PETER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE BOOK, "TO BOLDLY GO: A PRACTICAL CAREER GUIDE FOR SCIENTISTS"

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We all know that, with respect to fashion, the world holds a rather dim view of scientists like us. And why shouldn't they? Many of us dress like schleps! In our workplace, fashion is considered not only irrelevant, but a distraction, and for those of us who work in laboratories, a necktie can be a real safety hazard. Some scientists even consider good taste in clothing to be a sign of an inferior intellect, an indication that someone needs to cover inadequate work with corporate attire. It is not at all surprising that the first reaction we scientists and engineers might have upon learning that we have a job interview is not joy and elation, but terror and confusion: Oh God--What am I going to wear?

Fashion is not rocket science. Scientists may find shopping for business attire perplexing at first, but this is easily overcome with a little research and the help of a few professionals. I carried out an experiment with the help of the Next Wave folks to prove that even the most hapless, clueless, and scruffy young scientist can be transformed into the perfect image of a young business executive.

 

The Ethology of Fashion

Although we may disdain fancy clothing as scientists, we still accept that for most animals, appearance is a life-or-death issue. Animals judge each other's health, strength, and parental fitness not by subjecting their potential mates to an interview or a series of calibrated examinations, but by examining certain external qualities that are a proxy for fitness. In the animal world, these qualities include things like thick, well-groomed fur, long feathers, big antlers, or, in the case of the stickleback fish, the size and hue of the red spot on his belly.

People evaluate somewhat similar traits all the time. Even the most thorough job interview does not give an employer enough time or information to reliably test an applicant's total abilities and potential. Choosing who to hire ends up being a very subjective process, based on a whole range of judgments about externalities that may or may not correlate to ability.

The beauty of being human is that, unlike much of the rest of the animal kingdom, we are endowed with opposable thumbs, large brains, and the ability to purchase on credit. With these tools we are able to change our appearance to suit the situation and influence how others perceive us, hence fashion.

Are You SURE You Need a New Suit?

One of the biggest fashion blunders is not making full use of the clothes you already own. Most of us own a suit or two that we stash away for emergency situations such as weddings and funerals. These clothes are usually in good condition but are probably ill-fitting. Ill-fitting clothes are the very definition of fashion disaster. But ill-fitting clothes can be altered and recut to fit perfectly for a fraction of the cost of buying a new suit.

Tim brought two old suits with him. Neither one looked great on him, and both looked a bit snug in the upper body.

It turned out that Tim had gained three inches in his upper body since purchasing these suits and now fit a more athletic cut suit--a suit with a greater taper from shoulders to waist. The tailor was able to let out the jacket and pants on both suits for a fraction of the cost of a new suit.

Business Basics

Picking an interview suit can be the first step in building a wardrobe. Each new outfit you purchase should pass three basic tests:

  • Is it appropriate?
  • Is it attractive?
  • Is it affordable?

Appropriate attire is obviously dependent on the situation. For a formal interview, it is usually best to go with an outfit that is classic, looks good, and is somewhat conservative. In nearly all cases a dark, single-breasted suit will be fine. In some job settings, such as research and development or information technology, the daily work attire will be much more casual and flexible.

 

Appearance is obviously critical. As I mentioned earlier, the fit of a suit can make or break the look even more than the color does. Don't even think of "trying to fit into" an old suit without taking it to a tailor first for a professional opinion. As far as color is concerned, think conservative. Darker colors tend to be more formal. Navy blue pin stripe and dark gray suits are classic and very versatile. The quality of the fabric is also an important consideration. Fine wool cloth (such as Super 100) has a smooth, clean look and is a medium-weight fabric that can be worn nearly year round.

Affordability tends to be a primary concern for scientists and engineers, especially those new in the job market. It may be tempting to seek out a bargain discount men's clothing store, but you tend to get what you pay for. Cheap suits can look, well, cheap! In addition, cheap suits don't last as long as better built clothing. Some major department stores have factory outlets that sell discontinued or surplus stock at a discount. You may get lucky and find a good suit at a nice price, but most of the selection tends to be in odd sizes--small or very large--and the time and expense of getting there may mitigate any savings. As Tim discovered, if you are a beginner, it is often best to go to a retail store with salespeople who are knowledgeable, have good taste, and are willing to take the time to outfit you properly. Don't be shy about asking for help.

Shirts

Ties

Shoes, Belts, and Braces

There is a huge variety of makers of men's shoes, but the styles and colors tend to be very restricted. Black tends to be the most traditional and versatile. Because many different manufactures make similar-looking shoes, fit and comfort are often the biggest consideration. Tim tried on so many different pairs that even Imelda Marcos might have blushed at the thought. (Just kidding, Tim.) His final choice was a major contrast to the worn pair he already owned. But Tim did not need to buy a belt, as the one he had was fine. But if he had, I would have suggested a leather belt in the same color as his shoes. Tim did not want braces (suspenders) for his suit, but we saw several sets that would have complemented his tie and suit nicely.

A Fitting End

The Transformation

Tim's outfit is perfect for an interview or any formal business occasion. He's ready to make a great impression in the working world, and I'd bet that even his adviser would not recognize him!

Taking Care of Your Investment

Nice clothes are not cheap, but, if you take care of them, they can last for many years. Dry clean your suits sparingly. If a suit is a bit wrinkled, take it in to be pressed, but don't just send it off to the cleaners. Hang your suit on a thick wooden hanger that will hold the shape of the shoulder. And absolutely swear to buy shoe trees with every pair of dress shoes you buy. Shoe trees are those spring-loaded wooden forms that you insert into shoes after wearing them. The dry wood wicks away stinky foot moisture, and the form helps the shoes hold their shape. Do not simply pile your shoes on the floor of your closet.

Some Final Tips, Pointers, and Advice

Shopping for business clothes can seem daunting at first. Here are some final tips that can help you get started and feel more comfortable.

  • Get a book on business fashion. Go to the library or your school's career center and browse through some titles. One book I like a lot is The New Professional Image: From Business Casual to the Ultimate Power Look by Susan Bixler and Nancy Nix-Rice, which contains advice about business-formal and business-casual clothing. There are many other good books out there as well.
  • Gather some evidence from the field. Spend some time in a public place and observe how professional people dress. What do you like? What do you despise? Then go to several stores and browse, ask questions, and try a few things on. Don't make a purchase until you are clear in your mind that you have seen a variety of styles and have developed some preferences.
  • Take a friend with you. Even the most helpful and kindly salesperson wants, eventually, to sell you something. A friend can provide you with a valuable second opinion and a graceful "good cop, bad cop" means of saying thanks but no thanks.
  • When you wear your beautiful outfit, make certain it is clean and well-pressed!

As always, your own stories of fashion success or failure from the scientific world are welcome.

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog at phds.org on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.