Monday, February 18, 2013


"Wait, you've got a doctorate?  I didn't see that on your resume."

I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately from law school graduates who are wondering whether to disclose their JD’s on resumes when looking for non-legal work.  There are many opinions out there on whether the practice of omitting advanced degrees on a resume is ethical.  A lot of people who rode out the worst part of the Great Recession in grad school are now struggling to get past HR screeners, who likely believe that those with advanced degrees will demand higher salaries.  Here are the main arguments I’ve found against omitting advanced degrees, along with my thoughts. 

1.  Failing to disclose an advanced degree is akin to lying if the candidate knows that disclosure would affect the employer’s hiring decision.  For example, if an employer is looking for someone with a bachelor’s degree for an entry-level position and the candidate knows she’s not going to get hired with a Ph.D. on her resume, she shouldn’t remove the Ph.D. because this might deceive the employer into thinking she’s less qualified for the job than she is. 

My two cents:  An advanced degree does not automatically render a person overqualified for any position that requires a lesser degree.  For instance, I have a lawyer friend who practiced at a firm for two years and in-house for one year.  He now works at a software company, teaching clients how to use various applications.  The fact that he has a JD is no indication of how talented he is when it comes to software training and support.  I currently work at a biotech company. If I happen to know all of the state capitals and the CEO couldn’t find Augusta on a map to save his life, does that mean I’m more qualified for his job?  No, because whether or not he knows the state capitals has very little to do with running a successful business.  My point is that qualifications have more to do with what one can do than what one knows.  Unless, of course, a position requires a certain degree.  I would discourage anyone from applying for a lawyer position without a JD or a license to practice law on her resume. 

2.  Failing to disclose an advanced degree puts the employer at risk of hiring a candidate who is just waiting for the chance to move on to bigger and better things.  Sure, you say you really want to be a project manager, Mr. Masters-Degree-in-Political-Science, but we all know it’s only a matter of time before you’re hired as a tenured professor. 

My two cents:  Um, that is never going to happen.  ‘Nuff said.  But let’s say there really is a risk that in this job market, someone with a master’s degree is in high demand and can get almost any job he wants.  I would encourage the candidate to give serious thought to why he's applying for a position that doesn’t require an advanced degree.  Is it because the potential job is in a field he really wants to work in, and he’s trying to get his foot in the door?  In that case, the candidate isn’t a flight risk because he’s not biding his time until something better comes along; he’s just starting from the ground up, which is what most people have to do after graduation.  But if the candidate is just waiting for something better to come along, then it is unethical to lead the employer into believing that he’s looking to grow his career at that company.   

3.  Why would someone try to hide accomplishments that he should be proud of?  Dumbing one’s self down makes him appear less motivated than he might be. 

My two cents:  I think Tom H. from the LinkedIn discussion says it best:

“And then you have employers who won't hire people with more experience or higher levels of educational credentials than required in the role because they either (a) think those people will want too much money (and they can get a lower priced employee with less experience or education) or (b) because they think that the over-qualified people will leave within a few months or a year when something at a higher level comes along.

They are concerned about situation (b) because that's exactly what does happen in many cases. If an employer has experienced (b) they won't make the same mistake again and will reject people with qualifications or experience too far beyond the requirements of the position.

That's why candidates don't disclose higher level credentials or experience in labor markets where higher level jobs matching their higher level credentials or experience are too tough to get right now. Particularly if they have applied for several months for the few available jobs at the 'right' level and have been outgunned and they are running out of money and have to get a job, any job. It's called reality.

Being proud of achievements and so forth doesn't put food on the table or pay the mortgage. They might be highly motivated and achievement oriented, but, going back to Maslow, if they are being faced with eviction or the bank selling their house or their kids' school fees being due for payment, their immediate need is to make a buck.
”  [Emphasis added]

In this job market, I think many people with advanced degrees are trying, like everyone else, to just get by.  In an ideal job market, everyone would have the exact position for which he or she is qualified, but that’s just not the reality.  Are you really willing to live in your car just so you can brag about your MBA from Phoenix Online? 

4.  Failing to disclose one’s entire background can ruin the chemistry between the employer and the employee. 

My two cents:  This is the one argument I think I agree with. It’s easy enough to get through the interview process without highlighting one’s impressive education credentials.  But what happens once the employee starts becoming friendly with people at work and the inevitable chit chat about life experiences and such begins to occur?  It might not be so easy to pretend one didn’t go to law school or earn a Ph.D. when one is forming friendships with co-workers.  You might start telling a funny story about that “one time during a crim pro lecture…” and then realize you’ve let the proverbial cat out of the bag. Then there’s a lot of awkward explaining to do, which could lead to weird tension at the office. 

In my opinion, it’s ideal if a candidate can skip putting the JD on her resume, but disclose it during the interview process.  That way, there’s a better chance of getting past HR screeners (who may be biased against those with advanced degrees), and said candidate can win over the potential employer at the interview, at which time more of an explanation can be offered as to why she is seeking a lower paying or entry-level position. 

Do you think it’s ethical to not disclose an advanced degree on a resume?  Have you had trouble obtaining gainful employment since earning a master’s/doctorate/Ph.D.?


  1. As a recent law graduate who successfully found a non-law job, I used an objective statement on my resume to explain myself so recruiters would not automatically chunk my resume into the no pile, i.e. recent law graduate pursuing a position outside the traditional practice of law, and particularly as a "fill in position/field." It may not always work but at least it gives some people insight into why you are applying for an entry level or non-law job. If you submit a cover letter, also explain yourself there. Applicants should not expect to get a call back if they do not provide some initial insight on their resume/cover letter re: why they're pursuing a non-legal job. I got multiple interviews in a variety of fields using the above technique. Recruiters can be impressed by your J.D. but need to feel comfortable with your reasoning as to why you don't want to be a lawyer.

  2. As a career counselor, I tell people ALL the time that a resume is a "brief summary of your RELEVANT skills, education and experiences."

    You're not obligated to put every job you ever had on a resume, especially if it doesn't have anything to do with the job you're going for (so, delivering papers when you were 13 is right out). Now, the obvious challenges here are that law school or work as an attorney is going is going to leave a huge gap on your resume (HR screener: "six years missing from the resume--was this person at home with the kids or in jail?"). If you have other work experience, lead with that. If you don't, it's obviously harder to do.

    I definitely agree with the above commenter about explaining why you do not want to work in law. You have to be sincere, compelling and NON-DEFENSIVE. You can't look like you're fleeing (even if you are) because no one wants to hire someone who looks like they're leaving because they hate what they're doing. Rather, they want to hire someone who is actively seeking their firm/industry. Tell that story, supported by the transferrable skills/qualities from your legal background (exposure to certain clients/industries, demonstrated good work ethic, ability to learn quickly, good persuasion/communication skills, etc.) as well as you can.

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