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A few years ago, I suggested to an editor that it would be useful for me to write about the effect that LinkedIn has had on the job market. “If you’re going to write about online websites and networking, spread it around and don’t focus all your efforts on one commercial entity,” the editor responded. “We’ll look like we’re in business with them.”

That piece never got written. That’s because, as it turns out, there was no other website to compare it with. LinkedIn was unique then, and it still is today. So, despite the fact that some criticize the LinkedIn monopoly, a strong presence on LinkedIn is a career must-have. To put it simply, if you don’t have a fully fleshed-out LinkedIn profile, you’re behind your job market competition.

But before I delve into the details of how to create a strong profile that will help you stand out to recruiters and potential employers, which I’ll do in a future column, this month I’ll go through some LinkedIn basics to help you get started. The key is to harness the power of this tool as a springboard to make new contacts and expand your career universe.

More than a Rolodex

LinkedIn began by describing itself as a place for “online networking,” where people could post professional profiles and connect with co-workers, collaborators, and prospective employers. It was almost as if the site started as a replacement for that old-fashioned Rolodex that you might still see on your parent’s desk—with a great deal more detail than a business card could hold.

That Rolodex is a good analogy for the way that some people use LinkedIn. A Rolodex contains cards of people you know fairly well and whom you do business with and contact regularly. There isn’t room for casual contacts, or those with whom you share interests but otherwise have no direct connection. If you add all these people, your Rolodex wouldn’t even fit on your desk!

Some people carry this perspective over to their LinkedIn profiles, despite the fact that the effectively unlimited capacity of the internet means that you don’t have to worry about the physical size of your LinkedIn network. I was reminded of this recently when I came across a profile of a woman who runs a career development center at a major university. I saw some interesting comments she had posted and sent her an invitation. I always put a customized note in my invites—as you should as well—because it is more personal and makes the invitation stand out. I told her that I enjoyed reading her profile and suggested that we should connect because we share a common interest in career choices for graduate students. I was very disappointed when, a few days later, I got a note back from her saying that she doesn’t link with people she hasn’t personally worked with.

But you should. I think it’s a really big mistake to limit invitations to people you know. My policy is to link with anyone who has a shared interest, as long as they look legitimate and aren’t trying to sell me something.

Here’s why. LinkedIn isn’t just another Facebook, with a focus on your professional life. The real value of the website is as a tool, not only for job seekers, but for the tens of thousands of hiring managers and human resources professionals around the globe who are using it right now to fill an open position. And if you act like that woman I approached recently, keeping your database only to friends and in-person acquaintances, you’re limiting the number of people who can find you, sapping the strength of this potentially very powerful tool.

That’s because, by linking with Joe, you not only add him to your “first tier” connections, but you can now see all the people in Joe’s network—and they’ll be able to find you as well. That’s your “second tier,” and it’s this second level that you’ll want to pay attention to. Those are usually people you’d like to be linked with as well, and the website makes it easy for you to invite them to connect with you.

Most importantly, building that LinkedIn universe means that you’ve entered a fast-moving stream of two-way communication about employment. As your network grows and you have more and more ties to your areas of interest, recruiters prowling LinkedIn to fill a job for a cell biologist with CHO cell media formulation experience are going to identify you at the same time as the world-expert professor. How cool is that?

That’s the beauty of LinkedIn. The algorithms at work behind the scenes are your friends. As you grow your universe of connections, you’ll get access to an exponentially expanding number of people who share your interests—and they’ll get access to you. If you work on building a broad network on LinkedIn, it will become one of the major tools in your job-seeking arsenal.

A peek behind the career curtain

Just a few years ago, it was quite difficult for a newly graduated Ph.D. scientist or a postdoc to identify people to talk with and see how others developed their careers. How did that R&D group leader get to that job, as she finished her Ph.D. just 3 years before you did? Look at that director of business development for XYZ Pharma. Heck, he was a postdoc just 5 years ago. How’d he pull that off?

Now, LinkedIn allows you to page through the career profiles of hundreds of people in your fields of interest, note their job titles, see how their histories have developed, and establish a sense of how others have done it ahead of you. Never before have job seekers been able to get access to this kind of detailed career information on successful people.

LinkedIn is not a substitute for networking, which takes place in the trenches, in-person at scientific conferences and through phone and email conversations. But in order to advance your real networking opportunities, you need to know where these possible connections reside. That’s what LinkedIn can help you with.

In next month’s column, I’ll show you how LinkedIn pros optimize each section of their profile. I’ll also describe the website’s rich features that allow you to publish articles, join and participate in groups of like-minded professionals, and help you to build your brand. The business of growing your career begins with developing a plan, and there’s no better way to implement that plan than to integrate LinkedIn right at the beginning.

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