Exploring career paths sometimes feels like coming out of a cocoon – who knows what’s out there?
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Elisa Lazzari
A LinkedIn profile is a professional must-have: whether you are a professor, a postdoc or a grad student, it’s always helpful to expand and maintain your network. It becomes even more important when you start planning the next step in your career, especially if you’re thinking of transitioning outside of academia. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to feel your profile isn’t worth much, because you don’t know many people or you’re not actively doing much networking. Why go through the hassle of building and maintaining a LinkedIn profile?
“A PhD means you can come up with the perfect solution for a problem after three years, but a company needs something in three weeks,” says Dr. Andrew Green, associate director of UC Berkeley’s Career Center, California. “They take on the risk, so they hire people they know.” Sounds simple, but it’s almost the opposite of academia, where we’re used to believing a CV is enough to speak for us. So, how do you find out if you have what it takes, and if you’ll even enjoy a role at a specific company?
Having few professional contacts is normal, especially early in your career. But on LinkedIn most valuable connections aren’t just first-hand, they’re friend-hand. “Start with people that you know: your lab mates, former colleagues, friends from college,” suggests Green, “a practical and actionable network.” Then, browse through their connections. “If you were to ask me to introduce you to someone, I may come up with two or three names, but on my LinkedIn network you’ll see them all,” says Green. “You could ask me directly to provide you with an introduction for [all of] the profiles you’re more interested in.”
Join alumni groups from your undergrad or graduate programs. Once you (re)connect, you can explore the other groups your contacts belong to. Look for professional groups, societies and associations. Is there a local chapter or an annual meeting? Don’t miss opportunities to meet people in person. The most valuable and genuine information comes from people, and it’s not always available online or in print.
If you want to have a clear understanding of what a given job requires, there is no better way than having an informational interview. Even if it sounds formal, it’s just you asking for few minutes of someone’s time, over coffee or possibly a phone line. What should you expect? Think the opposite of a first date: you can comfortably ask the uncomfortable questions (How much is the salary? If I don’t like your company, who are your competitors? What is the ecosystem around this profession?), with no pending expectations on the other side (Thanks for the coffee, but I can’t offer you a job!). If you both realize you’re talking with the wrong person, it’s even likely they’ll refer you to someone more fitting.
Networking can be challenging or awkward, so even something small, like being part of the same group on LinkedIn, could make a difference. “The chances of getting a position just by sending your CV are in the low single digits – people are overwhelmed by applicants,” Green says. Do you feel you need some good luck to increase your chances? You could find it at bottom of your coffee cup, at the end of an informational interview.
Elisa Lazzari is a postdoctoral fellow at the Health Sciences Department of the University of California, San Diego, where she studies malignant reprogramming in blood cancers. Outside the lab she enjoys binge watching Netflix series and writing. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.