Professional Etiquette for Scientists

2. February 2011

By Alaina G. Levine

Sometimes we are inclined to argue that our skills, talents and reputation alone will secure us advancement opportunities in the fields of science and engineering. But here’s a truth that your scientific advisor may not have mentioned: Manners matter too.

Being professional means demonstrating that you are serious about your craft. Having good manners and proper business etiquette for all occasions promotes and amplifies your level of professionalism—in optics or any other field. Here are a few tips to ensure that you are always perceived as a professional, intelligent, hard-working, respected, talented scientist or engineer:

Make a good first impression. When you first meet someone, introduce yourself, shake the person’s hand, look them in the eyes, smile, and say their name back to them (so they know you are listening and that you pronounced their moniker correctly). The hand shake should employ two pumps, up and down, and then conclude.

Demonstrate keen communications acuity. Whether you are networking, participating in a job interview, or giving a seminar, it’s important to express great respect for the people with whom you are conversing. If you are having a one-on-one conversation at a mixer, don’t interrupt or over-talk the person. In fact, you should strive to listen approximately 80 percent of the time and speak only 20 percent. Maintain eye contact. Have business cards ready and don’t be afraid to ask for those of others. And when your meeting concludes, excuse yourself appropriately and bid them farewell—don’t just walk away.

Honor your audience. When giving a speech—whether to 1 or 100—acknowledge the audience and thank them for their time. Speak slowly and project your voice. When someone publicly asks a question, express gratitude for the inquiry, repeat it (in case it wasn’t heard by others) and do your best to answer. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and offer to pursue it further at a later time. Never insult the question or embarrass the questioner.

Sport the right uniform. You send a critical message with your garments, even in lab-based fields such as science and engineering, and you want it to be one of professionalism. So if you are interviewing or participating in an important meeting that could lead to a job or a fellowship, I recommend dressing a few notches better than you (and your colleagues) normally would in the lab.

For industry meetings, a suit is usually your best bet. For get-togethers in academic or national laboratory settings, you’ll likely do fine with a nice pair of chinos, sport coat and button-down shirt for men, and a conservative skirt or dress pants with a nice shirt and jacket for women.

Understand the culture. Whether you are in the United States, Japan or Qatar, it is crucial to know and master the cultural nuances that dictate how business is conducted. For example, in Asian cultures, when dining with chop sticks, never thrust the sticks vertically into a bowl of rice, because this rather severe visual brings to mind funerary practices—no need to bring death to the table! Similarly, in the Middle East, a formal negotiation doesn’t officially begin until you and the other party have sat and relaxed for a while, often over tea. And never sit with the souls of your feet facing another individual. Of course academia and industry have their own cultural norms as well, so wherever you are, research and implement the proper and professional etiquette that can lead to scientific success.

Portions of this article first appeared in

Alaina G. Levine is an internationally known career development consultant for scientists and engineers and a science writer. She can be reached through her website at

Portions of this article first appeared in Copyright, 2011, Alaina G. Levine.



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