Networking: Depth vs. Breadth

By Mei Long

 Today’s social media and technology allow you to reach just about anyone. With QuakerNet (the Penn Alumni Database) and networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, thousands of alumni and professionals are just one click away. These networking sites are a great tool to identify and connect with people working in different fields and they provide an excellent opportunity to expand your network well beyond your direct social circle.

However the downside of the ease of these networking tools is that they can make networking a numbers game. But building a network is more than just growing the number of your connections.  In fact, the number of connections you have is meaningless if there is no depth in them, and depth starts from a genuine interest. If you are not interested in other people’s careers and you haven’t done enough research about them, chances are you are not likely to craft a personalized and compelling message, and they are not likely to respond to your request. So read their profiles and learn more about their careers and the fields before you reach out to them.

If they accept your request, this is just the beginning of the relationship. You can then ask for informational interviews to learn more about what they do and seek out advice.  Then show your appreciation by a hand-written note and a thank you email. But don’t let the relationship stop there. You want to continue to nurture it by keeping them posted on your progress once in a while – if people have invested time in your career, they want to see results. Besides, any long lasting relationship is a mutually beneficial one. So you don’t just talk about you and your career, you also show interest in their career advancement and personal well being.

Whenever it is possible, you should also give back. Ask what you can do for them. You may think because you are just a student, there is nothing you can offer. But trust me everyone can use a little bit of help here and there, as long as you are genuine in your offer. You can offer to write a recommendation for them on their LinkedIn profile. If they are Penn alumni, there may be opportunities for you to nominate them for an alumni award. If they are working on a very labor-intensive project, find out whether there is anything you can do to support. This list can go on and on, but the point I am trying to make is if you are mutually interested in each other’s careers and lives, chances are your relationship is going to blossom and your connections will look out for you just like they would do for their family and friends. Why? Because people tend to support those who care about them and whom they care about. This is simply human nature.


Insta-Advice: Advice Videos on Instagram

Are you following us on Instagram? If not, I highly encourage you to do so because we’re not only sharing moments we capture on campus, we’re sharing some candid advice, too.


Earlier this semester, we took advantage of Instagram’s 15 second video option to share some “insta-advice”.  We went around and asked you, our students and alumni, what your thoughts were on internships, career fairs, networking, career exploration, and more!  Check out these videos on our Instagram, and stay tuned for new editions on Tuesday!

The Novel and the Network: A Review of Dave Eggers’s The Circle

by Ana Schwartz

Instead of prescriptions about professional development here at the end of the year, a novel seemed to be a nice way to relax from the strenuous pace of the semester. Dave Eggers’s most recent novel, The Circle, presents themes that resonate strongly with concerns stressed by Career Services, particularly in the realm of social media. The book offers an entertaining opportunity to think in a comprehensive way about the importance of Social Media for both personal and professional development. It’s a story about technology and for that reason a lot of that coverage is on digital news venues. As a consequence, the critical conversation, especially in the first weeks after its publication, circulated more widely and increasing exponentially more swiftly than Eggers’ earlier books, each of which tackled some current affair—Hurricane Katrina, for example, or the refugee status of the Sudanese Lost Boys. In this novel, a recent college graduate, Mae Holland, gets hired at The Circle, a very large Silicon Valley tech firm whose motto might as well be “Don’t Be Evil.” The plot narrates her rise within that firm, and the consequences to her personal life. It can be read as a cautionary tale, and one of the takeaways from this work of prose fiction is that an awareness of the various modes for communication, the unique qualities each has to offer, are essential to living the good life in the twenty first century.

A Social Dystopia?
The novel is bold in its claims: One of Eggers’s less subtle polemics is a critique of the way that digital innovation, especially in social media, is blurring the distinction between public and private, between personal and professional. As Mae progresses within the firm, she’s required to take advantage of several platforms for social connectivity. She begins as a customer experience representative, with a Yelp-like ratings system to measure her performance. She can compare her metrics with those of other co-workers, but the Facebook-like platform for these interactions allows, and even encourages social interaction and collaboration within the workplace. Its also common for engineers at the firm to try out beta-versions of their designs within the Circle community, such as more sophisticated dating apps.  Mae’s ascent within the firm is complete when she goes fully “transparent,” and dons a worn camera to link her every action with her social media profile to become the chief interactive ambassador for the firm. But as a consequence, she loses some of her earliest and dearest friends and puts perhaps irreconcilable distance between herself and her family.

