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I recently discovered there are 740 million users on LinkedIn—that’s a lot! As I scroll through my LinkedIn feed in the morning, I see an unending procession of people sharing impactful updates about their work, successful projects, new initiatives, recent new jobs or promotions, opportunities that they’re looking to fill at their organization and more.

Probably a little part of all of our brains sees these updates and wonders if our career journeys match up to those of others or if we are having a similar impact in our roles. It is not so much fear of missing out (FOMO) as it is fear of living up (FOLU). Are we as good as the powerful updates professionals share on LinkedIn about their careers? The easy answer to this is yes, and I will give some quick advice on both managing any FOLU feelings and communicating your own value to others on this platform.

Let’s first acknowledge that not every post on LinkedIn is always positive. Plenty of people are still seeking opportunities to apply their skills in different roles or at specific employers. And many people share honest perspectives about their professional and career challenges, both past and present. Such posts are particularly helpful, as they can help to normalize the more difficult personal experiences that everyone will go through at some point in their career journeys. It is important to realize that the immensely positive posts you read often represent a project, experience or update at its best. They are the culmination of the failures, obstacles, hard work and determination that you don’t always see but were part of the story.

In addition to the posts from individuals, LinkedIn offers employer posts about job openings, projects and initiatives. Those can provide valuable insight into how a company sees itself and what it prioritizes, and it can give you information you can use if you are networking with people from that organization or want to create relevant narratives in your résumé, cover letters and interview answers. Remember to follow employers from their company pages on LinkedIn. That will ensure more of their posts get shunted to your feed so that you can always keep current on their updates.

In terms of people posts, many can be grouped together as: 1) posts about opportunities, 2) personal updates on projects or career pathways, or 3) advocating, celebrating and uplifting the work of others. Here are some [hypothetical] examples:

Update: “I’m so happy and grateful to share that next Monday I’m starting a new position at White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.”

Uplift: “My absolutely brilliant colleague, John Smith, wrote an article detailing an effective and approachable activity for breaking down the tasks and responsibilities of various projects and jobs.”

Updatelift (a bit of both): “It’s been such a positive experience to be closely involved with my department’s mentoring program for first-gen students since my very first year as a graduate student, and a great honor be able to present on this at our professional association’s annual conference next week with my own mentors, April and Yao.”

If you are ever overwhelmed or worried about living up to the status updates of others, turn your attention instead to uplifting others—it is one of the best antidotes for FOLU that you can find. As a graduate student or postdoc, have you given your lab mates or department peers a LinkedIn shoutout when they have published a paper or when they will be presenting at an upcoming conference? Have you publicly thanked a recruiter or an alum for chatting with you at a program or networking event on your campus? Some good reasons for doing so include:

  • It makes you feel positive—and positivity is always incredibly helpful for any career journey.
  • It makes them feel valued, and that is a powerful feeling.
  • You can support the professional and career development of your peers through your networks. Networking is as much about helping others as it is helping yourself. And by helping others, you are potentially putting them in a position where they can help you in the future
  • It builds leadership competencies—supporting and advocating for others is a skill you will need for any future leadership roles.
  • It gives you an excuse to be active on LinkedIn so that others can see you and your work.

Presenting Your Amazing Self

And that last point leads us on to the idea that you do have to advocate for yourself on LinkedIn, too. Your profile can be you at your best, and while “at your best” will look different for each individual, it represents you sharing some of the skills, experiences, knowledge and professional goals that are important to you. You have the opportunity to create professional narratives to showcase the value that you can bring.

That means thinking about your first impressions. Yes, a good photo that doesn’t have other people’s limbs in it is important. No bodiless arms around your shoulders, please. Eye contact and positive facial expressions are good ideas, too. Our body language is important—it can have the subconscious effect of welcoming people in. Just as important as your photo is your name and how you pronounce it. Everyone should say your name correctly—it is the foundation of a solid professional relationship. So download the LinkedIn app on your mobile phone right now, edit your profile using the app and you will find an option to record your own name. Once you have done this, anyone visiting your profile can click on the speaker icon next to your name and hear you saying your name just the way you want people to say it. It might take me a few listens to get it right, but I can do this long before I actually meet you in person, and we will both feel happier when I get it right!

Below your name is your headline. As a graduate student, the default setting is likely to be some variation of “graduate student at University of Pennsylvania.” That will be accurate, but it only describes where you are right now in your career journey, not what you are bringing with you along the way. You won’t always be a graduate student, but you will probably always be creative, passionate about art, curious or any number of descriptive terms that represent your unique professional flavor. The headline is always a work in progress—changeable as you want to highlight different attributes at different stages along your career journey. The headline will be the first words that describe you when I come across your profile on LinkedIn, so make them meaningful to you and relevant to those you want to know about you (e.g., future hiring managers in your career fields of interest).

Need help finding words that feel effective? Ask the people who know you to share positive words that they associate with you. Such words represent your professional brand—what others think and say about you. I asked Ph.D. students at the University of Pennsylvania to reflect on this in a recent workshop, and they came up with words like: organized, positive, creative, determined, approachable, reliable, curious, compassionate and resourceful. I asked the master’s students I teach at Hunter College the same question, and their words included: brave, energetic, attentive, ambitious, loyal, honest, driven, passionate, versatile, insightful and resilient. We are sometimes too self-critical to use these powerfully descriptive words if we come up with them, but when you hear other people use them to describe you, they become tangible, and you should celebrate them.

Below your headline is your “about” section, which is where you help people understand you, what drives you, what energizes you and where you are going next. I mention chickens in my “about” section, because they have been a noteworthy part of my brand since I was a Ph.D. student doing research with them—it helps people remember me. You will see many other styles and stories on display in this section as you browse the profiles of others. And in terms of what you should write, and how you can structure this section, well, that’s advice I will share in the future.

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