Finding a job can be hard. Finding a job when you’re not exactly sure what kind of job you want can be really, really hard. Perhaps you’ve recently graduated, you’ve been laid off from a shrinking industry or you just have a sense that you might be happier in a different career.

If you find yourself asking, “What should I do with my life?” this summer, I recommend this 3-step strategy for using LinkedIn to research your career options:

1. Brainstorm a big list of career options. Even if you’re really unsure of your career direction, I guarantee you have some ideas of what path or paths you want to pursue. Start collecting these ideas — job titles, potential employers, hobbies, interests that might become a career, anything — into a big list. Ask a few trusted friends or colleagues what they think you’re good at and what jobs they think you should pursue, and add these to your list. Reach out to your alma mater’s career services office and ask if they have a career assessment test you can take, then add these results to your list as well. It doesn’t matter if the items on your list are wildly different — e.g., writing, Italy, Google, personal trainer. Just come up with the biggest list you can and keep adding to it as you follow the steps below.

2. Research, research, research. Next, take your big list of career options and start typing each idea into LinkedIn’s Advanced Search. Just see what you find and keep following links that interest you. For instance, let’s start with “writing.”  You know you love writing and would like to consider it as part of your career, but you’re not sure what kinds of jobs exist, where they are and what kind of experience you need to get those jobs. Just type the word “writing” into the “keywords” box in LinkedIn’s Advanced Search tool and you’ll generate a listing of anyone on LinkedIn who has the word “writing” in his or her LinkedIn profile. Start to click on profiles that interest you and look for:

  • Job titles that you might want to pursue: For instance, a search on “writing” generated such job titles as financial marketing writer, SEO copywriter, editor and tons of others. If you see a title you like, check out how the person describes that job in his or her profile and what other jobs this person has held that might appeal to you as well.
  • Employers who hire people with these job titles: When you see a company listed on a person’s profile, click right through to the LinkedIn company page for that organization and check out if they are hiring. Read the company’s Careers page and see what other jobs they offer that might be a good fit for you. Under the “New Hires” tab, you can even find the LinkedIn profiles of the exact people who’ve just landed jobs or promotions at that company. What better way to know who that company wants to hire?
  • What LinkedIn Groups people belong to when they have similar interests to yours: Click through people’s LinkedIn profiles to see any group that sounds interesting and request to join. LinkedIn Groups offer job postings as well as the opportunity to network with potential leads to job opportunities. If you’re feeling gutsy, you might even start a discussion saying something like, “I’m currently considering a career in this field and would appreciate any advice group members have on what it’s like and how to find opportunities. Thank you!” I know one student from a university in North Carolina who posted such a discussion in his school’s alumni group and it led to a real job offer.

3. Find role models. As you research your next career on LinkedIn, you’ll notice that some of the people or companies you come across are in your network, already share Group memberships with you or attended your university (check out LinkedIn Alumni to further research the career paths of alums from your school). Some of these people might be willing to share some inside scoop on their jobs and career paths — information that can help you make your own career decisions. For instance, you might choose to reach out to five people who use writing in their careers. After reviewing the profile of a person whose career you admire, reach out to that person with an InMail or Introduction Request and ask for advice or guidance. Your note might read something like this:

Hi Greg,

I’m currently in the midst of a job hunt and came across your LinkedIn profile. You and I were both Comparative Literature majors in college and I’m really impressed by your career path since then. Would you be willing to share some advice on how you found your way? I would be very grateful for any suggestions or wisdom you’re willing to share. Thank you for considering my request and please let me know if there is anything I can do to return the favor.

Thanks,

Lindsey

Note that this message is concise, polite, positive and specific. Don’t send a blast message or generic message — you’re much more likely to receive a response when your message is tailored to each individual and shows you took the time to write a unique note. Now follow these same steps for any other interests from your big list. Every person may not respond, and you might realize that a particular interest or hobby isn’t really something you want to build a career around, but every bit of research and every conversation will bring you closer to your next job.

How else have you used LinkedIn to research potential career options? Please share with us on Twitter @LinkedIn!