Is The Future Already Here?
Certain recent analyses of the digital climate suggest that such a situation, although exaggerated, isn’t far from the truth.  The Economist, for example, hardly a venue for alarmist predictions, recently published a cover story on the implications of Google Glass, and began with a lede that quoted Eggers’ novel. The article discussed consequences of the ubiquity of social media and used the novel’s fictional phenomenon of “going transparent”—taking on a camera to share every act of every day—to hypothesize about the complete erosion of the boundary between public and private. Although The Economist story goes on to explain that the technology currently exists to make that fiction a reality, the concept of “going transparent” holds rhetorical power in both the article and in the book because it asks readers to imagine something that is ultimately, at least for now, undesirable. Yet if most readers will agree that such a future is distressing, how might the resources of social media maintain their use value for readers without becoming too scarily powerful?

Even before this future in which fears of surveillance have become reality, the more day-to-day experiences of social media cause a little bit of ambivalence:  On one hand, social media does facilitate collaboration, and working with others is more fun, and more productive than working alone. There are countless well-respected studies on the power of collaboration to produce better results than solitary thought, and still more claims on the effects of social media to foster that cooperative labor. On the other hand, the wider presence of social media leads to a diminishment of personal and intimate space. More broadly, social media allows synthesis of various, seemingly diffuse interests but its use might easily lead to overstimulation, oversaturation, and fatigue.

Where Is Here? The Campus Community
These concerns are a major factor in college. Campuses are deliberately social environments, and some of the best institutions for exploration and collaboration. The widespread use of social media helps make it easier to archive and publicize ideas, to make connections based on those ideas, as well as to express those connections in, let’s be real, fun ways. This latter point is no less important than the former ones: Who you know and who knows you is just as important as the concepts and skills acquired in college. For that reason, being publicly social, taking advantage of the powerful mnemonic features of each platform—such as the conversations function on Twitter or the timeline on Facebook—allow users to take maximum advantage of the social interactions that are integral to college life, intellectual growth, and professional development. It’s no coincidence that Silicon Valley firms call their sites “campuses,” and likewise, even Eggers’ novel admits this when it makes the college friendship between Mae and her eventual boss Amy the plot catalyst that gets Mae her envied entry-level position amid scores of other highly qualified candidates.

These uses of social media are important to consider, in part because they affect future employment prospects—social media can improve the quality of college work, and the style of professional representation. They’re also important because they affect the current quality of life at a formative age—habits of early adulthood, Ben Franklin might have observed, shape the fullness of life experience later on. These themes are also important because such technological innovations are being developed here on this campus, by members of this very community.

Penn’s been a fertile ground for such tech-driven startups as Venmo, Lore (formerly Coursekit) or even Warby Parker. The PennApps hackathon brings coders from around the world, and local resources like First Round Capital, or their recently developed Dorm Room Fund acknowledge the dynamism of this community and point to the importance of deliberate attention to the future use of apps to connect the personal and the public.

The Insights of Literature
That Penn has so many resources to create and to take advantage of digital innovation makes literature not less relevant, but more. Dave Eggers’s recent novel, despite its pessimism, is a great example of this. As a genre, novels have traditionally been concerned to represent the totality of rising middle class life, and in doing so, remind readers and digital citizens about the diversity of personal interests worth being publicly shared and perhaps also the ones that ought to be kept private. Furthermore, novels can help work out the style and methods by which to publicize these interests. A novel like The Circle very explicitly identifies certain features of life that might be best to avoid publicizing—the health of family members, for example, or beginnings of a romantic relationship. It identifies certain features of life that take better to certain platforms over others. Perhaps inadvertently, too, the novel’s vivid, if sometimes farcical description of the many platforms for sharing on social media, suggest the importance of considering which venues are more skillful for sharing different sorts of ideas or events.

