or: How I learned to stop worrying
and love LinkedIn endorsements
For scientists looking to break out of academia, nothing is more mysterious than the concept of networking. Wanting to share some insights with my readers, I called up a friend who recently started an MBA program, now immersed in the culture of business. We agreed networking is a critical career skill for scientists, and he mentioned that LinkedIn is especially important in the business community. That’s great, I said – that’s one of the topics I want to write about. Then I gave him my detailed explanation of how people are using LinkedIn endorsements all wrong. Then he started laughing. At me.
What was so funny? Wasn’t I right to complain that people kept endorsing me for skills they couldn’t possibly know I possessed? I met someone at a concert – how could they endorse me for chromatography? “I was like you,” my friend said, “That was my position, and I defended it for a long time – until I saw how it works.” As he talked, I had a sinking feeling I was about to become aware of something painfully obvious – like when you finish vacuuming the house and someone points out the hose isn’t plugged into the base. What he told me changed the way I look at endorsements, and how I see connections they represent.
First, my friend explained the value of casual connections in business. A connection represents an opportunity – for a phone call, a meeting, an interview – which would not exist if you didn’t know the person. Compared with your close colleagues, a person that doesn’t know your scientific abilities is just as likely to give you those opportunities. Maybe even more likely, if like many scientists, your close colleagues are stereotypically introverted and data-oriented. So what does an endorsement represent from one of your casual connections? It is a token of confidence in you as a person – a reminder of the opportunity the relationship contains. The endorsement has very little, if anything, to do with your proficiency in a particular skill.
After we talked, I saw my position for what it was – a stubborn belief that LinkedIn endorsements should vouch for my proficiency in a skill by the people qualified to know. It’s not a bad intention – but it’s not the way the majority of LinkedIn members use them. Endorsements are not about how well you do a skill. My attempts to make the system fit my dogma went so far as to correct LinkedIn when it suggested skills. What do you mean “chemistry”? I knew chemistry in high school – I want to be endorsed for surface chemistry, materials science, hydrogel polymers…” I was reminded of academics righteously correcting people who say “the data shows,” to “the data show”. I had missed the point. Language decides the meaning of a word, not dictionaries. Users decide the meaning of an endorsement – not me (or even LinkedIn, whatever the original intention).
Holding on to my academic definition of endorsements did nothing to strengthen their value – either in quality or in quantity. Instead, it was a barrier to opportunity. Every time a casual acquaintance endorsed me for a random skill, it was a friendly knock at the door. And there I was with the door bolted, vacuum cleaner running, headphones on, listening to the Velvet Underground.
After seeing the LinkedIn endorsement for what it was, I still had to figure out how to use it. There was a cognitive dissonance that came with saying “I endorse you” for something I wasn’t qualified to judge. Maybe it’s my stubborn analytical side – but I needed a set of rules to make endorsements make sense – so I could give and ask for them them authentically. Here is the private logic I now use when I give or receive LinkedIn endorsements:
The LinkedIn endorsement is not an endorsement of skill based on technical knowledge. It is an endorsement of a person based on social knowledge. My endorsement of you for assay development literally means: “I know you, and I would give you an opportunity to talk about your proficiency in assay development. Possibly over coffee and donuts.” This reframing of the term helps resolve any discomfort I had around the word “endorse.” It’s simply a context-specific definition. Better still would be if it had an alternate spelling: Seems like an oversight that LinkedIn hasn’t claimed the alternate form “indorsement” as a branding tool.
Armed with knowledge and a new definition, I appeal to my fellow scientists to begin using the LinkedIn endorsement the way it is used every day: as a social networking tool. If you can stand to be around a person, endorse them.
It’s fine to place some boundaries around how you use endorsements, and I have a feeling there are strong feelings about this. Here are my recommendations: Endorse someone for a general skill as a token that you know they exist and you’re willing to converse or make introductions. If you are familiar with their work, go for 2-4 technical skills that are specific to their field. The across-the board endorsement blitz should be used sparingly for people you have a lot of confidence in – and in that case, a brief recommendation might be a better way to communicate that. When it comes to receiving endorsements, be sure to have a few very general skills listed (science, chemistry, etc) that are approachable to people who know you casually. And if someone you barely know endorses you for mass spectrometry, politely thank them. Maybe it will be an opportunity to explain mass spectrometry, and practice your communication skills.
Scientists, no matter how talented, need opportunities to demonstrate their qualities. The vast majority of those opportunities will come from personal contacts. Social networking tools like LinkedIn are simply a way to open the door to opportunity – the rest lies on your skill and effort. If, like many scientists, you take my old position on endorsements, you may wait a long time for your fellow “evidence-based endorsers” to open those doors. As my friend said, this is a game. So get in the game.