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:

The Broad Transferable Skillset of the Science PhD

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog


When I first started thinking about leaving the lab, I wondered what I was besides my knowledge of obscure signaling pathways and cell biology. I had been groomed to believe that my “good hands” and capacity for punishing hours were what made me competitive. In research, talking about technical skills becomes second nature – we constantly discuss our methods when conducting lab meetings or seminars and look for ways to improve upon techniques. However, I don’t recall a time as a grad student or a postdoc when anyone ever inquired about my ability to work with difficult personality types or how I figured out the best way to marry the experimental questions I had with those of my advisor. Behavior was only ever discussed in terms of mice! We have spent so many years fine-tuning our technical skills that changing our mindset to focus on the “other” transferable skills may seem difficult at first. I’ve used the term “transferable skills” a number of times on this blog, but in this post, I will broaden the scope of these proficiencies and discuss how you can market them.

What is the range of your “transferable skills”?

You possess skills you’ve been quietly evolving in the background of your life while focusing primarily on your science training while conducting your research – those abilities that have helped you to mentor others, resolve conflict in the lab, set realistic goals so you can graduate, write a paper, grant, and so on. These are the competencies you cultivated on the days when your hypothesis fell apart, when the experiments didn’t work and you needed to figure out a new tack, what enabled you to pick yourself back up and keep going even when you questioned your ability to do so. These are the aptitudes that allow you to be a jack of all trades without even realizing you are, and which will help you to adroitly exit academia and begin a new career.

These abilities are sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” but this is an unfortunate way of describing something so vital to success. In fact, emotional intelligence is so important to potential employers that an interviewing technique was built around assessing this aspect of the candidate. The behavioral interview technique is designed to determine patterns of predictive behaviors from one’s past to help determine if a candidate will fit in well with the culture of the company or when faced with the demands of particular tasks. The behavioral interview is a topic deserving of its own post, but briefly, this process is much more probing than that seen in traditional interviews. Questions, or really requests for stories, often begin with “Tell me about a time when …,” or “Describe a situation …” As you discuss how you reacted to facing a particular obstacle, you may be asked to lead the interviewer through your thought process at the time. For example, you may be asked to discuss a situation in which you were able to successfully persuade someone at work to see things your way (something many of us have experience with – consider your committee meetings or thesis defense). A comprehensive list of behavioral interview questions can be found here.

My description of this common type of interviewing tactic is not meant to instill more fear, but rather to underscore the importance of identifying and understanding what the range of your skill set may look like, how it developed over time, and what might make you unique compared to someone else in a similar position. You should also consider what examples best showcase this know-how.

There are a lot of PhDs out there who have the education, publications, and grants to rival your own. What will set you apart is how effectively you are able to demonstrate your emotional intelligence and “soft skills.” The recruitment company Futurestep performed a survey of 500 industry executives and asked them what they looked for in a candidate when trying to fill open roles in an organization. The most important factor was the candidate’s motivations, with problem-solving and interpersonal skills coming in right behind that.

STEM PhDs are critical thinkers and problem solvers; they are adept at data analysis and have acute powers of observation. However, it is those “soft skills” that scientists often find most elusive in assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

There are lists upon lists of these types of skills. In my view, the general areas that are the most useful, especially when transitioning, include communication and tenacity.


In many ways, this is considered one of the most important. Why? Think about all the ways we use this in our day-to-day, especially in the lab. It is at the core of resolving conflicts; it is how we teach and mentor others; it is central to discussing our findings and their relevance in lab meetings and seminars, with potential collaborators; it is how we propel our data into the scientific stratosphere in the form of manuscripts and grants. It is critical to being successful inside and outside of the laboratory and academia. Under this heading lies myriad other soft skills, including collaboration (teamwork) and presentational acumen.

Collaboration. When I was a graduate student, my advisor wanted me to develop a new model system for manipulating a particular phenotype of neurons that occurred during neurodevelopment for a genetic form of the disease, dystonia. I knew of another lab that differentiated mouse embryonic stem cells into neurons in vitro. Adapting this system to our lab would allow us to observe our phenotype of interest at all stages during neuronal differentiation and maturation. So I started a collaboration with them, working closely with others in that lab to learn the rationale and techniques. When I started doing this on my own in our lab, I visited the collaborating lab regularly to discuss troubleshooting. Eventually, the head of the other lab became a member of my thesis committee and I regularly discussed experiments with him, both formally and informally. The lab members became not only collaborators, but friends.

Collaboration comes in many shapes. From developing relationships with those outside the lab, to finding a way to align the objectives of your own project with those of the more expansive vision of the lab and field, you’ve figured out ways of finding common ground with others. You’ve teamed up with your advisor and other lab members (and possibly other labs) to publish papers and resolve issues that arise during the review process. There are many examples of the ways you’ve contributed to a team to help secure funding and publish data, ways you’ve helped to support and mentor others in their research, ways you’ve learned to cultivate and develop the most valuable currency of the job search – relationships.

Presenting your research. Every single time you prepare and give a talk, write a paper, abstract, or grant, you are tailoring your writing/presentation to a specific audience with a particular interest, knowledge-level, and objective of their own. Perhaps, without even being aware, you’ve figured out how to anticipate what will be expected of you and what language you should be using. Why is this important? Because there has never been more information available to us. As Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes, “more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.” This is particularly pertinent to science writing and presentation where information abounds, but is often enshrouded in the lingo of the field making it esoteric and impenetrable to most. Knowing how to effectively communicate information in both technical and layperson’s terms is invaluable.

When I received a grant from the American Cancer Society, I was invited to give several talks about our lab’s research on Inflammatory Breast Cancer to a non-scientific audience comprising staff, volunteers, survivors, and patients. These audiences were some of the most captivating and eager to learn. I spent far more time preparing for these talks because I needed to translate terms I often took for granted – “western blot,” “cell culture,” and so on –  when in front of academic audiences. But the effort paid off:  Often people would come up to me afterward, so grateful that the information was presented in a way that was accessible and left them wanting to know more and ready to go out into the world to tell others of what they have learned. This had become the most rewarding aspect of my work – inspiring others to also become storytellers of science, to remove the stigma that science is dry and only for a few select “scientific minds.”


There were days when all my cells died, when the mice did the exact opposite of what my hypothesis predicted, when my project seemed stalled, and when I was exhausted. This coupled with long, lonely hours spent in the lab on weekends and holidays, or endless days of dissertation writing where it seemed I only interacted with the barista at the local coffee shop made for some despairing times. But those were the days that helped me to hone some of the most highly sought traits in a job candidate:  tenacity.

You have likely had days like these, too, when your self-direction, self-discipline, self-motivation, and resilience took a beating but kept on persevering. On top of that, you know how to prioritize and multitask. You planned experiments within reasonable time constraints and to meet deadlines for grants and committee meetings. You delegated work. You ran experiments while simultaneously teaching others, writing papers, or working on talks. You clearly handle stress with aplomb which speaks volumes about your emotional intelligence, which is what job recruiters are quite interested in hearing about. Consider all of the specific times when these competencies helped you to accomplish particular tasks or override obstacles. What were the circumstances of the situation? What was your thought process at the time? Coming up with examples, in advance, will help you immensely during a behavioral interview.

You have a multitude of abilities that draw from your intelligence and perseverance, but sometimes, especially when you’re overwhelmed, you may not be able to clearly see what they are. If you need some help figuring out what strengths you have (and what may need some work), check out Science Career’s Individual Development Plan, myIDP, for taking inventory. This is a great place to start since upon completion you can compare your skill sets with those considered relevant to various scientific career paths.