This is in response to what was written on a really great blog called The New PI Sets Up a Lab. She addresses the topic of what females should wear on a job interview and what to wear as a new PI.
The New PI gives the advice that a woman might want to wear at least one item that expresses her personality, something that gives her some flair. While this might work for women, and I’m not sure it does, this is terrible advice for men. Anything strange or particularly memorable about your clothes is only going to hurt you.
What qualifications do I have to say this? I’ve worked in one very old-school department with lots of conservative old professors at a fancy medical school and I’ve worked at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions that was in the vicinity of four other universities. I now work at a major university’s medical school. The point of bringing all this up is that I’ve probably seen at least 100 job talks, particularly since I made it a priority to attend them during my postdoc, and actually paid attention to what the candidates wore. I was also on two search committees this past year. There are two outfits that will work regardless of what type of department it is.
1. Navy/dark grey suit, white shirt, and boring, but nice, tie.
2. Dress pants and a boring, but well-fitting dress shirt tucked in
Obviously the pants/shirt combo is a whole lot easier and more comfortable than a suit, so that’s my advice on what to wear. And it works even in the most conservative of places. In my opinion, what will set you apart and make you seem more intelligent and just generally with it is to have clothes that fit in a modern way, are professionally ironed, and look new. It is worth it to shell out a couple hundred bucks for new stuff seeing as how your interviews will potentially affect the rest of your life. For my job interviews I had two outfits, one for the seminar day and one for the chalk talk day. I never had anyone pick me up from the airport so I didn't worry about traveling clothes, but some people consider that important as well.
Day 1: Navy dress pants from Banana Republic, very pale teal green checked shirt from J. Crew that basically just looked like a white shirt from far away, black belt, black shoes
Day 2: Grey dress pants from J. Crew and a very pale purplish checked shirt from J. Crew that also basically looked like a white shirt from far away, same black belt, and same black shoes.
These outfits were comfortable, easy to pack in a carry-on suitcase, I could roll up the sleeves if I was hot, and they were appropriate for meeting with anybody and for going to dinner virtually anywhere.
You may be thinking that I’m being too strict, and that there are exceptions to these rules. Sure, but unless you’re being recruited by multiple places, why take the risk? Plus I’ve not known of anyone who was hired who wasn’t wearing one of the two options above. Jeans and a blazer? Terrible idea. Jeans and a tie? Terrible idea. Suit with sneakers? Bad. Boots? No. Funny tie? No. Blazer and dress pants? Maybe, but why?
As for the second interview, I honestly cannot for the life of me remember what I wore, but I'm sure it was some variation on the pants/shirt combo.
So this brings me to what I wear as a professor. My first two weeks I wore khaki or grey pants and a dress shirt tucked in. Then I started in with jeans and a dress shirt tucked in. Then came untucking. Then came t shirts and sweatshirts. Then came the sneakers. Then came shorts in the summer. I realized nobody cared. I still get invited to teach, to give seminars, and to collaborate on projects. As long as you’re publishing papers and getting good scores on your grants, what you wear doesn’t matter at all. That’s my two cents.