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Using LinkedIN to transition from academia to industry

February 27, 2011

So, you’ve graduated, or quit, and have decided that a postdoc isn’t right for you, or that you really don’t want to teach – you’re ready to move into industry….  but how?

One of the grim realities of academia is that it mostly trains you for academia.  In one sense, that’s a great thing – the publication process requires careful attention to detail, being rigorous and meticulous.  You build skills for working with others, presenting your work clearly, and convincing people to give you money.  You also learn to teach and collaborate – all of these being valuable skills regardless of your workplace.

However, you don’t learn how to actually find a job.  Things like postdocs are found far more often through networking and who you know, and if you’re in academia, most of who you know will be other academics.  If you want to move beyond that world, sure you can apply to jobs on careerbuilder and monster, but you have no idea whether the Human Resources people filtering your resume will appreciate or understand the skills you learned as a science student (protip:  They probably won’t).

The better bet is to build your network beyond academia, and to do it soon! Whether you’re a first-year grad student, or a junior-level undergrad, if you want to leave academia, you need to get to know people from outside academia.  When I quit my postdoc in frustration, it took me five months to find work, spending 6-8 hours a day job searching, writing cover letters, and otherwise trying to find my road out of academia.  Don’t make the same mistake – start your search now and get your network established well before you need it.

That’s where LinkedIN comes in.  If you’re not familiar with the site, it’s social networking for professionals.  Think of it as Facebook with fewer vacation photos and more job listings.  I’m guessing that you probably are familiar with it, but aren’t using it particularly well.  The first thing people do when they get a LinkedIN account is proceed to add everyone they can think of to their network, possibly even update their profile to show some experience and education, and then….

Nothing.

If you stop there, you’re missing the true potential of social networking for job searching.  It’s not enough to just put your name out there, connect to that one guy you had lunch with when you were an intern six years ago – you need to work at it.  You need to be active and engaged, and connect not only with people you know already, but people you need to know.

And you can’t be afraid to be a little sneaky about it.

LinkedIN’s entire system is based around knowing people – when you want to message someone, you either have to have a paid account to let you cold email them (a generally pretty useless endeavor), or you have to demonstrate some connection to that person.  There are the standard ones – “we went to school together”, “we worked together”, etc.  Those are are the easy ones.  You need to get more creative than that.

You want to use the “we’re in a group together” option.  This can work for both adding contacts (probably not a good idea right away) and for sending messages to people working in fields that interest you.

The trick is – find places of business that interest you.  If you love programming, find software firms that are doing interesting work.  If you love applications of science to medicine, find the great startups that are building better ultrasound machines.  The point is to first locate the companies, and then find their employees.

And here’s where you go back to groups.  Look through the employee lists and find people whose job descriptions sound interesting to you – find the ones who are doing cool work.  Then see what linkedIN groups they are members of, and join those groups.  Now that you share a group in common, you can contact these potential new network members, and you even have a starting point for the conversation.  Especially if you first become moderately active in that group – posting questions or replying to discussions – you have a shared point of interest.  Introduce yourself and mention that you share a group in common, and you are very interested in the type of work that person does.  Ask about the work, the environment, how that person broke into the field, etc.  Be engaged and interested not only in finding a job, but the field in general.  These are the contacts who will get to know you better, and pass along opportunities when they come up.

This little trick lead to more potential job opportunities than just about any other avenue I took.  I sent  hundreds of job applications and emails, and probably less than ten percent of them even bothered to let me know they received my message, let alone give me any sort of a meaningful response.  By comparison, I’d say I probably had a 40-50% answer rate on LinkedIN.  Not all of those lead to any sort of job opportunity, but they at least took the time to acknowledge my existence, which was both refreshing and a big boost to morale.

Build your contacts and learn to network effectively, and the world of industry will open up wide to you.  You’ve got the skills, you’ve got the background – now you just have to convince the people who have interesting work for you to do.

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