertising an entry-level position for staff or library faculty that does not require any prior experience and getting applicants who have experience at the specific job which often pushes really early-career applicants out. The experienced applicants are not really over-qualified (unless we say their experience over qualifies them which doesn’t make a lot of sense). But the entry-level applicant with little or no experience isn’t under-qualified. And we want to bring new librarians and staff into the profession. I think this is an issue that many of our newer colleagues are grappling with.

Brandon Fitzgerald, Deputy Director, LAC Federal: My short answer to your question is that I try not to rule out candidates for being overqualified before I have an opportunity to speak with them. Everyone has different life circumstances, interests, and goals that led them to apply. Maybe they want to get their foot in the door with my company or a particular library we support. Perhaps they heard from someone in their network something about our company culture that they value. Or they might know how we like to promote from within and are interested in growing with our company. You can’t glean any of that from a resume. If I were applying for a job I felt overqualified for but had my reasons, I would definitely address that in a cover letter to ensure I’d be given proper consideration.

Headshot of Jimmie Epling, who wears a suit and glasses and smiles into the camera

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System: When hiring for a position we often encounter an applicant who appears to be over qualified for a job. The first impulse of many is to pass on the candidate because in their mind that person “is over qualified and we should not be hired because (insert a favorite excuse).” My belief is not considering a candidate on the grounds the person is over qualified is either shortsighted, discriminatory, or both.

Why might it be shortsighted? This person is interested in the position you have to offer and offers a set of skills needed for the job. What is the logic of hiring someone who doesn’t have the skills and must be trained to do the job? Someone who appears over qualified will very likely be able to learn and perform the job duties required without a lot of training…read “short learning curve.” This staff member will reach the performance level you need soon than someone just meets the job qualifications when hired, saving you staff time and money.

An assumption often made for not hiring someone who is “over qualified” is that person “will not be with you long.” True, this person may be with you only a few months or a year, but the time they are with you may very well be worth it! Hiring an over qualified candidate can provide your library with talents and expertise that even for a short time are invaluable. I’ve often thought, “give me a talented and motivated employee for a year because that person will do more for my library than one who is average will for five years.”

Lastly, not considering someone for a position due to the candidate being, in your view as an employer, “over qualified” is a form of discrimination. As an employer, you have posted the minimum qualifications which the candidate clearly meets. Not interviewing the candidate means you have made a judgement call based on speculation of the individual’s motivations for applying for your open position, not the individual’s qualifications. There are legitimate reasons a person who is over qualified is applying for your open position. You may be able to determine the reasons the person wants the job during the interview. To not offer a candidate with the required qualifications for your job an interview is discriminatory as you are using subjective hiring criteria.

The bottom line is saying a candidate is “over qualified” is a subjective judgement in the eye of the beholder, the employer. Passing on a candidate who appears over qualified is to risk losing a great employee.

Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor: I don’t think it is possible to be “too qualified”, but as a hiring manager or someone on a hiring committee, I want to know that the applicant who may appear “overqualified” really understands the duties of the job they are actually applying for, and that this position is what they are really interested in.

My concerns would include: the person would be unhappy with the responsibilities and maybe with the pay, would be taking this job only out of desperation, and/or would be looking to get something “better” elsewhere asap. Or they might be used to being in charge and will still behave that way, in a role where that is not appropriate.

I’d look for this to be addressed in the cover letter, perhaps with the applicant saying something like, “In the recent past my position was one of upper administration; I did that for years and was successful at it and enjoyed it. After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided that a position where I can contribute strongly as a team member without the leadership component is what I prefer now.” It is always better for an applicant to convey that their reason for making a change is moving towards something they want, rather than running away from something they don’t want (like the challenges of supervising others, for example). Another reason could be that the applicant wants a healthy work-life balance, but that has to be conveyed with a realistic understanding of what the work-life balance at the new job will be, and without bashing a current or former employer.

