Everybody knows by now that LinkedIn.com is the single most important website to master if you’re looking for a new job, right?  Everybody’s gotten the memo?  Well, I’ve got news for you.  As good as LinkedIn is at helping people research companies, and make relevant job search contacts, it’s equally as good at helping people research new career options, if that’s their goal.  It’s just that most people don’t think to look at the tool through this slightly different lens…

So if you’re seeking to make a significant career switch, here’s a quick rundown of how LinkedIn can help you explore your options:

•  Use Keywords to Find People Doing What You Want to Do:  With over 40 million people now on the LinkedIn system, most of whom have fleshed out their career histories to a decent extent, the process of researching career choices can finally transcend the “theoretical” realm of high-level labor statistics and government reports.  Now, with the press of a button, you can find hundreds of real people, doing the real jobs out there that you want.  You can find “proof of concept” that the job of your dreams actually exists.  All you need to do is visit the People page of LinkedIn and try searching the “Keywords” box using several of the key skills, competencies, and passions that you most want to apply in your career, going forward.  See who comes up associated with these words and then simply make note of what they do for a living!

•  Reverse-Engineer Using Education:  Wondering what doors a certain degree or certification can open up for you?  As above, try doing a People search on the LinkedIn site, but this time leave the Keywords box alone and search instead using the name of your degree, major, or certification in the “School” search field.  This approach will scan the educational backgrounds of all the other members in the system, to see who shares your same degree, and then, as above, you can then simply note what occupations these people have now found themselves in.  Want to eliminate the obvious choices?  Try using a minus sign parameter in the Title box to screen out any job titles your research has already turned up.  For example, if you’ve got a degree in Psychology, but already know you don’t want to be a counselor or psychologist, search with “psychology” in the School field but then add “-psychologist -counselor” in the Title field.  You’ll turn up numerous alternative paths such as Curriculum Designer, User Experience Specialist, and Organizational Development Consultant.

•  Find Role Models: What Do They Read & Where Do They Congregate? Once you’ve identified some people in the LinkedIn system who do the kind of work you want to do, or seem wired to the types of topics that interest you, scroll down in their profiles to see what they read (if they’ve filled out their reading list) and even more importantly, which LinkedIn Groups they belong to.  LinkedIn Groups have EXPLODED over the past year and can be a phenomenal source of useful information for career-changers.  For example, if somebody was interested in breaking into the field of web analytics, and looked up a list of people with the phrase “web analytics” in their Title, they’d quickly uncover a number of relevant Groups to consider joining, including Web Analytics Demystified, Web Analytics Professionals, and the Online Marketing, Web Analytics, and E-commerce Group.  Getting involved in these Groups can be a tremendous way to build contacts within the appropriate professional communities and immerse yourself in the latest relevant trends, talk, and terminology.

•  Ask & Ye Shall Receive: Amazingly, many people still haven’t figured out that if they ask virtually any semi-serious career or business question on the “Answers” page of the LinkedIn site, they’ll likely receive dozens of thoughtful, useful responses from other members of the LinkedIn community.  This is a pretty incredible thing.  Try throwing out a question like “What career options, aside from being a novelist or journalist, would be best for somebody with strong writing skills?” or “What certifications are red-hot and would offer the most immediate marketability, these days, for somebody trying to break into the information technology field?”  The answers, suggestions, and positive boost of encouragement you’ll receive from your fellow members might amaze you!

One of my favorite all-time lines from the Simpsons TV show is when Homer once said: “Doughnuts.  Is there anything they can’t do?”  (guess you kind of had to be there…)  But that pretty much sums up my feelings about LinkedIn.  It can be used in so many incredibly creative ways, including as a pivotal brainstorming tool for those seeking a new career path.  It’s just that most people don’t quite think to use it from that angle, so hopefully the above tips will help get some of you pointed in the right direction in terms of these powerful capabilities!