Mention LinkedIn, and you generally get two types of responses. Either you will hear that LinkedIn is the most important invention in the search for jobs since the invention of the printed resume, or you will hear that LinkedIn is completely irrelevant and that you shouldn’t waste your time with it. In my mind, there is no doubt that LinkedIn plays an important role in connecting people with new employment opportunities in the business world. For example, I know some people here in Austin who run a successful recruiting company, and they operate almost entirely on LinkedIn. If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, you’re basically invisible to them. (Did I mention that they generally look for candidates with advanced knowledge in data analysis, visualization, and statistics, basically the exact kind of person my lab trains?) However, things are different in academia. I don’t know of a single faculty member who got her job through LinkedIn, and I doubt I’ll hear about such a case any time soon.
So should you, as a scientist, spend valuable time polishing your LinkedIn profile and connecting with people on the site? In my opinion, the answer is absolutely “yes”, and I’ll explain below why I think so. I will separately address two different groups of people, scientists in training (undergraduate, graduate student, postdoc) and faculty members.
Scientists in training
As a scientist in training, the most important thing you have to realize is that it is by no means certain that you will end up in academia. In fact, most graduate students and even many postdocs will never become faculty members. And that is not a problem, in and of itself. Not everybody needs to become a professor. As long as our graduates find appropriate, satisfying, and well compensated employment, the world is in order. But what this means to you, as scientist in training, is that until you sign that offer letter for a tenure track position, you need to be open to alternative options. Building a solid LinkedIn profile and network may just provide you with the ticket to alternative career options.
Also, do not underestimate the value of the connections you build early in your career. If you go to a top university and/or generally hang out with smart kids, I can guarantee you that the majority of your current friends, however inconspicuous they may appear, will go on and make something of themselves. Check back where they are ten to fifteen years from now, and you’ll be impressed. (If you don’t generally hang out with smart kids: what’s wrong with you?) The dude from across the hall that you always met in the gym may just have gotten tenure at Harvard. The girl who was two years ahead of you in graduate school may just have gone through the IPO of the company she founded after graduating. And the hottie you had a fleeting crush on when you attended your first conference as an undergraduate may now be on the committee that is considering hiring you for your next job. So take networking seriously, even as a lowly undergraduate. You never know who you will want to contact again ten years down the road, or who will become important to your career at some point in the future.
For faculty members, using LinkedIn is probably less about the next job opportunity. Notwithstanding people who don’t get tenure, and notwithstanding people who leave academia to work at Google or at D. E. Shaw, or to found their own company, the general rule is “once a faculty member, always a faculty member.” For faculty members, I believe the value of LinkedIn is in the network which they can provide their students access to. As a faculty member, if you have done your job right, you should have a solid network of influential and successful people, not all in academia. You should be connected to former students or colleagues who have left academia to work in industry. You should also be connected to people in industry you have met at social events. So when one of your students approaches you about alternative career paths, you should be able to put that student in contact with the right people.
As an example, I recently had a student in my lab who was interested in consulting. Through LinkedIn, I was able to connect that student to two people who have successful careers in consulting. One of the two was a graduate student at Caltech while I was a postdoc there. The other was the husband of a former coworker of my wife. Without LinkedIn, I would not have known how to get in touch with either of them. (An observation that may come as a bit of a surprise to academics: not everybody can be found through a simple Google search of their name. In fact, most people can not be found through a Google search.)
Is LinkedIn the be all of professional networking? Probably not. Do you absolutely need to have an active, up-to-date LinkedIn profile to be successful as a scientist? Almost certainly not. Nevertheless, there are tangible benefits to keeping your LinkedIn profile active, so I think it’s worth it. And let’s be real, updating your LinkedIn profile doesn’t take a lot of time. With the time it took me to write this blog post, I can keep my LinkedIn profile updated for the next several years.
Finally, because we academics need contacts outside academia, and because people move back and forth (maybe more forth than back) between academia and industry, I think that social networking sites geared specifically to scientists, such as ResearchGate, are not particularly attractive. These sites generate an artificial distinction between scientists and other people when reality is more fluid.
You can find my LinkedIn profile here: Claus Wilke on LinkedIn. Connect with me if we've ever had a meaningful professional (or social) interaction.