by Art Markman
Originally published on May 20, 2019, Harvard Business Review
One of your biggest concerns as a college graduate is landing your first job. But when you look at the qualifications in many role descriptions, you may worry that there’s no way you’ll get the job, never mind an interview. The reality is that you don’t need to have all of the qualifications listed to apply. Too many people, especially women, focus on jobs that they are overqualified for – and that’s a mistake and can lead to becoming stagnant in your career. An upward trajectory in the workplace requires consistent acquisition of the set of skills needed to take on the next position. Learning these skills when you’re in a position for which you are overqualified will require that you learn “off the clock” rather than incorporating learning into the daily performance of your job. So look for a position that will stretch you, not one where you can already tick all of the boxes.
If you are a recent college graduate, chances are you have taken several classes that you believe will help prepare you for your first job. Unfortunately, most of what you need to succeed in your work involves skills you never took a class to acquire. And that can complicate the application process.
When you look at the qualifications for entry-level jobs, many of the items on the list may be things you have not yet encountered. Even when your new job involves technical skills that were covered in your classes, your future employer will likely use tools you haven’t seen before and rely on processes that go beyond what you studied.
However, and this is important, just because you don’t have all of the qualifications doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply for that job.
One story I tell in my book, Bring Your Brain to Work, is that my oldest son, who was right out of college, was given an opportunity to apply for a position at a firm that normally was given to people with a few years of experience. He asked me what to do, and my response was that “If you’re completely qualified for the job you apply for, you aimed too low.” He ultimately got the role — and despite having a lot to learn, he has done well.
Organizations expect people who are new to a role (and particularly people who are new to a firm) to grow into the position. They want new hires to ask a lot of questions, to seek out mentoring, and to even make a few mistakes as they get acclimated to a role.
That means that you should look for positions that will stretch you, not ones where you can already tick all the boxes.
Unfortunately, many people (particularly women) focus on potential jobs for which they are already overly qualified. There are upsides to doing this: they will “hit the ground running,” which often makes an employer happy and can boost the person’s self-confidence. But it’s unlikely the job will lead to much growth and being stagnant in a role can make it hard to transition to the next position. In particular, an upward trajectory in the workplace requires consistent acquisition of the set of skills needed to take on the next position. Learning these skills when you’re in a position for which you are overqualified will require that you learn “off the clock” rather than incorporating learning into the daily performance of your job.
One factor that often holds people back from applying for jobs is imposter syndrome, which is the feeling that you’ve risen to a position you haven’t earned or deserve. People who experience this syndrome worry that if others knew how unqualified they were for their position that they would not be able to keep their job.
But imposter syndrome is typically a farce. You can’t see other people’s thoughts so you may assume that they have a higher degree of confidence in their abilities than they probably do. Because of that, you don’t recognize how many other people have also had to learn significant new skills on-the-job, and so you shy away from positions for which you feel unqualified.
Instead, it’s valuable to treat new positions as a challenge. Research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues develops the concept of a growth mindset, which argues that the best way to maintain an orientation to continue learning is to treat difficult tasks as a lack of skill (which can be acquired) rather than a lack of talent (which cannot). Organizational psychologists theorize that growth mindsets also lead to engagement with work.
Practically speaking, it’s useful for almost everyone to treat job ads as though they are a set of guidelines about what a position involves, not a strict list of requirements that any applicant must have. It is important, of course, to have at least some of the skills a job requires up front. But nobody should limit themselves only to positions for which they are already overqualified.