I hate the word "networking." It must be one of the most overused words in the English language. It gets thrown at you by every person you ask for advice during a job search. I'm as guilty as anyone of using it too much: It's one of the most frequently found words in a search of my previous Tooling Up columns.
But there is no getting around the fact that networking is the single most important activity for any job seeker. Done right, networking means the difference between a job search lasting 10 to15 months (or more) and one that produces job offers in half that time.
For years, I've been a proponent of the hands-on job search instead of an Internet job search. Rather than hiding behind a computer screen, I advocate getting out there, talking to other people about their transition to industry, and learning from their experiences.
In the last year, however, I've seen one Internet networking site, LinkedIn, begin to show some lasting value, and I've used it myself to develop contacts for client-company assignments. Things change quickly in the Internet world, but for now, this site appears to have the professional market sewn up. I still believe there's nothing more valuable than developing quality in-person relationships, but I think that a strong LinkedIn presence can and should be a part of your overall job-seeking plan.
This month, I'll delve further into how you can use LinkedIn in your job search, how recruiters use LinkedIn to advance client-company searches, and how you can optimize your chances of being "found."
A few degrees of separation
As you probably know, the philosophy at work behind LinkedIn is that everyone is connected via just a few degrees of separation. You "connect" to co-workers and colleagues on LinkedIn, and each of them has their own contacts that you can tap into, allowing you to advance your career by transforming those online leads into assets. That's the key thing to remember about success on LinkedIn: What begins as an Internet connection should end up benefiting you in the real world.
Very likely, someone you'd love to meet--who could prove very important to your job hunt--could be one or two degrees away from you, connected to people you already know. The first step to getting the most out of other people's connections is to ensure that your connections are meaningful.
The best connections are with people you know well in the real world--people who can provide a positive reference about you when they receive a connection request. It isn't the total number of connections you show on your LinkedIn profile that advances your job search; it's the quality of those connections. Once you are connected to labmates and close friends, branch out from there--but do it methodically.
The overriding rule of the LinkedIn world is that both parties must sense some kind of real connection. If you've met someone, even briefly, or share a common interest with them that you can call upon in a well-written introductory e-mail, I think it's okay to approach that person for a connection on LinkedIn. When you approach your new colleague, don't use the site's boilerplate: "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn," because many people consider that spam. Instead, send a personal note explaining your connection or common interest.
Use LinkedIn the same way industry people do
You may have just 30 people on your list, but that gives you access to many more who are one, two, or three degrees of separation away from you. I'm a relatively cautious LinkedIn user and still have fewer than 200 contacts. But those contacts yield more than 300,000 connections.
For a recruiter like me, it's a great resource, but an employer would be crazy to pay me a recruiter's fee if all I did was search an Internet site. I like LinkedIn because it allows me to ask those "Who do you know?" questions that headhunters are known for. You--the job seeker--can use the site in the exact same way by seeking information on the type of job you are interested in or by seeking people who can share their experience transitioning to industry.
Just as in real-world networking, the focus of a contact at LinkedIn is to find mutual areas of interest, not to overtly seek job leads. Those leads will come once you start growing your field of contacts. Rule #1 for in-person networking and for Internet networking: You are on a search for information and the experiences of others, not to ask point-blank if people have open positions on their teams.
Here are some ways I sort through the data that is available to me through my LinkedIn connections. You can sort the same way once you've got a small network going:
1) Keyword Search: Search by keyword (using "advanced search" parameters) to find those in your network with whom you have something in common. Use technical skills, scientific areas of interest, or business terms as keywords.
2) Company Search: Search by company to identify employees of a particular company. You may only know one person at Merck, but when you look at the network available to you through three levels of separation, you may find dozens of people to connect with there.
3) Combination: Looking for contacts in protein chemistry at Genentech? Start with a keyword search and then refine the results to show only employees of the company you are interested in.
Help the search engines find you
When you set up your LinkedIn profile, do so in a way that increases your likelihood of being found online. Set up your public profile so that it is available to anyone who comes across it via a search engine, and use your real name for the public-profile URL.
Avoid any "chat room" style abbreviations as you write up your LinkedIn profile, and write in your best "business English" style. As Eric Butow and Kathleen Taylor advise in their excellent book How to Succeed In Business Using LinkedIn (AMACOM, 2008), use as much detail as possible in the profile. Although most profiles list only the current affiliation, it is far better for you to show all your relevant prior work experiences (but you can leave out that McDonald's stint during high school). A wider world of networking opportunities will arise when you list each of the locations at which you've worked or trained professionally.
Finally, remember how important the LinkedIn "Recommendations" feature is. When someone writes you a recommendation, it shows up on your profile and very visibly tells the world that you are targeting industry or that you have something special to offer to an employer.
When recruiters or hiring managers with open positions start sorting through their LinkedIn contacts, they generally look for industry people, which is a big problem if you are a postdoc in an academic lab. But these same managers will move forward to talk with postdocs who have LinkedIn recommendations from contacts in industry. Have a friend who went to work for a local company? Have that person write you a brief recommendation.
An environment well-suited to job seekers
LinkedIn differs from social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, through which considerable damage can be done to one's career if you aren't careful. Just like the job applicant with an X-rated Snoop Dogg track on a home answering machine, social networking sites with photos of beer bongs and bachelorette parties actually turn off hiring managers.
But will LinkedIn or any other Internet networking land you a job? I can't promise you that, but I can tell you without a doubt that it will introduce you to more hiring managers and recruiters. I wouldn't have said this a year ago, but there's fertile job-seeking turf on the Internet after all. Just don't let your online efforts get out of balance with real, live networking!