Overqualified and Underemployed? How To Beat The Newest Trend for College Graduates


Recently I’ve been thinking about my first few years after college and feeling some regret over the decisions I made. I graduated with an English degree and spent several months still working at the restaurant job I started in college. Desperate to get out, I finally took a job as a personal banker.

I’ve started to regret that decision because the personal banking job paid significantly less per hour than I averaged as a waitress – and because I only took the job for validation. I wanted a “professional” job so I could feel like my career was going somewhere. (Nevermind the fact that the professional job had nothing to do with my desired career.) Looking back, I could have saved the money needed to move to a new city with more jobs a lot faster had I just stayed at the restaurant and pulled double shifts. If only I had done that, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get my career going.

Or not? Based on a recent report done by The National Bureau of Economic Research, starting off your career as an overqualified worker can actually cause long-lasting damage to a young professional’s career. This creates a frustrating dilemma. Recent college graduate enters an oversaturated job market. He or she needs income to make student loan payments and takes the first job out of the gate. If the recent grad is overqualified for that job, then the result is a stalled career and a lifetime of lower earnings.

This isn’t very good news for the majority of graduates who walked the stage this summer. However, bad news doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Here’s how recent college graduates can take these findings and use them to optimize for a solid career and financial stability.

How Being Overqualified Can Hurt Your Career

I still remember the anger I felt when I struggled to find work after college. As if staying at my college job wasn’t bad enough, the very professors who had given me awards were coming in for lunch every week and asking about my job search. I couldn’t have felt more depressed and, honestly, worthless if I tried. The worst part was that I didn’t realize how many of my peers felt exactly the same way.

Now, thankfully, people are more open about their post-collegiate struggles. And I’m hoping that means fewer college graduates are blaming themselves for these struggles the way I did. Now the conversation has to take on a new tone: a discussion of being overqualified and what it can do to your career.

Time published an article discussing the NBER research paper mentioned above, which highlighted the unique struggles of the overqualified graduate:

“Researchers from Duke and UNC Chapel Hill found that people with some post-secondary education who were overeducated for their first jobs were making less than their peers of a similar education level, even ten years after they entered the workforce

…and the disparity extended beyond people with a college degree. Among those who had done some graduate work, people who started off overeducated for their jobs were at first making more than their peers (probably because education-level jobs for people with graduate degrees are few and far between for young people.) But 10 years later, they were making far less.

In other words, starting off in a position that doesn’t match your education level can slow you down later in life.”

In other words, post-collegiate struggles may have just proven to be even more challenging than we realized. Like all things, the best way to overcome a challenge like this is with strategy.

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How to Make the Right Career Choice – and Earn Enough to Pay Your Student Loans

Since finding a job in your career of choice will always be easier said than done, you’ll need to employ a flexible strategy with multiple avenues involved. Here goes:

Map out your desired career plan.
The first thing you have to do is the one thing I somehow blatantly disregarded: map out your desired career plan. Where do you want to work? What kind of work do you want to do? Is it available in your current town? If you have to move, how soon do you want to do so? And how much money do you need to make the move?

Figure out what you want to be doing and make sure all the decisions you make from now on service that goal. Give yourself tunnel vision so you don’t squander your early 20s the way I did.

Double down on your current job.
If you have to take a job that you’re overqualified for, maximize the potential at that job. You can do so a few different ways: work as many hours as you can so you can save money to move on later, glean any and all skills you can that will translate to your desired career, and always seek new responsibilities (even if you don’t plan to stay for more than one year). Catapult yourself to the top of whatever you do and you’ll develop a solid work ethic, leadership skills, and gain positive referrals for the next job.

Use a recruiter. Seek internships. Leave no stone unturned.
Finally, don’t rely on the internet alone to help you get a career-oriented job. Seek out a recruiter to help you (even it if it’s just to get your foot in the door somewhere). Be very open to internships if they match your desired career (that’s how we got our beloved – and now full-time – Claire!) And leave no stone unturned. Would starting a blog or freelance writing help you gain authority in your field? Do it. How about volunteer work? Hosting a meetup? Consider all possible avenues that allow you to contribute to your field so you can build meaningful experience while you search for a job.

The post-collegiate years can be some of the most emotionally and financially challenging years of your life. But if you create a strategy and become mindful of every decision you make (and whether or not each decision services your plan, then you can make sure the struggle is productive and (more importantly) short. All it takes is one break to put you on the road to professional and financial success.

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk

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