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Career Advice:

No cats allowed: How to use social media to advance your career

By: Alaina G. Levine

Every week through Facebook, I receive at least 10 pictures of cats wearing glasses and holding test tubes. Cats are cute, and cats wearing spectacles are even more wonderful. But we should all know better: When it comes to using social media platforms for networking and career advancement, cats are just not welcome.

We know networking is a necessity for career advancement in science. And social media networking is no different. Your online presence—via websites, your blog, and personal profiles on channels such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—serves as a way for interested parties to get to know you and your brand, or promise of value. And it is becoming more and more critical for you to maintain a presence on social media in order to amplify your reputation and reach decision makers in your field.

When you apply for a job or fellowship, or send a cold email to someone, one of the first actions that the other party takes is to google you. And the second action they take is increasingly becoming the norm—they will check your LinkedIn profile. If you don’t have one, the perception might be that you are not a contributing member of your community. In fact, some recruiters have told me that they envision that the LinkedIn profile will soon supplant the resumé as the standard for identifying qualified applicants for job openings.

Developing a social media networking strategy involves planning and preparation, execution, and monitoring and maintenance. You can’t simply send one tweet and expect to reap the rewards. You have to consistently engage and interact with others, and you have to develop a plan that optimizes your time while you seek to achieve your career goals.

You also have to understand which social media channels are the right ones to utilize in the professional ecosystems in which you dwell. Facebook can be used for both fun (see “The Jean Luc Picard Facepalm” page) and professional activities. (Many companies including my own have a Facebook page to communicate with fans.) LinkedIn, on the other hand, is meant to be a purely professional communication channel. On Facebook with your friends, you may share pictures of felines in compromising poses, but on LinkedIn you should share only information, ideas, and connections that are related to your industry and that demonstrate your professionalism or seriousness about your craft. Think of LinkedIn as a professional marketplace for exchanging information of value. And again, although cats are adorable, there is no professional value in sharing their picture with a scientist.

Ahead, warp factor one!

To launch your social media networking plan, begin by creating a LinkedIn profile. It's free and easy to do. The website will prompt you to fill out the various fields. And be sure to upload a photograph of yourself—not so much to show people what you look like, but to demonstrate that you take LinkedIn seriously. The profile serves as a “living resumé” that describes your current goals and professional interests, current and previous jobs, skills, education, projects, publications, and other relevant information.

Once you establish a profile on LinkedIn, consider these two important components: connections and groups. “Connections” on LinkedIn are similar to “Friends” on Facebook—they serve as a list of your contacts, and you can use those LinkedIn connections as a kind of Rolodex to keep track of your professional acquaintances. LinkedIn is based on the concept of six degrees of separation, whereby you are connected to every other person on the planet through no more than six other people. So you can leverage that connectivity to reach even more people and organizations in which you are interested.

There is an art to inviting people to “connect” on LinkedIn, however: Don’t invite strangers or people with whom you have never interacted. Part of the reason is because then they are connected to all of your connections too. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you are vouching for someone you don’t know. You wouldn’t want to give a stranger access to all of your colleagues’ information. So be careful with accepting invitations to connect. I tend to invite, or accept invitations from, only people with whom I have had a “meaningful engagement”—at the very least a conversation or an email exchange.

It is also important to join groups on LinkedIn that relate to your interests and career goals and that can provide you access to new spheres of influence. At the very least join the American Association of Physicists in Medicine group. There are other groups as well: Almost every science and engineering society, alumni association, and institution has its own group. And there are groups that relate to subfields, regions, and even particular segments of society, such as the National Postdoctoral Association. You can join up to 50 such groups. Your activity in LinkedIn groups will serve as a cornerstone of your public profile.

But before you post anything, consider these five principal pillars of social media networking:

  1. Be professional: Social networking has a specific purpose and part of that is to increase your connectedness to other professionals. It is critical that you are perceived as a professional, so make sure all of your activities—your postings, comments, pictures, and videos—reflect your professionalism and dedication to science. That means using appropriate language and not posting things that reflect poorly on your reputation and brand such as offensive or divisive comments, or inappropriate or silly pictures of you and cats. On your personal Facebook page, you may choose to post items unrelated to your profession, but beware: There really is no such thing as “privacy” on any social media platform.
  2. Be dynamic: While seeking to engage the members of your community with content that is relevant to them, be both proactive and reactive. Be proactive by posting new content to your social media groups, starting new discussions, and contacting community members whom you find interesting. Be reactive by commenting on what others post or by contacting people who post things of interest to you to continue the conversation via an informational interview.
  3. Be valuable: Everything you post, whether it is reactive or proactive, should be construed as a value-addition to the community. By adding value and not wasting people’s time with information you accomplish two tasks: You elevate your brand and reputation in the minds of those around you, and you are perceived as a credible leader and expert. And therefore, more people will be interested to hear what you have to say. Furthermore, once you are established as a thought leader, others will seek you out to establish potential partnerships. It is all about delivering a return on investment for those who take the time to read your contributions: Make sure that every time someone sees that you have posted something, they know it will be incredibly worth their while to read it.
  4. Be seen: The more you engage others with professional, dynamic, and valuable content, the more you will be seen as being professional, dynamic and valuable. Every action on social media contributes to the public’s perception of your brand, attitude, and reputation, so post often. Build a buzz around your reputation so much so that those around you can’t help but think of you for that next great (often hidden) career opportunity.
  5. Be consistent: Your brand is your promise of value, and more specifically, your promise to deliver excellence, dependability, and expertise in whatever you do. Make sure that your interactions in social media are as consistent as your brand.

Remember that everything you post online will be there forever, and there is always a chance that your current boss or PI, future managers, and colleagues will view it. So think strategically, and for every comment you make, ask yourself, “How will this post contribute to my community and to my advancement?” And above all, refrain from posting those feline photos.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers will be published by Wiley in 2014. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.