Overqualification and Elite Employers

What is Overqualification?

Wikipedia defines overqualification as “the state of being skilled or educated beyond what is necessary for a job.” Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article focuses on negative aspects of overqualification, and why employers will deliberately avoid hiring overqualified employees.

Elite Employers May Prefer Hire Overqualified Employees

Employers — especially elite employers — will often intentionally hire overqualified candidates. The phenomenon is entirely overlooked in the PhD article, but is real and related to Thomas P.M. Barnett’s concept of a “cannibalizing agent.” As Barnett wrote in The Pentagon’s New Map

But it is in the security realm where the adjustment will be the hardest and take the longest, because it takes years — even decades — to raise new generations of military leaders and construct new force structures that match the perceived changes in the security environment. Unless, of course, you have a cannibalizing agent already in place, like a Special Operations Command. But cannibalizing agents do not become ascendant unless dramatically new rule sets are recognized as coming to the fore. When those new rule sets are recognized and given credence, we begin to understand…

Overqualified employees are destabilizers, because they are likely to be able to see through existing processes and procedures, introduce instability by lobbying for changes, and create ad hoc processes that more efficiently fulfill dashboard-level Key Performance Indicators.

Thus, elite employers will purposefully choose to hire overqualified employees when the employers believe the following

1) It is important to raise up a home-grown cadre of knowledgeable experts quickly
2) The short-term costs of over-qualification (distruption to internal business processes) are neglibible compared to potential costs
3) The employer has the ability to recognize “new rule sets” as they come to the fore, and thus recognize those overqualified employees who have already successfully been cannibalizing internal processes

A Graduate Student Seeking Elite Employment Misses the Point If He Complains about Overqualification

I saw all of this because of the recent online discussion started by Greg Ferenstein in his Atlantic piece: Former Political Scientist to Congress: Please Defund Political Science and Adam Elkus‘s response, “Relevant to Policy.” Ferenstein’s piece is an anguished good-bye to political science from someone who wanted an elite position, and saw only meaninglessness in his PhD training. As Ferenstein wrote: “After four years of desperately searching in vain for how my degree could make the world a better place, the lack of real-world impact convinced me to leave a Ph.D. program in political science.” Elkus calls parts of Ferentstein’s piece “ridiculous,” but the human pain that Ferenstein feels isn’t. After four years, Ferenstein realized he was being trained to be overqualified. Then he gave up.

Now, Greg Ferenstein certainly is not your typical grad school drop-out. If nothing else, Greg got his gripes published in The Atlantic, indicating some political operative skills. But note that Ferenstein fails the three-prong test for hiring an overqualified employee.


1) Ferenstein was not able to achieve his own goals in graduate school quickly (in that he ran out of time on his own schedule)
2) Ferenstein may be a high-cost employee (as he has demonstrated a preference to drop out when he is overqualified)
3) Ferenstein has not successfully “cannibalized” the graduate school experience by subverting it to his own ends (thus is less likely to do so in the future)

I don’t mean this to be a hit-piece on Ferenstein. I was briefly enrolled in a Political Science graduate program, which I left to earn my PhD in educational Psychology. I then took a position as a junior user researcher at my employer.

Overqualification Is Endemic to Elite Systems

The overqualification that Ferenstein complains about is not likely to go away. Even if some sort of practical degree (say a Masters of Arts in Government) may be more appropriate to a potential employee’s day to day tasks, and even if the typical value of a PhD is small, elite employers are looking for atypical candidates who are ambitious and have demonstrated overcoming obstacles that are both intensive (require a broad array of skills) and extensive (takes a long time). Elite employers will reward potential employees with cash, influence, or other benefits to generate the needed number of actual employees, which of course leaves many others outside the gates.

There’s much that’s debatable in Ferenstein’s original article, but its heart is a young man’s realization that he has been led for years to be overqualified for the sort of positions that he could actually find. He’s correct in his realization. He just displays an ignorance of why he was lead to such a state.

3 thoughts on “Overqualification and Elite Employers”

  1. So how many Liberal Arts grad schools are able to find and effectively train the students capable of making the most of their ‘overqualification’?

  2. A lot going on in these articles, but I’m not sure I see how Ferenstain is overqualified for anything. Sounds like he’s underqualified for getting a PhD — lacking in what Richard Nixon called the “iron ass” of the dedicated student — and appropriately qualified for the job of political journalist, at which he is merely adequate (as you note, the Atlantic article has it flaws).

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