Monday, December 14, 2009

What Would a Fashionable Academic Wear to a Job Interview?

It's that time of year...and I don't mean the holidays. The academic job market is calling, and it says your chances of becoming a tenure-track professor are slim. If you're lucky enough to get an interview, the ever-stylish and lovely La Historiadora de Moda from Fashionable Academics has some terrific tips on how to look smart while you show off your smarts.

If you are an academic on the job market and you are lucky enough to be granted an on-campus interview, you will need to be at the top of your game. You will no doubt have practiced interview questions, your job talk, and the lecture for your mock or cold class, if you will have to teach one during your interview. But have you given any thought to what you will wear? Since there is still a fair amount of style suppression in academia and since you never know whether or not someone will think that you’re not a serious scholar if you wear a floral skirt, blazer, and sweater tights, it is best to err on the conservative side. While university and department cultures will vary and you should always do your research about the schools that are interviewing you, this is my basic guide to an interview-ready wardrobe for a fashionable (female) academic in the States:

1. A suit that flatters your body and makes you feel powerful. When you give your job talk, you can absolutely be better dressed than anyone else in the room. Just as every woman should own at least one LBD, she should also own at least one LBS (little black suit). If you don’t want to go for a black suit, I would still suggest darker colors and/or conservative pinstripes. An elegantly-cut black suit is not at all stuffy. Pastel pinks or bright yellows or a blazer with a lot of zippers on the sleeves might make you more memorable to a group of faculty members, but not necessarily in a good way. There’s also nothing wrong with opting for a skirt suit if you are used to and (more) comfortable with wearing skirts. I do recommend stashing an extra, emergency pair of hose/tights in your briefcase in an inner compartment where you won’t accidentally pull them out instead of a copy of a sample syllabus.
Whatever suit you decide to wear for your job talk, make sure that you practice your job talk in it. It will not only help to boost your confidence during the interview, but you will also know if the hand gestures you make might cause a button to pop off your blazer if it’s buttoned up or that if you lean on a podium your cleavage will be in view. This will give you a chance to know you should wear a cami underneath or leave a button unbuttoned. I also recommend that you wear the blazer on the plane if you’re flying to your interview and/or take only a carry-on. You don’t want your blazer to get all wrinkled or – worse yet – for your suit to arrive after your job talk is over. If you have two suits, you can wear one for each of the days of the interview. If you don’t, you can wear the suit on the day of your job talk and more conservative suit separates on the day that you arrive.

2. Footwear that is COMFORTABLE. An on-campus interview often lasts for two days and is full of meetings. If you are interviewing on a large campus in the Northeast, Midwest, or well pretty much anywhere that’s not Florida, California, or Hawaii,
you may have to schlep all over an icy campus as you are passed from one academic official for a meeting to a group of grad students to an undergraduate class to your job talk to a tour of the library. Even if you are extremely comfortable with wearing heels, an on-campus interview might not be the best time to don your stilettos. If it snows or sleets that day, you might be in real trouble. Sadly, I have heard of an occasion in which a faculty member made snide remarks to a candidate about her heeled boots. Less awkward but still embarrassing would be committee members walking you to a meeting and worrying about whether or not you can make it there in your footwear. I recommend a flat-heeled boot or a low-heeled conservative shoe. Whatever shoes you choose, you should know that are able to wear them for a 12-hour day without getting blisters, pinched toes, or cramps in your calves or the arches of your feet.

3. A briefcase or a satchel is the key accessory ( You will need it, so that you have copies of your job talk, sample syllabi, and Tylenol within your reach to dispense as necessary. Your bag should show that you’ve given some thought to what you tote your stuff in, but this is an area where you can personalize a bit more. A pop of color here is not bad. You might also want to stash a granola or protein bar or two in your briefcase. Why? I’ve heard a horror story or two about job candidates missing lunch because of a delayed flight and almost fainting from hunger.

4. Other Accessories. Here is another area where you can personalize your look. Just remember that lots of jangly bracelets or a particularly loud and funky necklace might not be quite right for this venue. Less is more. Wear a scarf to add a pop of color to your otherwise neutral outfit and add simple, stately earrings, and voilà! Or wear a necklace with a book on it or a ring that is emblematic of the place where you did a lot of your research – nothing wrong with a slightly gratuitously nerdy conversation piece. I really recommend wearing a watch so that you know you will be on time to meetings and you won’t have to dig your cell phone out of your briefcase every time that you want to check the time.

5. A perfect-fitting wool coat is a very nice to have for your interview-ready wardrobe, especially because a lot of people will be seeing it, as you are walked from one meeting to the next. Unless you have only applied to jobs in Hawaii and SoCal, a wool pea coat or trench will look much more professional and put-together over the rest of your ensemble than a parka or ski jacket. Unless you are interviewing at a place where all faculty are avid hunters, do not wear a fur (even if it’s vintage) or faux fur coat. If you do end up with a tenure-track job in Hawaii or Florida, your lovely warm coat will come in handy for visiting friends and family in colder climes and for that annual convention or conference in Philly, Chi-town, or Boston in January.

Additional notes: Avoid perfume and scent-heavy lotions. You may have a signature scent that you wear every single day. Well, wear it every single day except this one. People are extremely sensitive to smell, and you don’t want to prejudice a potential future colleague by smelling like his ex-wife that he despises or by upsetting the stomach of a professor who is battling morning sickness. Also, if you have long hair, you will probably want to pull it back so that it doesn’t get in your face during the interview. This is particularly necessary if you are prone to playing with your hair when nervous or while talking. Finally, remember that you will likely not have much time to check your hair or make-up during the day(s), so you may want to go for minimalist make-up and forgo the lipstick.


Ashley M. said...

great post!

Filigree said...

This is so tricky and I agree with your advice stressing classic, understated looks. When I was first looking for post-doc jobs, it was not good to be perceived as a "fashionista" as that would pretty much guarantee you would not be taken seriously in academia. At least this was the case in England and New England, where I was considering jobs at the time. So the trick was to look both impeccable and understated, and to make that combo seem effortless. God that was exhausting!

I so agree that the perfect wool coat is essential in the Fall, Winter and early Spring months.

In addition to the make-up tips, I would also add to consider the look of nails: neatly manicured but nailpolish-free would be my advice.

Lauren said...

I'm seconding the advice to stash a protein bar or something in your laptop case. I went on an interview last week and didn't get lunch before my job talk. (The students & I arrived there 15 minutes late, waited in line for 5 minutes, and our food - just a simple panini! - took 20 minutes to prepare. This left us with 5 minutes to spare, at which point I had decided it was a lost cause. I got the sandwich to go and ate it AFTER my job talk.)

So, while I was setting up for my talk I grabbed my trusty Luna bar out of my laptop case, sipped on caffeinated tea for an energy boost, and scarfed down a banana I had grabbed after breakfast. The search committee offered to delay the talk so I could have my sandwich, but being prepared with that Luna bar & banana meant that I could be easy going & flexible, saying "no, I'm fine! Let's keep on schedule." Afterward the department head said she liked my talk anyway, but was super impressed that I did it on no lunch! :-)

Lesson learned.

disa said...


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