If you’re looking for a job, reaching out to people in your network you barely know may not be your first instinct. However, according to a recent study, that’s exactly what you should do.
The paper, published in Science, found that having weaker ties in your network can help you get a new job, finally proving the “strength of weak ties” theory that has been around since the 70s.
Here’s what you need to know to give your next job search a boost.
Why weak ties are so important for your career
Weak ties are the people in our networks who aren’t total strangers but also aren’t our closest connections. In a highly influential and widely cited 1973 article in the American Journal of Sociology titled “The Strength of Weak Ties,” sociologist Mark S. Granovetter hypothesized that weaker ties have more new information to share with one another than stronger ties: Because weaker ties have fewer mutual connections than stronger ones, they’re less likely to have already heard the same information from other people in their network. Granovetter mentioned from the start that this theory has implications for the job market as well as other social situations like community organizing.
Granovetter proposed that weak ties can act as links between distant groups that are otherwise disconnected, says Karthik Rajkumar, an applied research scientist at LinkedIn and one of the authors Science paper: “They might bridge very diverse communities, and that’s where the magic comes in.”
But Granovetter’s theory remained unconfirmed for years. One barrier to testing it was the lack of data on how people were connected to each other, especially before the rise of ubiquitous social media platforms. Another challenge is that, without a controlled experiment, it’s hard to tease out whether the makeup of people’s professional networks leads to job opportunities or vice versa.
Rajkumar and his colleagues from LinkedIn as well as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford were finally able to test the theory by looking at data from past experiments with LinkedIn’s “People You May Know” feature that affected more than 20 million people between 2015 and 2019. These past experiments varied whether the “People You May Know” feature—which suggests people a user may want to connect with—offered up stronger or weaker ties.
When the researchers analyzed the data—including what connections users made, what job applications they submitted, and what jobs they eventually landed—they found conclusive proof that having somewhat weak ties increased the likelihood of getting a new job.
“For people who might be unfamiliar with how finding a job works in the real world, you might just think, ‘Oh hey, I have the credentials, I have the skills, I apply, I get a job,’” Rajkumar says. “We all want that to be the case, but we know it’s not, and so we know networks matter,” he adds. “And now we also know that information and networks clump in lots of different clusters.” These clusters consist of strong ties who share many mutual connections. The weak ties they have with people outside of their cluster allow information circulating within it—such as news about job openings—to spread to other clusters.
According to the paper, how you measure tie strength matters when determining what kinds of connections help the most with getting a job. When the researchers defined weak ties as people who shared fewer mutual connections on LinkedIn, moderately weak ties with around 10 mutual connections helped the most with job mobility. However, when they defined weak ties as people who exchanged fewer direct messages, they found that the weakest ties helped the most.
How to find and use weak ties to boost your job search
So what should you do in light of this research? Well, a lot of the answers are, essentially, to keep following the same tips and tidbits you’ve been hearing for years. They’re tried-and-true—and now there’s some more robust empirical evidence behind them, too.
Reach out to 2nd or 3rd degree LinkedIn connections who share your professional interests.
Be proactive about adding more distant connections via LinkedIn, Rajkumar recommends. And check if you have any second-degree connections who work at a company where you’re interested in working, then ask your mutual connection to introduce you to them.
Send requests to—and accept requests from—people you don’t know very well.
“One of the most common mistakes I see is people not being open to connecting to people on LinkedIn unless they are a strong connection,” says Muse career coach Kristine Knutter. She recommends connecting on LinkedIn with new acquaintances as soon as you meet them as well as with old friends and colleagues. She also recommends using a platform like LinkedIn to keep in touch with other alumni from the school where you studied. “To harness your professional network's power and be there for others when they need you, you should add everyone you know on LinkedIn,” Knutter says.
This advice is in keeping with what Rajkumar and his colleagues found. Specifically, they found that adding people who share around 10 mutual connections with you resulted in the greatest probability of finding a new job. That probability dropped when adding people with more than 10 mutual connections. Adding acquaintances like people you just met or people who graduated from your school increases the number of ties in your network with whom you share some, but not too many, mutual connections. Which means you should probably add folks you meet using any or all of the strategies to follow.
Attend industry conferences and engage with attendees to make serendipitous connections.
“Find ways to make serendipity happen,” Rajkumar says. Spontaneous connections can happen anywhere, though they may be more scarce in a remote work world. You might even want to consider attending an event whose focus falls slightly outside your area of expertise to meet people with overlapping but somewhat different interests than you.
Take courses and attend events online.
If you work in a field where remote work is common, you may need to dedicate special attention to making new weak ties. “In this new hybrid work or flexible work regimen that we live in, we do have to think a lot about how we’re going to make these serendipitous connections happen because it’s going to be really important,” Rajkumar says. “And we don’t yet know what the long-term implications are of people not having these connections.”
You can still build your network of weak ties in virtual settings, Knutter says. You may not be able to turn to the person sitting next to you to strike up a conversation between speakers, but if a virtual event you attend includes breakout rooms, exchange contact info with the other attendees in your group. If you’re hosting a virtual event, encourage attendees to post their professional contact information in the event chat if they feel comfortable doing so, similar to how you might exchange business cards in person. Keep a list of virtual events you attend and the people you met at them. This way, if you’re reaching out to them months later, you can bring up the event you both attended to get the conversation started.
Spend more time networking than submitting applications for jobs.
Hiring managers prefer to hire internal candidates or candidates with referrals whenever possible, Knutter says. So make sure your job search isn’t limited to job boards. Maybe you decide to reach out to two different weak ties for informational interviews for every one application you submit. In an informational interview, ask if the other person knows anyone else they think you should talk to. This strategy can lead to introductions to people outside your network who can become weak ties.
Be open and honest with your network.
If you can be a little bit more public about your search, post a status update sharing that you’re open to new opportunities. Be specific about what sort of position you want, including the size and industry of the company and the responsibilities that interest you. If you need to be a little more discreet, you can reach out to your network via email.
But either way, as Knutter says: “Your weak connections can only make valuable introductions and support you in other ways if you tell them what you want and need.”