LinkedIn: The Unavoidable and Invaluable Platform You Are Using Incorrectly

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog. An adapted form was published in the Atlanta BEST Magazine

Networking. Why is the word sufficient enough to induce such palpable dread?

As an undergraduate standing at the crossroads of graduate school and medical school, one of the factors I considered was that, in the course of a career at the bench, there would be considerably less interaction with people.  It would be just me and my plates of cells and circus of mice.  As a shy girl who deflected any attention that came her way, this sounded heavenly to me.

My hermit dreams were smashed, swiftly and jarringly, once I got to graduate school.  I was yanked into an unrelenting current of lab meetings, departmental seminars, and international conferences.  Every time I presented my data, I battled the nagging angst:  What if I sounded stupid?  What if I was asked something I didn’t know?  The “what ifs” plagued me for days before any presentation, no matter how small.  Often at these conferences there would be networking events at the end of an already long day.  I would think, “Really?! Haven’t we engaged enough?”  Regrettably, I dodged most of these sessions because I lacked the confidence to believe that anyone would want to connect with me.  When I did attend, I’d stand in the corner talking to maybe one or two people – not a great way to expand your network if that’s what you’re looking to do.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  You’ve been hearing this for years, and guess what?  It’s the absolute truth.  More than 70% of people land jobs through networking, according to studies in the Academy of Management Journal.  A recent CareerXroads survey showed that only 15% of positions were filled through job boards.  Maybe you’ll be one of the 15%, but I know I’m not willing to take those odds.

For the introverts among us, these numbers may seem daunting, yet relations with others are one of the most primal and natural ways humans survive and thrive.  It’s instinctive to reach out and forge symbiotic connections.  We network every day without a second thought.  Why, then, do networking sites such as LinkedIn seem foreign and impenetrable to some of us?  LinkedIn provides the perfect platform for those looking to reach out and learn from others without appearing too vulnerable.  But there’s a catch:  it must be used strategically and with finesse, especially when a 2013 report by Social Times shows that 94% of recruiters and hiring managers use LinkedIn to vet job candidates.  Only 65% use Facebook and 55% Twitter.

I’m no great expert on LinkedIn.  Years ago, I created a profile, connected with people I already knew, copied and pasted my resume into the appropriate sections, and even uploaded a photograph.  Then I sat back and waited for opportunity to magically appear and transform my life.

Well, I waited for years. And years. A good week consisted of one or two profile views, usually from people already in my network.  For a while, the number of views fell depressingly to zero.  So I added some publications, every single lab skill I possessed, and even started following groups that were relevant to my job search.

Still, opportunity remained stubbornly shy while I began to fear that I had been right all along – maybe there wasn’t anything I could offer to others.  Maybe, despite all those years of rigorous training at the best universities, I remained mediocre.  Suddenly, I felt I was standing in the corner of a virtual networking event, all by myself.

LinkedIn offers job seekers a double-edged sword.  Wield it wisely, and there is the potential to be seen as a PhD burgeoning with intelligence, wit, and creativity, and to make mutually beneficial relationships with both mentors and mentees, who one day may help you find a new career.  But wield it ignorantly, and there’s the risk of remaining hidden under an invisibility cloak or, perhaps even worse, gaining the wrong kind of visibility and alienating possibly  beneficial connections by coming on too strong and asking for too much too fast.

As a scientist, I could see that the empirical data and conclusions were clear:  minimal profile views meant that I needed to take a new approach to LinkedIn. Although it seemed simple enough to just fill out the different sections and import my contact list, I realized that I needed to regroup and do what I do best – conduct research.

So, I spent days reading every article I could find on LinkedIn.  I listened to podcasts.  I read examples of superior LinkedIn profiles. What follows is what I learned, distilled down to what I believe to be the most impactful changes you can make to strengthen your profile.

Your profile should reflect who you want to be

My profile has been staunchly that of an academic.  A few weeks ago, there was hardly anything on there that made me stand out from the sea of other postdocs.  Even though I am considering transitioning to a career in science writing and editing, one would have had to have been a mind-reader to gather that from looking at my profile.

People in careers outside of academia are probably not too concerned with every single technical skill you’ve acquired over the years in the lab (or every abstract and publication).  They already know you have a PhD, which means you likely have the requisite knowledge.  Instead, consider your transferable skills, the kinds of abilities you possess now that hiring managers in any field want:  communication, leadership, critical thinking, mentoring, collaboration, and so on.

Especially if you are transitioning to a new career, approach mentors and colleagues, former and current, for testimonials that speak to your specific attributes.  In some cases, you may end up composing these on your own and giving a list to your advisor(s) — the less work for them, the better.

You may not have that position in industry, government, or science communication (yet), but you are smart enough to identify the skills and characteristics that these sectors are looking for and the relevant buzzwords (see the section on “keywords” below) by which they’re known in that domain.  Make sure your profile uses these words.

