Better Work Through the Network

How Web-based professional networking can further your career.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant
May 31, 2007

In mid-2006, Joel Kreps, who studies gene expression at San Diego biotechnology company Diversa, was on the verge of throwing in the towel after three months of fruitless negotiations. He was trying to obtain the most up-to-date gene sequence for Pichia pastoris (a yeast species that is particularly adept at expressing genes for disulfide bonded and glycosylated proteins) from Integrated Genomics in Chicago. Getting the updated sequence into his lab represented a wealth of research opportunities for Kreps and commercial possibilities for Diversa. But now negotiations were stalemated, and the deal seemed doomed.

Through a stroke of unexpected luck, Kreps obtained the sequence in January and by March had codeveloped a Pichia DNA microarray that Diversa will use to optimize the production of Purifine, the company's custom Pichia-expressed enzyme. With Purifine's potential in edible vegetable oil refining...

Getting linked up

The foundation of the LinkedIn (and most other networking Web sites) experience is a personalized profile. Creating one is basically the same as making a MySpace or Facebook profile, minus the customizability and space for outside comment that can sometimes lead to less-than-professional content. Constructing a LinkedIn profile takes only about 10 minutes, and is time well spent. (For tips on constructing an effective profile, see "Building a Profile that Pops.") A well-built LinkedIn profile can function, in part, as a self-promotional tool or an electronic resume, highlighting previous work and educational experiences, specific skills, and links to personal or business-related Web sites. "You can market yourself through your profile," says Keren. "You're a free agent."

After creating a profile, LinkedIn users build their networks. This involves importing your electronic address-book and inviting colleagues who are LinkedIn users (and those who aren't) into your network. You can also search through lists of current LinkedIn users to identify people you may have lost touch with and invite them to join your network by sending them LinkedIn-mediated e-mails. After establishing their own network, users have access (and this is the real power of LinkedIn) to people in the networks of their own direct connections by asking their contact for an online introduction. LinkedIn refers to these as second-degree connections, and these people, along with third-degree connections, expand a user's list of potential contacts exponentially.

Daniel Levy, a biopharmaceutical consultant and vice president of research and development at Pharmadyne, is a scientist with a relatively large number of LinkedIn contacts (96 in his immediate network) and many more beyond. "I have about 1.7 million people at the third-degree connection level," says Levy. He adds that he actually obtained his current position through a LinkedIn connection. "[LinkedIn] has allowed the opening of doors that I wouldn't have found through my current activities," which Levy says include attending up to three traditional networking events per month.

To maximize your job searching potential, the site contains a search function that allows users to look for positions by keywords and location - an advanced people sesxarch where profiles internal and external to one's own network can be browsed by company name or job title. Users can make their profiles stand out by requesting recommendations from past colleagues or supervisors. Earlier this year, LinkedIn also added an "Answers" tab that gives users the ability to ask questions to specified contacts or to the entire LinkedIn network. "You can tap into a brain trust of over 10 million users," says Keren.

Paying the price

Maximum functionality at LinkedIn does, however, come with a price. The majority of users enjoy basic features, including the ability to send out five introduction requests at a time (users can send more as soon as the initial contacts have replied), and rudimentary network searching power is free to users. Upgrading to the business account for $19.95 per month opens up other possibilities: being able to send direct messages (without going through an introduction) to three other LinkedIn users per month, increasing the number of active introduction requests to 15 at a time, and enhanced search results when browsing the LinkedIn network. According to Keren, more than 350 corporate staffing departments and executive search firms subscribe as premium LinkedIn users (at still higher costs) to gain access to added functionality, such as deeper searches of the membership.

As powerful as it can be, LinkedIn does have its flaws. The search capability of the site, for example, seems to be sensitive to slight variations in the search terms entered. Romain Tanière, an aerosol scientist at Nektar Therapeutics, says he had difficulty in finding colleagues from a previous job depending on what he typed (Dey, Dey LP, or Dey Laboratories) into LinkedIn's search. Others complain that the LinkedIn e-mails, like the one sent to invite users into a network, look and feel too much like spam. "It doesn't look like something we do in the scientific community," says Andrews-Cramer.

For many like Joel Kreps, though, LinkedIn was just the tool he needed to quickly find a valuable contact. "It's kind of a trivial use of LinkedIn," says Kreps, "but without it, I might not have been able to triangulate as far as contacting her."

Even given their usefulness, sites such as LinkedIn are not in a position to supplant traditional face-to-face contact with potential colleagues and collaborators any time soon. "LinkedIn is an invaluable component of my networking," says Levy, "but it is only one piece of the puzzle."