Friday, February 8, 2013

Dressing for the Academic Job Interview

Heather Cox Richardson

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.


Eric B. Schultz said...

So what you're saying, Heather, is that I should leave my coonskin hat at home? Nuts. It seemed so historical when I bought it at Disney. . .

Steven Cromack said...

Sweatpants are comfortable for guys. Does this mean I can wear sweats and a t-shirt to an interview?

Morgan Hubbard said...

I agree, Heather—to a point. I think you're supposing that the only way to be memorable, sartorially, is in a bad way. But it's possible to be remembered for being well-dressed. In a field of way too many applicants for way too few positions, why ignore this minor method for scoring points, if you think you can pull it off?

I think the key thing is to make it likely that your interviewers will positively recall your attire as professional, appropriate, and fitted—and not recall anything specific beyond that. Stick with the basic colors, but invest in something that fits well, and maybe even invest in some tailoring. I don't think it does your ideas or your scholarship a disservice to indicate that you're also competent when it comes to reading important social situations and dressing the part.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I was so obsessed with this when I finished grad school. I didn't own a hair dryer or any professional clothes and trying to figure out how far to go in terms of up-scaling my wardrobe was a nightmare. I wore a very uncomfortable skirt-suit for my job talk and hated it.

My opinion is that women have too many options for the clothes they can wear. The "professional" category is too wide. And perhaps the under-40 crowd is also looking to distinguish themselves from the students. There are too many awkward experiences if people mistake the profs for students.

Thanks for this really fantastic advice. It is great advice for teaching, too. In my experience students comment on what women faculty wear more than they do what the male teachers wear--and maybe we should just be looking for really low key. It shouldn't be "remarkable."

hcr said...

For what it's worth, this post was in response to the concerns of a group of female graduate students, and was intended to reassure them that they could devote less time to worrying about their clothing. I didn't mean to upset people (which my inbox suggests I did).

You're absolutely right, Morgan; if you can pull nice clothing off confidently, by all means, do it! All I wanted to say was that, if clothes aren't your thing, don't try to do something brilliant-- just be competent.

Steve: be fair-- I said comfortable and UNREMARKABLE! And Eric, re: coonskin cap, I once had a student who wore a coonskin cap to class. Do you have any idea how hot those things are? He used to roast. I can still see him sitting there, sweat pouring down the sides of his face.

Lisa, I think you're dead right that a lot of this is about gender, and not just on the clothing front. Perhaps that's something we can deal with going forward in future posts. Let's plot.

BTW, Morgan-- drop me an email if you would!

I'm in Boston, and the snow is coming down....

MSD said...

Oh, Thoreau!