What to Wear? Advice from Scientists about Dressing for Success

19. June 2013

 Marc Kuchner  

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the blog Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

Studies show that how we dress affects what people think of our personalities and capabilities, and scientists are unlikely to be immune to these biases. For this reason, I recently 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, the interview received more comments than any of my previous blog posts. From this feedback, I picked up more good tips about clothing and fashion in the scientific world, which I share here.

Dress Up for Interviews and Meetings With Non-Scientists.

It’s probably no surprise that we need to dress up when we give talks and 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 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.

Don’t Overdo It.

Be aware that when you’re dressing to impress, it’s possible to overdo it.  In one comment, 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 applying. “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.”

Use Clothing to Define Your Brand.

Another trick of some successful senior scientists is to use clothing to help define their personal brands.  “I have taken to wearing white. It is a way for people to easily recognize me,” said an astronomer and 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 others who were proud of their tattoos. Cultivating a distinctive look can help you connect with your colleagues and the public.

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

If you are at the stage of your career where you need to impress senior scientists in order to land your next job, it may be safer to dress conservatively. 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.”

A postdoc also 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.”

There’s Still Room for Fun.

The comments I received sent the message that appearances do matter to our scientific colleagues.

But the good thing is that being a scientist—a senior one at least—comes with tremendous freedom to decide which 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 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.

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

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