What Should We Wear? Advice from Scientists about Clothing and Fashion

Studies show that how we dress generally affects what people think of our personalities and capabilities. For example, women are more likely to be hired if they wear more masculine clothes to an interview (such as a dress suit).  People who wear conservative clothes are seen as self-controlled and reliable, while those who wear more daring clothing are viewed as more attractive and individualistic.

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It seemed to me that scientists are unlikely to be immune to these biases. So last week I posted an interview with image consultant Kasey Smith, who offered me her professional advice about what image consultants do and how to dress to improve my image. To my delight, this interview received more comments than any of my previous posts. I learned quite a bit about my colleagues from these comments, and picked up several more good tips about clothing and fashion in the scientific world that I’d like to share with you today.

Scientists Dress Up for Interviews and for Meetings With Non-Scientists

It’s probably no surprise that we like to dress up when we give talks and when we want to impress non-scientist decision makers.  “I think it's very important to be cognizant of these kinds of things, especially when we meet with VIPs such as Provosts and University Presidents and the like, not to mention potential donors to the college or university,” said one department chair. So apparently there’s a time and a place to kick it up a notch and add that third piece, as Kasey suggested—perhaps a scarf or a jacket.

But Know Your Audience, and Don’t Overdo It.

So as a scientist, it seems you’ll probably need at least one formal outfit. But be aware that when you’re dressing to impress, it’s possible to overdo it.  In one email, a biophysicist told me, “I'm more likely to believe the science of somebody wearing a nice pair of khaki pants and a shirt than somebody wearing the whole 'CEO costume'”.  In another email, an astronomy professor reminisced about watching a job candidate botch his interviews by failing to observe the casual dress code at the institution where he was interviewing. “He gave his talk in a suit, which in any other environment, would be perfectly appropriate. However given the laid back nature of [our institution], it was really overkill and actually was distracting.”

Also, if you’re planning to buy a special outfit for job interviews, remember what another scientist told me. “Once you've bought your clothes, wear them a couple of times before your interview. Clothes just out of the rack are rather stiff, and (at least to some of us) it's very obvious when somebody is wearing a suit that he just bought.”

Some Scientists Use Consistent Signature Outfits to Brand Themselves

Another trick of some successful senior scientists is to use clothing to help boost their personal brands.  “I have taken to wearing white. It is a way for people to easily recognize me,” said an astronomer who is also a filmmaker. “Everything I own is grey, black, or a pattern with both,” said a physics professor.  I also heard from scientists who consistently wore Western wear and scientists who were proud of their tattoos.

Certainly, cultivating a distinctive look can help you connect with the public. “When I meet a scientist with say…Bobak Ferdowsi's hair, I think I probably pay more attention,” said a postdoc. Ferdowsi served as flight director on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission. You may remember how his remarkable mohawk won him reams of media attention when the cameras spotted him during the rover’s landing on Mars.

But Postdocs, Beware: The Wrong Image Can Turn Off Your Mentors

Personal branding is always important, and choosing recognizable clothing can help you create your brand. But if you are at the stage of your career where you mainly need to impress senior scientists to get your next job offer, it may be safer to dress conservatively. That’s you, postdocs. One senior planetary scientist told me that she takes the outfits of her colleagues very seriously. “You can get away with looking like Einstein if you ARE Einstein, and otherwise, you just look like a loser.”

Sometimes this message gets passed along gently to postdocs and graduate students.  “When I really wasn't in the mood to think about appearance and showed up in jeans and hoody or all black, people came and asked me if everything was ok,” said one researcher about her postdoc experience. Another postdoc told me that he felt like he fit in better with senior scientists when he dressed more like one. “Dressing like an ‘adult’,” he said “made me feel like an adult who was ready to be a professional scientist.”

But sometimes the communication doesn’t go as as smoothly. The senior scientist above told me, “A female [foreign] postdoc I had working for me who came to work dressed like a teenager on vacation, and complained that people weren't taking her seriously --- when I said something to her about it, she got VERY angry with me.”

Yes, your appearance does count, but there’s plenty for room for fun.

Charles Day commented on my interview with Kasey in a Physics Today blog post called “Dress for physics success!” To me, this article seemed to sum up some common misconceptions about scientists and clothing. “We wear what we like when we like. What matters is our work, not our appearance.”

The many comments I received on my interview with Kasey send a very different message: our appearances sometimes do matter to our scientific colleagues, even when it’s a reverse kind of bias, like a negative reaction to business suits.

But the good thing is that being a scientist—a senior one at least—comes with tremendous freedom to decide what image we would like to project. Dressing more formally may win us points in administrative and political circles. Wearing more daring clothing can help you make a strong impression with the public. Thankfully, there’s no more than one way to do it right.

As one scientist from the Netherlands told me, “I think the biggest difference is made if your outfit shows that you take care of your clothes and yourself.” That sounds like good marketing advice. Thanks to everyone for the feedback!

P.S. For more thoughts about how women scientists should dress, you might enjoy this article about a double standard for men and women in science.


6 Responses to “What Should We Wear? Advice from Scientists about Clothing and Fashion”

  1. Allison L. Stelling Reply | Permalink

    I only wear cloths to interviews that I can wear in the lab. In my line of work, safety is far more important than fashion; and interviews generally involve a lab tour. Thus, in order to be seen as a professional, I must be wearing proper attire for safely entering a dangerous lab environment (closed toe shoes, hair up & out of face, long pants, non-baggy top, absolutely no jewelery or makeup).

  2. Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

    I know... I understand what you are talking about, Marc, and I see instances of these things around me all the time. Perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, I conform to these arbitrary 'standards', too - most of the time.

    Nevertheless, I can't help finding repugnant this idea that someone would judge me by how I appear and not by how I work and what I have done.

    There are some basic common-sense requirements for specific jobs, such as EH&S mandates (e.g. not working with open hair or loose head covering in front of an open flame, not wearing open-toed shoes in a laboratory full of chemicals, taking care to wear appropriate PPE when working, and so forth) as well as general cleanliness and safe practices, but beyond that there is no reason whatsoever to restrict anyone to types of attire. Gaaah!

    The problem is that unless younger people, junior scientists, postdocs and researchers, actively try to break out of that mold, this forced 'norm' will never change.

  3. Melissa Reply | Permalink

    Dressing certainly is a big part of finding success at work and get work, but how you respond in interviews and carry yourself in the workplace is equally as important as some people will see right through yous fancy clothes!

  4. Vanessa Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for the insightful post! Figuring out what to wear as a scientist can be difficult, especially when you have to find an outfit that doubles as lab and client appropriate.

  5. Bianca Reply | Permalink

    I found this post insightful in the sense that I did not know that even scientists are bothered about appearance. To read about how some scientists are quite bothered by how a colleague or postdoc may dress is very interesting! I would rather perceive a person in a suit and tie to be more professional than one who is more casual and would be more likely to listen or trust the suit and tie. Reading how it is quite the opposite in a scientist's perspective is a bit odd for me personally but I understand, as it is more about the work and brilliance than it is about the fashion. I do think that it is a combination of how professional you act in the workplace just as much as how you present yourself fashionably.

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