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The keys to a powerful LinkedIn profile

In last month’s Tooling Up column, I explained why your LinkedIn profile is so important. This month, I’m going to give you some ideas about how to actually create a powerful one. There’s no single recipe or “right” way to do it, and I wouldn’t want to give the kind of formulaic advice that churns out cookie-cutter profiles. But there are a few crucial sections and a few common mistakes that I’ll describe to help you get started. Then, it’s all about letting your own creative juices flow to craft a profile that is as unique as you are.

Promote yourself and the value you bring

One of the first things anyone will notice about your LinkedIn profile is your photo, so make your choice carefully. It should be professional; don’t use a selfie or something that shows you at some great distance waving from a boat or the top of a mountain. I use a plain vanilla headshot, which works for me because I’m a conservative older businessman. For you, an edgy, creative shot is fine if that’s what you prefer. Let it say something about you. Just make sure that what it ultimately says is that you are employable.

Then comes the writing. The term “self-promotion” has earned a bad reputation in the scientific world, but in the case of the LinkedIn profile, a bit of ethical self-promotion is important (as long as you don’t go over the top). Rather than writing in the reserved style of a scientific CV, your profile should highlight what you’re good at and what you can bring to a possible employer. Laying it out for them is encouraged; bragging is not.

Your first opportunity to do a bit of that self-promotion is in the professional headline, which falls right beneath your name. The headline offers you 120 characters to say whatever you want about yourself, and it is a great place to reinforce your value to an employer. This headline is also often the first thing that search engines find. So, the goal is to be precise and to include the most significant keywords that recruiters use in their searches. Are you a plant scientist with experience and interest in software development? That’s your headline right there: “Molecular Marker Corn Breeder known for Plant Sciences Software Development and Genomic Analysis.”

Don’t squander it, as so many people do, on nonwork hobbies or corny messages like, “Let’s Connect!” For example, “Dynamic Corn Breeder and Tuesday Night Bowler” sounds like a really dumb combination. Nonetheless, countless people have headlines just like this. But at this early stage, no hiring manager cares about your interests in bowling, skydiving, or choir, so why put it in the No. 1 most valuable space in your profile? You can talk about these interests in an interview.

Another place for some savvy self-promotion is in the summary section that falls just below the headline. Your summary is a potentially huge block of text—up to 2000 total characters—which is almost always read when people are skimming LinkedIn profiles. (That is, as long as it isn’t boring writing!) The first 200 characters will be immediately visible, along with a “View More” button to display the rest.

The best way to think about your summary is that it should be real-world “I do this” stuff, not blue-sky “wanna be” stuff. When employers are sourcing prospects, they don’t give a hoot about what you want to do. They care about what you are doing now or what you have done in the past. A bit of “wanna be” is good when you can draw a line between your experience and what you are capable of for an employer, but I recommend that you keep most of your summary to your history and major skills.

The 2000-character block offers room for three to five short paragraphs of text plus a few bullet points. To me, that suggests that you should write about several of your key strengths, with a short paragraph discussing each. Remember, don’t get caught up in the dry writing style of the CV. Write it in a style that is more promotional than you are probably comfortable with. But don’t push it too far—always be truthful. And, as any advice that deals with search engine optimization will tell you, spread some of the important keywords of your profession around so that you’ll catch as many recruiters as you possibly can.

If you’re not sure exactly what those keywords should be, try this tip: Play around with a word cloud website, such as Wordle. Paste in job ads for positions that interest you and watch as the site turns them into beautiful “clouds” of keywords that you can use in your own summary. You can also scan LinkedIn for people in jobs that you’re interested in or whose LinkedIn profiles you admire and do word clouds for their summaries. Try it singly, with one ad or profile at a time, or combine text from multiple sources and watch the cloud as it develops a great set of keywords.

My last comment about the summary section is a simple but important one. If you’re looking for a job, include your email address at the end. Otherwise, recruiters will be forced to contact you through LinkedIn’s InMail, which typically costs about $8 to $10. When there’s cost involved, people are a lot choosier about who they contact. So, including your email address is an easy way to increase your chances of being contacted about your dream job.

Building the body of a great profile

In your headline and summary, you offer the high-level view of your value and interests. Where do you really get into the nitty-gritty details? Enter the work experience section. Here, you highlight the specific skills you developed and employed and describe some of your accomplishments from each of the jobs you’ve held in up to 2000 characters. I would never recommend that you use that full length—that’s way too much for anyone to read—but take the time to write a solid one or two paragraphs for each entry.

One mistake that I frequently see scientific job seekers make in this section is not including their educational years. Yes, you are technically a student while you earn that advanced degree, but I recommend putting your grad school (and postdoc) years into your work history anyway. Many of the experiences during your training are relevant to employers, and including that time in your work history gives you the chance to highlight those. It was work, after all, to get that degree! (You’ll also put the actual degrees in the education section.)

The final profile element I’ll discuss this month is the skills section, which plays a role in the all-important search engine optimization. Each skill that you add will increase the chance that you’ll show up in relevant searches, so make sure you have a good number of them. But, as with self-promotion, don’t go overboard. Make sure that the skills you list are truly part of your expertise and that they can be endorsed by people who know you.

These tips will get you started as you establish your LinkedIn presence, but it’s also important to remember that LinkedIn is far more than an online resume. It’s a place to join groups of like-minded people, make connections, learn about new job prospects, and even publish articles. So, start with the profile, but don’t forget to explore everything else the platform has to offer. Because when it comes to job searching and career development, there’s always more you can do to improve your chances of success.

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