Putting Insights Into Practice
This has real applicability: It’s easier, for example, to use twitter to publicize or advertise an event or chronicle real-time responses to events than it is to have a conversation about that event. Conversation is by no means impossible, though, and twitter’s conventional demands—concision primary among them—offer a challenge to be clearer, more direct. Still further, the delayed immediacy of Twitter encourages a different sort of patience for response, somewhere between the directness of speech and the delay of print. As a result of more detailed familiarity with the unique qualities of different platforms, it’s possible to leverage more advanced, subtle skills for effective, and even compelling communication, skills such as pacing and tone. This is just one example of how deliberate use of social media, can cultivate a more robust, skilled mode of sharing personal and professional interests. Maybe it’s perverse, at the end of a long, busy semester, in a season of relaxation, to try to instrumentalize even recreational reading. There are certainly other ways to read fiction, ones perhaps less suited to analysis on a digital platform, ways of reading even more pleasurable than this one.

Working with the end (of the year) in mind

Dr. Joseph Barber

In thinking about what careers you might explore when you graduate with your PhD, or once you finish your postdoc, it would certainly be helpful to know where others have gone before you. Those people who have made it through your programs before share a lot in common with you.

  • They had passion around a similar subject area.
  • They experience the same types of faculty support
  • They had access to similar networks of contacts and career resources
  • They faced much the same type of job market
  • They also wanted to find a role that would engage them intellectually, challenge them mentally, and support their continued professional development and personal lifestyle.

The career options they have pursued might be those that you would also find interesting. The skills they use in their careers might be similar to the skills you current use in your research. Traveling down well-beaten paths is not the only way to reach a successful career destination, but it can certainly be an effective one. This is especially true when people in these different career fields are willing to share their experiences and insights with you to help you come to a more informed decision about your career path, or to prepare yourself for a specific path more effectively.

Let’s review the different levels at which you can seek information about career options, and find contacts through networking to help you find some of the answers that you are seeking.

The Penn connection

Penn has a rich history of engaged alumni, and current students can continue to make marvelous connections with a wide range of professionals in different careers by making use of the Penn alumni searchable database – QuakerNet. This is not a resource for asking people whether they have a job for you, but can be a great place to make connections to help you learn more about what it is like to work in a certain role, in a particular company, within a broad industry, and so on. Simply by asking people what they do, and what skills they use to do it, you can absorb some of the language you might be able to use to describe your past experiences in terms that your future employer might better understand – to use their language to make your skills relevant. If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, then make sure that you put “set-up more informational interviews” at the very top of your list.

By now, you have hopefully been exposed to the potential that LinkedIn can offer you in terms of making connections with people like you doing interesting and wonderful things in many career fields. I know some people are a little resistant to this resource for many different reasons, but if you just see it as a powerful career exploration tool, then it can help you overcome some of these concerns.

Continue reading “Working with the end (of the year) in mind”

Feeling a bit thinly spread – networking for researchers

Dr. Joseph Barber

Time is a funny old thing – we’re either wishing we had more of it, or wishing it would pass more quickly. We are never quite satisfied with what we have got. Time might be relative (and no, I don’t really know what this means), but we are relatively certain that it is also finite. The reason that I am thinking deep, philosophical thoughts this early on a Monday morning is that I just came across another social networking site for academics, scientists, and researchers. This one is called MyScienceWork ( This one can be added to the list of those that try to cater to the scientific, academic, or research communities in one way or another (e.g., LinkedIn,, ResearchGate, Vitae, Versatile PhD). The problem is, as this exciting list of social networking opportunities grows, the time available to use them seems to shrink (is that relativity?) There is certainly not enough time in any day to do study, complete research AND have a complete and updated profile on every single social networking site that pops up. This can leave people feeling a little guilty that they are not reaching their fullest networking potential. However, spread yourself too thinly, and you run the risk that you don’t get the most out of each platform you might use. So, my next few posts will take a brief stroll through some of the social networking sites that are especially relevant to academics and researchers. Let’s start with the biggest fish.


