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Rise up and you can land a job that's beneath you

(ran SP NP TP PT editions)

Career counselors say job applicants should broach the overqualification issue with potential employers and defuse any objections with a carefully crafted pitch. And it is particularly important to get a crystal-clear understanding of a new job's demands.

Is there anything more frustrating than losing a job opportunity you really want because you are "overqualified"? After all, is there really any such thing?

Hiring managers often prefer people whose pay and experience levels match openings. They fear new employees who might quickly get bored with their jobs.

But being told you are overqualified doesn't always mean you are over and out, even in today's tougher job market.

It depends on how well you sell your strengths and your rationale for taking a post that may not seem challenging or well-paying enough. First, career counselors say, make sure you're the one who broaches the overqualification issue with potential employers. Then, defuse their objections with a carefully crafted pitch.

"You have to make the case that you're bringing something that's hand in glove for what they seek," such as an eagerness to share your know-how with colleagues, says Dory Hollander, a partner at WiseWorkplaces, an Arlington, Va., executive-coaching company.

Betsy Walker is following her advice. During 20 years with American Management Systems, an information-technology consulting company, she advanced to become vice president and co-manager of a $120-million unit. She left her job in 1999 to become an independent consultant. Now, the forty-something Atlanta resident wants a full-time role with a different consultancy or a software company.

Walker, the mother of two preschool-age sons, wants greater work-life balance. She prefers to be, say, a regional manager than a senior executive who travels constantly. "I'm overqualified. I'm not trying to run a major business anymore," she says. She urges would-be employers to scrutinize her sheet of "career objectives" before they read her resume.

Still, hiring managers sometimes ask whether she will be bored dealing with clients again instead of overseeing numerous consultants. "Nothing is more challenging than making a client happy," Walker replies. "I will be getting back to the real fun of consulting."

Also, she researched prevailing pay rates for the jobs she seeks. "I am not expecting people to pay me what I earned in the best year of my life," she says.

Walker's calculated approach is paying off. She says her job search of nearly three months has produced one firm offer and several strong prospects that would help her achieve her professional and compensation objectives.

Overqualified job seekers can ease any awkwardness over talking about a position's modest pay by deflecting compensation negotiations until after they receive a job offer.

What if a hiring manager demands to know your latest pay during the initial interview? "You should say, "A lot. Probably more than you could pay me in this position. But money is not my top priority,' " recommends Jack Chapman, a Wilmette, Ill., career coach.

Many overqualified applicants are pushed into settling for less money or status simply because they haven't found anything better. So they are not always ready to make the sacrifices that come with a lesser post. Some start reinventing the job before they get it.

Last fall, a recent law school graduate applied for a paralegal's post at Surgency, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting company specializing in e-business strategies. The job paid about $45,000, $20,000 less than junior attorneys for similar small companies in the Boston area could command.

"I'd be thrilled to get somebody who was overqualified if I was comfortable that they were willing to stay," says Susan Portin, Surgency's vice president for business and legal affairs. But the law school grad gave the opposite impression.

The young man spoke more about how the stint might help his career than vice versa and tried to inflate the paralegal title to "assistant counsel."

"I got the sense that if he didn't feel he was moving in a direction he wanted _ that in six months he would leave," Portin says. The wary executive picked someone else for the job.

For overqualified applicants, it is particularly important to get a crystal-clear understanding of a new job's demands. "You better know exactly what you're stepping into and you better get it in writing," says Mike Genebach, the 47-year-old former chief executive of Apptus, an application-service provider in Reston, Va.

He did neither during a job search last year. In January, he joined a Washington software consulting company as a managing partner at slightly less pay than he had been making.

The company president later asked, "How do you go from being CEO to something less?"

Genebach recalls replying that he expected the work to be challenging and fulfilling.

When he got to the company, however, he found himself assigned tasks he hadn't expected.

He soon quit. This month, he plans to start a new job as senior vice president of PlanetGov, a Chantilly, Va., provider of information-technology products and services. This time, he got a written agreement. It states he will run PlanetGov's service business and the company must negotiate before altering his role.