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Toning It Down: How and When Should You Consider Understating Your Credentials?

by Sean Cook, Certified Career Coach, HigherEdCareerCoach.com

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It's a hard job market right now for those trying to find positions in higher education. As noted in a previous post by Peter Weddle ("Out of Whack in the New Normal," HigherEdJobs, August 11, 2010), academics are facing a situation where the supply of talent exceeds demand, and many well-credentialed candidates are finding themselves unable to find the types of positions they prepared for, or unable to compete with less-credentialed candidates for positions that, at least on paper, they are more highly qualified.

In the HigherEdJobs group on LinkedIn, there are several active discussions about landing a position in higher education, and about the stiff competition for both faculty and administrative positions. For a couple of months, one question has continually crept into them, in one form or another: How should one pitch qualifications when under-qualified or over-qualified for a job?

We'll leave the idea of under-qualification for another day. For now, let's take a look at the other end of the equation. How should you understate your credentials, if you are a highly qualified candidate that exceeds preferred qualifications?

Three possible strategies and their pros and cons:
  • Option 1: Point out your degrees and extensive experience, and make attempts to justify why you are applying for a job that might not require your particular mix of education and skills.
    • Pro: You may seem like a "bargain."
    • Con: You may be perceived as arrogant, or having unrealistic expectations. The reviewer may worry that you will expect a higher salary than budgeted, and that you probably won't stick around very long.
  • Option 2: Understate your qualifications, and prompt the hiring coordinator to ask some pointed questions about your experience, possible longevity in the position, and salary expectations.
    • Pro: You may get an interview for a position based on your ability to meet the minimum expectations, without allowing the reviewer the opportunity to factor in your possible fit -- in terms of salary, possible longevity, promotability, or ability to fit into a team with varied experiences and knowledge.
    • Con: You may get the job, when you really want more money, different expectations, and a collegial environment of like-minded and similarly-experienced professionals. These mismatches will lead to unhappiness, lack of motivation, and your early departure from the position.
  • Option 3: Leave out degrees, certificates, accreditations, honors, memberships, or even entire periods of your professional history.
    • Pro: You may be competitive for positions that require less education and experience.
    • Con: A background check or reference check will return extensive evidence of these gaps in your qualifications. Even if they are otherwise desirable qualities, you will be seen as hiding something, and may not get the job.
So what's the right way to tone it down, and when should you? Here's my take on it.

You shouldn't tone down your credentials, honors or qualifications. You should tone down your expectations, instead. And you should do this before you apply for any position.

It's simple enough: you must explore those things you expect from an employer, a position, your colleagues and yourself before you bother applying. If you apply for positions that aren't a good match for your expectations, you will be disappointed with the results.

Approach every argument made in your cover letter and every description on your resume with a critical eye. Step for a while into the shoes of your possible employer, and read your application materials thoroughly, asking all the while, "What's in it for me?" (And remember, in this scenario, you are the potential employer.) If your answers include "paying more than we had budgeted," "putting up with an enormous ego," or "doing this search again within the next year when this candidate leaves," then it's likely that the reviewer will move on to someone who seems to have expectations more in line with their own.

So you have a choice to make: "Right-size" your expectations, and write your resume and cover letter toward addressing these gaps, or skip applying for a particular type of position, until you can both understand the employer's point of view and appreciate what the position has to offer. When you can convey expectations that closely match those of your potential employer, there is a greater likelihood that your excellent qualifications will be seen as an asset, rather than a liability.

What are you doing to "right-size" your qualifications and your resume?

Join the discussions in the HigherEdJobs LinkedIn Group, where you can gain valuable perspectives from other higher ed job seekers, seek advice, and hone your job search strategy. Thanks for reading. See you in the forum!
Sean Cook is a Certified Career Coach from Athens, GA. Before earning his certification from the Life Purpose Institute, he earned his M.Ed. From Clemson University and spent 15 years working in higher education. He specializes in career coaching for higher ed professionals. You can read more from Sean at HigherEdCareerCoach.Com and listen to him on the Higher Ed Life and Careers Show on BlogTalkRadio.Com at 11 a.m. ET each Friday.

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