Still the biggest, and many would probably argue the best. This is very commonly used for research students at universities as they are making use of the alumni networks available to them. Researchers within industry (e.g., biotech, pharma, start-ups, life science consulting) also tend to use this site a lot. There are university faculty members on LinkedIn, but many represent more junior members of a department who are more familiar with social networking in the virtual world. There are certainly some faculty who actively shun LinkedIn and all it represents. I have heard of one faculty member who stated to a student that anyone who has a LinkedIn account would immediately not be taken seriously as someone who wanted to pursue an academic job as a tenure-track professor. That’s a little extreme, pretty short-sighted, and will certainly be a perspective that becomes the minority view over time.

LinkedIn has gotten a little more researcher friendly over time. You have been able to include publications on LinkedIn for a long time. However, it was only possible to list yourself as the first author for a long time (i.e., your name would always appear first in the list). Given the importance of whose name comes first in scientific circles, elevating oneself to first author would be very controversial! The good news is that this issue has been addressed. You can now position your name appropriately in the list of other authors – so go ahead, add a selection of your publications! There are also places throughout your profile where you can link to papers or upload documents. This can make it easier for people to access your work.

You can also go into more detail about some of the research projects you are involved with by actually listed them under the “Projects” category on your profile page. This way, you can provide a broader overview of your work in the “Experience” section, and a more in-depth summary of your unique research elsewhere. Combined with information you can add on your patents, courses taken, and the list of skills and expertise you have, you can get a lot of information across about your academic experience and research know-how. As for those skills that people can endorse you for, they are really a bit of a mixed kettle of fish. You can certainly list some great keywords that might help people find you on LinkedIn. Recruiters do search for people with hard-to-find skills and expertise, so if you have some of these, then mention them. The problem is that people will endorse your skills without even having any experience of you using them. It’s not a bad problem – it makes your skill look more effective when you have lots of people saying you have it – it just feels a little vacuous. What is worse, though, is people coming up with new skills that they think you have. I would not list “statistics” as one of the skills that I have, so please stop suggesting that I add this to my profile.

There are extra whistles and bells you can add to LinkedIn through third-party applications, but there seem to have been several recent changes to the profile page that integrate these more fully into the LinkedIn platform. If you want to share your last presentation, then you can upload this via SlideShare and link it to a particular experience or project on your profile page. There isn’t really anywhere obvious to list conferences or symposiums attended, or presentations or posters given, but with some creative use of the sections available to you, it is possible to get the most important information you want to share on your profile. Leave the rest of your conference-related experiences on your CV – they are probably not essential to your brand anyway.


LinkedIn lets you create a bit of a brand when it comes to presenting your work and knowledge. Your brand is the “you” that you want everyone else to see – your potential, your achievements, the length and breadth of your combined knowledge and experience. It can be hard to create a single brand that is equally attractive to the different people you might want to visit your profile (e.g., the search committee from a university, or consulting/biotech/science writing employers), and so you will lose a bit of the benefit of tailoring how you want to present yourself when you are keeping your career options open.


The other benefit of LinkedIn comes in terms of the huge amounts of information you can gather. For example, there are 30,000 members who have proactively joined the Penn Alumni LinkedIn Group. When you join groups, you can search the membership by keyword to find specific types of people you might want to connect with to help you answer your questions. You can even join in conversations and ask your questions to the whole group. Over 100,000 people are grouped together by LinkedIn as having the “University of Pennsylvania” written somewhere in their education section. There is plenty that you can do with this population by using the “find alumni” tool. Both these approaches will help you gather information about the types of positions/employers that might be relevant to you based on where people with similar academic experiences have gone with their careers. If you are in the exploring career options phase, then this type of information can be extremely valuable.

You can actively “follow” organizations, and this will help you to keep updated on news and current affairs about a company that might help you with either your continued networking or even your applications or interviews. Whether you are interested in industry postdocs or full-time non-faculty positions, you can find lists of opportunities under the “careers” tab on most company pages. You might even see the names of some HR/recruiting staff listed, together with people you might know who are associated with that organization. Combined with industry insights you can gain by following “channels”, “publishers”, and “influencers”, there is an endless supply of information you can expose yourself to each day, and this can be a great use of your time. I’m not saying there is enough time to actually digest any of it, though, but it is there for the taking…, especially if you don’t need to sleep.

Time…, it’s a tricky thing. Perhaps it is not a thing at all…, which in my mind just makes it even trickier.