The pros of an “overqualified” applicant can be that they may require less training and may already have many desirable skills and years of experience that other applicants don’t yet have. The cons could be: dissatisfaction with the position and a bad fit due to comparison with their former duties, pay, position in a hierarchy, power and control, autonomy, etc.

Thoughtful questions during the interview, that assess how well the applicant understands what the job really entails, should be asked, to determine if they will be happy and comfortable and productive in that specific role.

Headshot of Alan Smith, who wears glasses, a tie and suspenders

Alan Smith, Director, Florence County, SC Library System: I don’t believe I’ve ever rejected an application solely because of overqualification, though it’s possible other employers may do this, especially those who get a huge volume of applications. I have interviewed lots of “overqualified” candidates, hired some, and chosen not to hire others, and it really comes down to the context the candidate provides. 

(Side note: at risk of being pedantic, I don’t like the term “overqualified.” I think of it like the word “unique” — there aren’t varying degrees of unique; something is either unique or not unique, and a job applicant is either qualified or unqualified. In what other context would someone reject something for being too good or too much like what they wanted? Some employers may fear that a candidate who isn’t able to use their full skill set, one they built over a long period of time at great expense, might be dissatisfied with the work or would leave the position quickly. But I also suspect some employers reject “overqualified” candidates because they are intimidated or unsure how to supervise someone with more knowledge or experience.)  

Back to that context: If you are the extremely qualified candidate, just explain why you want this position specifically. Prefer the schedule flexibility of a part-time position? Want fewer responsibilities and a better work/life balance? Trying to gain experience in another area of operations? I’ve hired staff who gave each of those reasons and they all worked out well. 

On the other hand, I’ve rejected highly qualified candidates who seemed to think their experience meant they had nothing to learn, or would automatically perform better than other employees in the department. For example, we once interviewed the former Director of a sizable library system for a paraprofessional circulation position. When asked why they wanted the position, their answer was along the lines of, “I can do these duties twice as well as anyone else, and in half the time. Frankly I should be doing your job.” Maybe that was true! But if they say that to the Director in an interview, I can only imagine how they would treat their coworkers. 

To answer the original question, though, I don’t think it’s possible for candidates to be too qualified to succeed in a position per se. However, an extremely qualified candidate may not succeed in a position because they feel simpler tasks are worth less effort, are dissatisfied with the work, or are trying to meet the standards of the position they used to hold, or trained for, rather than the one they have. 

Julie Todaro, Dean, Retired:

Do you think it is possible for applicants to be too qualified to succeed in a position? 

Although both applicants and employers have many things to consider in the hiring process, a great deal of care should be taken when qualifications are considered. This includes employers needing to be very careful in:

  • Getting clarification on whether or not the organization’s qualifications are measurable for assessing applicants, and if not, instructions on how to assess applicant hard-to-measure qualifications,
  • Which qualification categories are being considered? (ex. HR guidelines – as we know – typically include specifics such as:)
    • one or more specific degree(s) or professional designation(s) or certification(s),
    • specific industry knowledge such as proficiency with hardware or software products,
    • the number of years of experience – in general or in specific institutions or with age levels, etc. unique materials or other areas of the profession,

                and the more typical – no matter the level or type of position –

  • skills and abilities to perform tasks such as lifting, pushing loaded carts of materials, etc.
  • Creating a rubric for identifying/measuring quantifiable qualifications and determining presence of non-quantifiable elements/areas (ex. concepts such as time management, multi-tasking, teamwork, decision making and commonly used attributes such as taking initiative, commitment to continuous learning, flexibility, optimism, valuing critical elements of society or the profession),
  • Choosing required vs. preferred qualifications needed for a position,
  • Determining the latitude in making decisions such as substitutions for experience? education? etc., ranges in categories such as a range of years or presence and placement in an educational program (enrolled in …candidacy status for PhDs),
  • Assessing educational or training curriculum present in entities providing preferred or required qualifications (ex. is the graduate school granting their degree presenting contemporary curriculum?)
  • Determining terminology (ex. only specific credentialling, experience and what ‘experience’ means such as the meaning of post graduate work, etc.)

