Grad Students-Dressing the Part

Dressing the Part | New Faculty


One of the many delights of being a grad student is being able to dress in jeans and hoodies if you’re working your data, in the lab (coat and goggles perhaps and closed toed shoes), or just bumming. In fact, dressing ‘down’ is standard practice in grad school.

Dressing the part can be tricky though. If you’re teaching (depending on what it is) it can be helpful to up your “A” game in the wardrobe department, how you present yourself, and taking a few small hints can set you apart from an undergrad mentality to a grad student and onto a young professional.

Case in point #1:

My research team and I get asked to present our research at various events, we handle requests and accept them as we have time to do so.

The grad students:

were the worst dressed.

The undergrads had even taken the time to:

wear a dress, do their hair, wear a blazer (albeit w/ nice jeans) and generally presented well. (applause….I complimented them later).

The grad students:

showed in jean capri’s, gym shorts, wore flip flops, and stood in front of the lecture hall of 70+ students holding starbucks cups the whole time.

And I think they were ok with that initially.

I think they caught on. As I observed them, I could tell they were looking at the rest of the team. The undergrads had gotten dressed appropriately and the other faculty and I had on appropriate business attire to present to the students. As the grad students presented, they continued to stand w/ starbucks,  ‘standing with legs crossed’ and  looked like they had to use the bathroom. As a researcher who studies non-verbal behaviors, this wasn’t looking too put together. Proper coaching and perhaps a gentle nudge were in order from our end and that is our responsibility.

You could argue that it shouldn’t matter or it was only an hour but here’s the thing:

it does matter

The guest talk was on a Friday afternoon, certainly not the ‘best’ time of the week for anyone, but guess what?

Nobody got time for that!

Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that what we look like sometimes does matter. I know the students have nicer clothes, maybe they were tired, rushed, or had been in the midst of a busy day.

Cae in point #2:

I had a meeting with a grad student (also a friend in real life). I had not seen him in some time (several months). Upon entering my office and exchanging pleasantries, he sat down so we could chat. He’d gained a bit of weight over the past few months, which is a common thing in grad school for many people. Hours of sitting takes its toll.

His button down was bursting. He was aware of this problem and kept trying to pull it back over.

His jeans: so tight I could see he was uncomfortable. Between him tugging on his shirt and readjusting in his seat: this guy was having a bad time.

He owned it though. About 10 minutes in, he finally stood up and said, “I’m just doing it” and untucked his shirt and unbuttoned it (he did have on an undershirt). Thankfully, we have a good enough rapport where it wasn’t a problem. We made light of it with a laugh and our conversation about what grad school does to your body followed. It only would have been a problem if he’d unbuttoned his pants. Which he did not.

I didn’t need to say anything. He knew he’d gained some pounds and his clothes were no longer accommodating his growth. He was embarrassed and knew he needed to get to a store for the next size up. Thankfully, it’s probably not permanent as many of us know.

Grad students, you’ve gotta walk the walk if you want to talk the talk. I’m not saying you have to go out and drop $500 on new suits but you can obtain a fresh set of khaki’s or dress pants and a nice shirt for less than $100. If you’re feeling even more frugal, hit up goodwill, ask some other colleagues to help you out, or put these things on your wish list for an upcoming holiday. It’s not difficult or expensive to look neat and put together for things like teaching, presenting, or networking.

Check yourself. Take note of how you present yourself physically. I realize you probably don’t have time to take a public speaking class, but the Internet is chock full of tutorials and other helpers to give you a leg up. If you have an ‘annoying tick’ like saying “like” a million times or rocking when you stand, take note. Have someone record you and play it back (or record yourself on your handy smart phone). When I taught public speaking, I recorded my students during each of their speeches and then they provided me with a 200 word critique of positives and negatives. It does help. It’s painful to watch ourselves. We do a lot of weird things, but it can help you in the long run.

The bottom line is this: you probably won’t have a fatal accident as a result of your pants being far too tight (unless the button bursts & you hit someone in the eye). You won’t lose funding over presenting in flip flops holding your starbucks, but it doesn’t do much for your presentation and it tells your audience you don’t have a lot of pride in what you’re doing.

As much as academia flaunts your identity and independence, it doesn’t hurt to look appropriate and professional when the situation calls for it. If you’re a bit overdressed, it’s still better than being under dressed in most situations. Dressing the part will also help you come across as a professional if you’re feeling less than confident at times. Sometimes, the right clothes can psychologically help you get your game face on.

Go ahead, take stock of the closet this week and get ready to knock the socks off your audience and give yourself a nice boost the next time the spotlight turns to you.

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