Recently, I learned that students—especially female graduate students—spend a lot of energy thinking about the question of appropriate clothing for a job interview. It says something that I didn’t even know this was something graduate students worried about.
The standard advice for job candidates in any field is to dress as if you already had the job. But in academia, that could mean just about anything. So perhaps a better approach is to remember two things. First, your clothing should be unremarkable. And second, you should be comfortable. (Which means your clothing will be unremarkable.)
By “unremarkable,” I simply mean that you do not want your interviewers to notice your clothing. You want them to notice your ideas, your skills, your presentation, your enthusiasm. Ideally, you would be happy if, the day after your interview, they could not recall what you were wearing. You do NOT want the department discussion of your interview to focus on your clothing.
To this end, you want to wear clothing that does not stand out from what faculty members would normally expect to see in the hallways around them. To make this point using an extreme example, you can imagine that a job candidate who arrives at an interview in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip-flops runs the risk of having department members talk far more about his or her clothing than about his or her ideas. Similarly, it’s almost certainly a bad idea to show a lot of flesh in places that academics don’t usually show it: a t-shirt or a low-cut blouse is probably a bad idea. So is an extremely short skirt. Think nice… and dull.
The trickier question is “comfortable.” What do you normally wear to teach, or to a conference? In what clothing do you feel most professional, as well as comfortable? Men seem to be comfortable enough in blazers and a tie (although I confess I haven’t ever really noticed what they wear, which I hope means they were comfortable enough that their attire didn’t irritate either them or me). I have heard from female graduate students that they “must” wear a suit to an interview, but I have rarely seen a female academic who doesn’t look desperately uncomfortable in a suit. If you’re comfortable in a skirt and blazer, wear it, but you would be far better off in slacks and a jacket that you and your interviewers can ignore than in a suit that you spend your entire interview tugging at. Again, it’s key that your clothing does not intrude on the ideas exchanged in the interview. What that clothing is, so long as it’s unremarkable, seems to me secondary.
Finally, from talking to younger scholars, it appears that there is a divide on this question between the 50-plus generation and the under 40s. The members of the older group don’t seem to care nearly as much about the whole clothing issue as the younger ones do. And since it’s the older ones doing the hiring, this might be one area on which the younger ones can afford to spend a little less anxiety.