As always, there is no clear YES or NO to the question whether you should engage yourself in social networking online. First of all, you have to be sure about your current career needs and your long-term career goals. Then, you can ask yourself in which way social networking online might help you satisfying your needs and achieving your goals.
I stress the difference between current needs and long-term goals, because both are important for this decision: Networking is a two-way street and most successful if you build and maintain your network in the long run. Consequently, you should not build an online network for rather short-term needs, but in line with your long-term goals.
The long-term goals to stay in science might benefit from science-specific networks like ResearchGate or Academia. However, you have to have a look where your community is. Then, it could improve your visibility by sharing papers and presentations. It also could facilitate your access to relevant papers and presentations of others. I, personally, see a great chance a community-based filtering of the growing amount of publications – although it has some risks, too. Besides, connecting to colleagues you met on conferences or workshops is much easier in such networks as well as maintaining these connections to refreshing them if needed. Finally, you can join discussion groups on research-related topics.
Also, Twitter is used in some research communities to exchange thoughts, links, and publications. Then, there are scientific blogs as well. From my perspective, blogs have the advantage to create your online CV in a more flexible and creative way. They also allow sharing publications and thoughts which are then more related to YOUR online self-presentation as they are on “your webpage”.
The long-term goal to leave science might benefit more from so-called professional networks like LinkedIn (mainly English speaking countries) and XING (mainly German speaking countries). By networking online here, you can explore options, for example, by searching for people with whom you can do an informational interview. You might do this by joining subgroups of your former employers and universities or by searching for keywords. You could also join subgroups of professional associations or on relevant discussion topics.
Moreover, you have to carefully decide about how to present yourself in the profile. Finding the right keywords is crucial so that people find you. I recently heard the example of people searching for speakers by searching for people who included “talks” in their offers. So, what do you have to offer? Which expertise does distinguish you from others? Also, headhunters and recruiters use these networks more and more. So take your chance!
Of course, all this takes time. And, of course, you should carefully decide about how much time you spend for which networking activity! Here, I come back to my first point: You need to know about your needs and goals! What do you want to achieve within the next five years? What is accordingly important to be done within the next months? Which kinds of information or contacts do you miss? Who is in your professional community and which social networks do they use?
Consider moreover that being familiar with using social media might not hurt in the long-run as well, because they are not only pervading our private life, but also become more and more relevant for professional communication in academia and beyond.
Some other comments about using social media for career-related purposes are available here: