Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

What the Heck Am I Supposed to Do With My LinkedIn Account?

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I remember precisely the moment I got myself an account on LinkedIn, the giant career-oriented social-media site. I had received one of those blanket invitation emails from a person who I was hoping would hire me as a consultant. “If this makes it easier for her to find me when that moment comes,” I thought to myself, “then this is definitely worth the trouble.” That invitation never came. But an ocean of useless email invitations and updates have arrived in its place.

My attitude towards people who want to “connect” with me on LinkedIn formed very quickly: If I can identify you in a lineup, I’ll accept your invitation. If I can’t, I won’t. Enough people I actually know have invited me to connect that I have a small posse now, but I still have no idea whatsoever how this particular set of academic and nonacademic connections can ever help my career. What exactly can other professors on LinkedIn do for me? How can I help them? Will displaying a long list of tenuous connections really help me get anyone into a better conference, get promoted, or get their next book published at the best possible press?

Certainly, I’m not the first person to question the value of LinkedIn for achieving professional success of any kind. Ann Friedman, writing last year in The Baffler, noted the futility of accumulating connections in an economy with few employment opportunities:

“In a jobs economy that has become something of a grim joke, nothing seems quite so bleak as the digital job seeker’s all-but-obligatory LinkedIn account. In the decade since the site launched publicly with a mission ‘to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful,’ the glorified résumé-distribution service has become an essential stop for the professionally dissatisfied masses. The networking site burrows its way into users’ inboxes with updates spinning the gossamer dream of successful and frictionless advancement up the career ladder.

Just add one crucial contact who’s only a few degrees removed from you (users are the perpetual Kevin Bacons in this party game), or update your skill set in a more market-friendly fashion, and one of the site’s 187 million or so users will pluck you from a stalled career and offer professional redemption. LinkedIn promises to harness everything that’s great about a digital economy that so far has done more to limit than expand the professional prospects of its user-citizens.”

In academia, the jobs situation might actually be worse than in the economy at large. So LinkedIn’s value to scholars is nothing short of a complete mystery to me. Most professors and would-be professors operate in a job market that is completely alien to the ones faced by other kinds of professionals. We hire almost exclusively during one particular season; the process takes months; and it’s almost always done by committee, not by the “boss” at any particular university.

We are also divided by skill and discipline, so the periodic openings that LinkedIn tells me about in political science or physics are completely irrelevant to my professional life. Of course, there are those rare moments when a department (usually an affluent one) points its proverbial finger in the direction of some mid-career academic and says, “We want you!” But those instances invariably involve scholars who have written their way to some prominence already. Whether or not they happen to have a LinkedIn account makes no difference at all.

Even the connections that academics not searching for new employment make are ill-suited to the ones that LinkedIn encourages. When I go to a conference, I need to know people in my subfield, if not my specific general topic of study. After all, the papers all have to fit on one panel. If LinkedIn doesn’t differentiate between historians and physicists (or even people outside of academia entirely), then it’s of no help to me here either.

That said, I’ve made a great deal more connections lately with scientists of all kinds, both on Twitter and on my own campus, because of various labor issues that all professors face. Unfortunately, a site whose very purpose is to impress potential employers is the absolute worst place in the world to discuss the mutual concerns of the academic proletariat. This would go double if I were not tenured already.

Perhaps the worse misfit between academic realities and the ethos of LinkedIn is the site’s emphasis on constant striving. While I’ve seen no exact statistics on it, tenure-track academics must invariably switch jobs a lot less than the corporate executives who thrive on LinkedIn do. As a result, most of us are more interested in impressing the administrators on our own campuses than we are in impressing the future employers who we may well never even have. While administrators come and go, professors on the tenure track serve as the institutional memories for universities like mine. One of the less-appreciated tragedies of adjunctification is that those memories will be wiped out at schools that no longer create enough stable jobs to encourage good scholars and teachers to spend their careers in one place.

If you don’t know, the folks here at Vitae are trying to create their own version of LinkedIn, geared towards the particular needs of academics at all levels of employment. Since this site is still young, it’s impossible to say exactly whether or not they will ultimately succeed in this endeavor. As a Vitae member myself, I can at least be sure that they are asking the right questions: What classes do you teach? What areas do you publish in? How and where do you serve the professoriate in general? On the other hand, my last email from LinkedIn contained job possibilities mostly from outside academia; the closest thing within academia to what I actually do for a living was an opening for a professor of furniture design.

I read recently that the whole concept of hashtags was invented by Twitter users, rather than Twitter itself, as a way of making the site more useful to them. Maybe those of us academics who do have Vitae profiles can think of new ways to make this service meet our particular needs. Working together, we can do great things. At the very least, the result would almost have to be better than the current business-oriented commercial alternative.

Image: Ramzi Hachicho | Dreamstime.com

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