And just like employers, applicants need to be careful in matching their education, training, background, etc. to the organization’s identified areas and in providing honest representations of what IS and ISN’T present.

Giving the many issues surrounding current hiring practices – qualification issues might also 


  • Who determines if an applicant possesses the qualifications as stated; and,
  • The question at hand – the “over” qualification of an applicant.

Beyond the determining of what you need and who has what if an organization does have latitude to hire someone with more qualifications that advertised or needed employers should take great care to:

  • explain the position to applicants – specifically what the person is supposed to do and NOT supposed to do,
  • identify compensation issues and if they affect the salary placement,
  • share other benefits of the position at hand such as access to travel funding, personal technology,
  • be clear about opportunities for advancement that is:
    • can someone in a position “transfer” to another? be promoted? or must they apply and compete for other positions that their qualifications more closely match?

Final recommendations

In my last institution, rejecting someone from an applicant pool because they were “overqualified” was not allowed. This meant that applicants applying for positions with the thought of getting their foot in the door and bypassing our processes had to have the situation very carefully explained to them. I must add; however, that when we did end up doing this – against my better judgement – I might add – it failed twice – once with the employee being clearly told – becoming unhappy they weren’t “using their degree” and “applying” for a position or title change and ultimately leaving unhappily after – frankly – doing a mediocre job at the job they were originally hired to do. In the second event, an employee would literally NOT stop doing other people’s work – again – work they felt they were qualified to do even though it isn’t why they were hired. In that case, the employee was let go – again, because they could not accept the fact that this process applied to them.

I should also add that there is an additional category – and that is an employee who completes a qualification during their employment and then – upon completion – being qualified for another position, but – again – not being able to automatically “move into another position.” Even with careful explanations, it worked FOR the employee on one instance and against the employee in another. In the first, they followed our recommendations, keep within their original job, applied for the other position and was awarded that position. In the second instance, they appeared to disdain their current position as they increased their qualifications and not only did other work – as the earlier example, they did not do the work they were hired for. In that instance the person left before they were let go for poor performance.  

So, with the burden on employers to make it clear and an equal burden on the employee to follow processes, all employers want to assist employees in advancing along a career path. If an organization wants to be clear, written continuing education pathways with clear explanations of the benefits of existing qualifications and increasing educational, attribute and competency attainment are an important part of the infrastructure of an organization committed to employee growth and continuous improvement practices that include increasing experience and education. 

NOTE: Because no one knows what really makes up a professional position until they have the specific professional experience and/or credential, there are a number of people who will apply saying “they know they can do the job” or “they used the library a great deal in getting their credential” and they just know they can now be successful in the position, no matter if they have the credential or not. A longer list of overqualified applicants might include those who are:

  • simply looking for any job and can’t get one in their field,
  • are burned out in their field and are seeking an entry level position only,
  • looking for an opportunity to change positions but are seeking a position that will help them gather information about another area and thus want a lower level or “any” job,
  • want to get into an organization by volunteering (and the organization allows that), and we have those who are admitting they “don’t want to work as hard” as their original qualification required in a position and they want a position that doesn’t extend – for example – beyond a more classic workday and they know they are overqualified, etc.

My same thoughts as stated above exist for these reasons as well – think carefully about hiring anyone who isn’t – in some way – committed to your patrons, their services and resources, the organization and their peers/the workforce. We aren’t in business to help someone else only find themselves, and although that sounds callous, people may well be applying for positions because of any of the five areas above, but they shouldn’t and don’t need to share that with the hiring manager. Employers must realize that if applicants express these reasons and you DO hire them, you are culpable in possible behaviors – because “you knew it when you hired them.” Obviously, managers should focus their time on the MANY applicants who are committed to their work and will be an asset to the organization. 

By the way, if you’re a job hunter I have a new survey for you! Will you please fill it out?

If you’re someone who hires LIS workers, the current survey is still open.

Other ways to share your thoughts:

If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.


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