Online Networking for Grownups

September 5, 2007

Musing a bit today on the nature and utility of online networking sites. No, not the kiddie stuff Facebook, Myspace and the like.

FemaleScienceProfessor expresses the usual suspicion about LinkedIn, i.e., that it will just fill the emailbox with junk. Beyond this commonality, many colleagues wonder “But what is it FOR?”. I also wonder, what good will I get out of it?

Bora at A Blog Around the Clock shilled a bit for the startup Knowble which is supposed to be a scientist-focused network. It appears to have arisen from senior project or something at UNC-Chapel Hill. It is not really ready for prime time going by my experience and the comments following Bora’s post, but a colleague or two are thinking about giving it a chance.

I don’t know that I see a clearly defined utility for these things for biomedical scientists. However, I offer a few considerations.

-Conventional networking is all about numbers and degrees of separation. The more people you know, the more people know you are looking for a job/trainee/whathaveyou, the more people to which you are linked, the more effective the networking. The consideration for the scientist contemplating online networks is, at this point in development, are you willing to take it on faith that the online thing will be an effective network link for you. It is clearly not all that good yet because the penetration is not that great, networking at your society annual meeting will clearly be of broader impact.

-Networking is also all about the right people. The people who handle the reins of power that might do you some good. In this regard, online networking is not so handy for scientists. Our reins of power are held by the older, more hidebound types who were in many cases only reluctant adopters of email. The chances of getting to the “right” people is uncertain at present.

-My subfield has what I would estimate as fairly good penetration on LinkedIn, under the above considerations. This is clearly traceable back to a few (and perhaps one) prime movers who adopted LinkedIn and pursued links with colleagues assiduously. It is this experience that shows the inklings of value in this type of networking.

-I’m an adopter although based mostly on faith that this online networking will pay benefits in the long run. Not based on any really confirmed idea of tangible benefit or any evidence of same.

I suspect the following benefits:

Extended references. Sure the first thing you do when considering joining a lab or taking on a trainee is Google them. Makes sense in this day and age. After all they might be a blogger! Then you check the obvious formal references. Places of training for trainees and fate of prior trainees for a PI. The formal or available record only gets you so far, however. This is where a fully-realized network like LinkedIn comes into play. You can rely on sources you didn’t know you had. Grad school or postdoc friends you didn’t know had a close connection to someone relevant.

Job opportunity. In our field, knowing who went to BigPharma and is currently where (they seem to change jobs every 9 mo in that biz) is priceless if you want to go that route. You may have lost track of that grad student 2 years before or after you that is a professor in that department for which you just noted a job ad with interest.

Networking for the shy. Not everyone takes naturally to schmoozing and networking. I certainly don’t or at least didn’t. I had a very excellent role model networker as a mentor at one point. This may facilitate trainees who need to get recognized in the field (note PIs, this is part of your mentoring role, to help your trainees network!).

Okay, what think you DearReader? Are you on a professional network site? Thinking about it? Reject it entirely?

4 Responses to “Online Networking for Grownups”

  1. bikemonkey Says:

    I’m doing the LinkedIn and Knowble thing, as you know full well, lol. You forgot a couple of things. One is under “random network circles”. Take me, I found out recently that a local recreational activity group to which I used to belong and still orbit a bit (no, not biking) is gearing up the LinkedIn. Come to find out the real jobs of all those people you sweat with but might not really know that well. Three or four occupations previously unknown suggest possible routes to jobs for my trainees and/or techs or those of my other academic friends in town.
    The LinkedIn one also hits your front page with recent signups from your years spent at various places such as college and grad school so even unsolicited you’ll have potential contacts of use only a click away. Of course, it is all voluntary, if you don’t visit the site, you don’t get hit with anything. I.e., I’ve found this one anyway to be spam free and not intrusive at all. YMMV as they say.

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  2. Thomas Robey Says:

    I think the networking sites are a good idea as trainees move on to new locations. It is important to build new connections, but more important to nurture older ones. I use Facebook as an alumni tracking system for the UW Forum on Science Ethics and Policy. The reason we choose Facebook is that there are a lot of folks my age already in that system so all we need to do is build a group for people to join. I will check these other ‘more professional’ sites when I have time to poke around them, but from an open conversation I participated in at a Keystone Symposium this summer, it seems to me like a social networking site could be a good resource for building collaborations.

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  3. Piled Higher, Deeper Says:

    And how do we network with anonymous bloggers 🙂

    I’m reading your point about senior scientist Luddites and thinking “who cares?”. I mean, I understand the reasons for sucking up to the powers that be and the reasons for conventional ways to do that type of networking. But perhaps one of the least regarded forms of networking in science is the lateral. Understandable because people are focused on the here-and-now, what can you power mongers do for me in the immediate term. This is shortsighted. Your peers in career status are going to be with you longest, are they not? Are not they the ones that should be cultivated most?

    DM, with your desired NewWorldOrder of review-by-assistant-professor :-), shouldn’t we just be writing off the elder types?

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  4. […] LinkedIn hits are coming quicker this week as people think networking. Nobody invited you yet? Shame, […]

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