To Connect or Not To Connect

Kim Petrie
September 16, 2013

This recent blog post from Allison Vaillancourt for the Chronicle of Higher Education outlines some of the pros and cons of being an "open networker" on LinkedIn. For the most part, I agree with Allison's approach. Like Allison, I value "quality" over "quantity." I rarely connect with people I don't know, and this includes current Vanderbilt students and postdocs I haven't met. Instead of connecting directly, I usually invite students and postdocs to join our LinkedIn group. 

What led me to this approach? A few years ago when I started using LinkedIn, I accepted invitations to connect from current students and postdocs whether I knew them or not. I accepted an invitation from one such student (let's call her Margie), who subsequently asked me to connect her to alumnus (let's call him Jim.) Margie was applying for a job at Jim's company and her LinkedIn message said, "i see you know jim schmidt. could you introduce me to jim on linkedin? i am applying for a job at his company and i'd like him to pass my resume on to the hiring manager."

Now, perhaps Margie would be a fantastic employee! Unfortunately, the lack of capitalization was unprofessional and it was very unlikely that Jim knew the hiring manager of this large multinational company. Moreover, I didn't know Margie - certainly not well enough to feel comfortable introducing her - and Jim might not want to be contacted this way. Ultimately, I rejected Margie's introduction request awkwardly, in the less-than-250-characters allowed in a LinkedIn message. 

This began my 'policy' not to accept LinkedIn invitations from current students and postdocs who I haven't met. This incident also prompted me to establish the LinkedIn group for VUMC Biomedical Trainees and Alumni. The LinkedIn group allows our current students and postdocs to connect with alumni for career advice by facilitating associations directly instead of requiring me to be the "middle man" in the process. (To contact someone who is a member of a mutual LinkedIn group, hover over the person's name and a "send message" link will appear.)

If you want to use LinkedIn to connect with people you don't know well, here are some quick tips:

1) Personalize your LinkedIn request. Don't use the standard, "I'd like to connect on LinkedIn" that pre-populates the invitation window. I appreciate when people take the time to personalize their invitation, and when I receive a standard LinkedIn invitation request, I wonder, "Am I not important enough to warrant a personal request?" An alternate interpretation is that the inviter is lazy. P.S. If you use the LinkedIn "connect" button in a LinkedIn email, on a mobile app, or on a list of 2nd and 3rd degree connections, LinkedIn automatically sends the standard invitation without giving you the option to personalize it! Avoid this problem by sending invitation requests only after you have clicked on a person's name to view their profile, instead of sending LinkedIn invitations from inside your email, mobile app, or a list of 2nd degree connections.

2) If you want connect with someone you met only briefly, remind them where you met, e.g. "It was a pleasure meeting you at the Biology Society meeting last week."

3) If you try to connect with someone you've never met using the "classmate" option, explain what you have in common, e.g. "I see you conducted genetics research at Vanderbilt. I am finishing my postdoc in genetics at Vanderbilt." Hopefully, this will prevent the person from marking your invitation as spam. If five people mark your LinkedIn invitation as spam, you will be required to enter a valid email address for the recipient of all future LinkedIn invitations you send!  

4) Explain why you want to connect, e.g., "I'm relocating to San Franscisco and I'm keen to understand the key players in the medical communications industry. I would appreciate the opportunity to connect and, perhaps, chat by phone for 15 minutes."

5) If you ask a mutual connection to facilitate an introduction, give the mutual connection a way to opt out. For example, "Do you know Dr. Smith well enough to facilitate an introduction via LinkedIn?"