Regarding the headline:  It should make people want to click on your profile.  By all means, include your current position, but also include what you are looking for.

For example, my previous headline read:  Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Wayne State University.  My current headline reads: Cancer Biologist Wayne State University | BEST Program Blog Coordinator | Seeking New Opportunities

Donna Serdula, author of LinkedIn Makeover and founder of Vision Boards Media, has an automatic headline generator you can use, often with quite interesting results.

Include a profile picture

If someone I don’t know reaches out to me over any social media platform and they don’t have a picture, I delete the request.  You can’t hide your face at a networking event and you shouldn’t hide your face on such platforms, either.  So take the time to take a flattering picture and add it to your profile.

Some experts suggest getting professional headshots, but few PhDs have the time or money for something so extravagant.  Just make sure the photograph is well lit, in focus, and that the border is tightly framed around your face.  Also, try to look friendly but serious, the kind of person someone would want to engage in conversation.

The summary section: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?

While the answers to these questions may evolve over some time, remember that LinkedIn is a snapshot of who you are at this moment.  Make it immediately clear in the summary what your goals are.  According to an interview in Business Insider with LinkedIn expert Nicole Williams, the summary should indicate why you are on LinkedIn — Are you looking for a job? Are you looking for a mentor?

Allow your personality to come through in this summary, without getting too personal. “This a great place to reflect your professional brand — explaining why you got into the industry, what you love about it, and what kind of professional you are,” explains Williams.

By the way, did you know that creating a summary of 40 words or more for your profile makes you more likely to show up in someone’s search?

Finally, Williams suggests writing the summary in the first person.  I’ve seen debates about first person versus third person when it comes to LinkedIn.  In my view, first person feels more personal and friendly, but go with the style with which you are most comfortable.  What matters most is that the summary is clear and written well.

Infuse your profile with keywords

In developing your LinkedIn profile, you must write strategically and employ specific buzzwords, AKA keywords.  What does this mean?  Donna Serdula recommends googling several job descriptions for positions of interest.  Then look for the keywords shared by these postings.  Or try copying and pasting the description into Wordcloud, which will give you a visual representation of the most frequently used words in the largest type size.   Then try to infuse these keywords into your profile.

For example, here is a Wordcloud for a job listing for an internship in science writing/editing:

Update your profile regularly

Those who update their profile regularly are more likely to show up at the top of a search for similar candidates. And as Cheeky Scientist recommends, post items often, or make comments.  This will also help promote your profile.

I put this strategy to the test myself.  Prior to revamping my LinkedIn profile, I posted articles relevant to cancer research or pieces I thought might be of interest to postdocs every few days.  And you know what?  People read them.  Or clicked on them, anyhow — 24 people viewed my first post.  My profile views went up almost 200%.  Now mind you, when your baseline is one or two views every few weeks, 200% loses a bit of its punch.  Nonetheless, my profile saw more activity in a few days than it had in the prior several months.

Post something of interest or use to others, and maybe they’ll start to wonder, “Who is this curator of relevant information?” Perhaps they’ll actually click on your profile.

Reach out to people outside of your network … tactfully

LinkedIn has a nice little feature that tells you who is a second- or third-degree connection of a person with whom you might be interested in connecting.  Imagine if it were this easy in real life.  Think about how invigorating it is when you meet someone new and realize you both know the same person. “Oh you know John, too?  How did you meet?”  You two share a connection and this will make you more memorable than those who don’t.

So why do we ignore these little helpful icons?  I admit it. I used to gloss over these, too. Now I take advantage of this networking feature.  Reach out to that mutual friend and ask for an introduction or ask if you can use her name as a reference when reaching out to the desired connection (and then use that person’s name in the subject line of your message).

And while we’re on the topic of sending messages over LinkedIn, make sure you tell this person why you are reaching out to her.  Don’t just use the standard, “I’d like to add you to my Linkedin network.”  The reason you are contacting them should be in the first sentence.

Another tip:  You know who your new connection likes to read about?  Herself.  Maybe show some admiration for what they’ve achieved or an article they’ve written.  But take the time to learn about the person before you contact him or her.

You might also consider making yourself an asset by identifying people in your network who would mutually benefit from being introduced to each other.  Then introduce them!  People will remember that you went out of your way to improve their lives and they will return the favor. Here’s an example of how to go about doing this.

Finish the message with a postscript.  According to Cheeky Scientist, the “P.S.” is read more than any other part of an email, except for the subject line.  See Cheeky Scientist for examples of this type of postscript.

Finally, LinkedIn is a great resource, but it’s not the only one

LinkedIn can be fantastically useful when used adeptly, but sometimes it can be a challenge to make yourself stand out.  You should build up a credible online presence on multiple venues.  Consider becoming active on Twitter, Facebook, and even creating a webpage of your own.

Looking for new connections? I’d be happy to connect with you on LinkedIn: