One prospective postdoc nearly blew his chance to work in Nancy Thompsons cancer research laboratory  at Brown University. The reason: his clothes. Thompson was impressed enough with this postdoc's on-paper credentials to invite him for an in-person interview. But when she met him outside the bed-and-breakfast where he was staying, she nearly didn’t recognize the man wearing a white T-shirt, worn jeans, and dirty sneakers as her candidate. She immediately thought, “Uh-oh, this does not look good,” she says.
Thompson, who is associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies in Brown’s Division of Biology and Medicine, hired him anyway. “Apparently, he either hadn’t gotten enough mentoring or was resistant to it,” she says. He was a successful scientist, Thompson decided, who needed some professional polishing. “We needed to do some drastic and frank counseling” about issues related to appearance, Thompson says.
As this postdoc's story shows, you might be able to get away with dressing badly for your interview in academic science, especially if your science is really good. But it's no sure thing, so why take a chance? And even if you do get hired, wearing jeans and a T-shirt is unlikely to make a good first impression on someone who, even if they look past your dress-related defects, might file it away and write about it in some future letter of recommendation. Outside the academic environment, such as in interviews for industry or government jobs, your fashion sins are far less likely to be overlooked.
In a job interview, the science should shine. But the science comes in a human package, and that package--and not just the brain behind it--needs to promise to blend in to the work environment. “You may never dress that way again [on the job],” says Evelinda Urman, part of the Denver-based consulting team Style Matters  that gives workshops about appropriate business attire. “You’ve got less than 30 seconds to make a first impression. People do judge a book by its cover.”
It might be wrong to judge a book by its cover, but during a job interview, employers typically have insufficient information, so they tend to use what they have. Not meticulous in your dress, hygiene, and comportment? Then why should they assume that you're meticulous in your work? Employers correlate attention to interview dress--clothes that fit and shoes that are shined--with attention to detail on the job, says Gary Kinder, the director of undergraduate career services in the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
That might not be completely fair: Some people are meticulous in their work but don't maintain an orderly desk or have a tendency to drop spaghetti sauce on their new white shirts. But another argument might be more convincing: In most modern work environments--in academia but especially in industry--you're expected to work well with others. And how you dress, the attention you pay to your dress and the style you cultivate, says something about how you view your colleagues. “My wearing of the [appropriate] clothes was a sign of respect and a way to signal that I was a serious candidate and that I took the interview process seriously,” says Hilary Kemp , a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In jobs for which you might have to represent your employer to the public, that professional look matters even more.
When interviewing for almost any job, the safe choice for men and women is a suit in a classic color such as dark blue or dark gray, Urman says. Men would generally pair that suit with a button-down shirt and tie. Women can pair a suit with a collared blouse or a top with a high scoop-neck or V-neck shirt. A few years ago, a pantsuit might have been considered too casual for women, but today a tailored pantsuit is appropriate for women for all but the most formal of interviews. If you choose a skirt suit, make sure the length is at or below the knee.
Suits also offer the opportunity to change your look. If you discover that an environment is slightly more casual, you can take off the jacket and have a more laid-back appearance instantly, says Karen Peterson, director of the Office of Scientific Career Development at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. For women, it's a good idea to choose a top that's comfortable and appropriate without the jacket.
Men should invest in a good pair of dress shoes, and women should wear dark, closed-toe shoes. Professional-style heels are fine, but you might need to do a lot of walking, sometimes through laboratories or plant sites, so make sure they're comfortable and not too high. Dressy boots are an option for women wearing pants. If wearing a skirt, women should also wear pantyhose.
Although the classic interview suit is the default, safe choice, it's not the only choice, and in some environments it might be a little too dressy. A sport coat and dress pants in conservative colors and a button-down shirt with, or potentially without, a tie might be perfectly appropriate for men in some environments. Women might wear a conservative blouse or sweater and tailored slacks or a skirt. Even if it’s not part of a suit, consider wearing a tailored jacket, Urman says. A sport coat makes men look taller and leaner, giving them better body proportion. A tailored jacket boosts women’s perceived height and authority.
You don’t have to buy an expensive new wardrobe for your job interviews, Kinder and Urman say. Particularly if you watch out for sales, $250 should be enough to buy a suit, shoes, and a couple of shirts to wear under them. With small variations--in the shirt and tie for men, in the blouse and shoes for women--that suit will serve you well over the course of even a 2-day interview. Kemp struggled a little with finding the right clothes on a budget for her recent interviews. But she found a blazer, dress pants, and shirts for $100. She already had a pair of black dress shoes.
A job candidate’s appearance must not overpower his or her qualifications, says Ginger Rothrock, co-founder and principal technologist at Liquidia Technologies , a nanotechnology start-up company in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. “With candidates who dress and present themselves well," she says, "I may or may not remember what they were wearing, but I will remember what they’ve said.” Rothrock suggests a “muted” approach, making sure that hair, makeup, and jewelry are conservative with minimal perfume or cologne.
An interview is not the time to push the fashion envelope, say sources interviewed for this article, particularly when it comes to suit, jacket, or shoe color or accessories. Female job candidates raised eyebrows by wearing a pale pink suit (not serious enough), a denim jacket (not formal enough), or even a red snakeskin jacket (wild and distracting). Men weren’t immune from interview clothing faux pas: Kelly-green sport coats and white patent leather shoes left strongly negative impressions. Although dressing outside the box might not automatically disqualify you, it will distract a hiring committee from your qualifications and could make them question your professionalism, Rothrock says.
“The best impressions are made, in my experience, by someone who looks very neat and put together but also comfortable in the look,” Thompson says. A little personality is often fine, such as a nice scarf, colorful blouses, or simple jewelry for women or ties with color or character for men, if those boost your confidence. But when making choices, she says, be cognizant that hiring committees are often conservative.
So, balance your desire for self-expression with your potential employer’s likely expectations. What about tattoos and piercings? Recent graduates who’ve served on career panels at Brown have advised students to take out untraditional piercings such as those in eyebrows, lips, or tongue, Thompson says. That approach isn’t “selling out,” she reports, but a way to keep from distracting a prospective employer from the main message: your experience and skills. Experts also advise covering large tattoos if it's possible.
Although the suit uniform works almost universally, you can get extra reassurance by using your network and contacting colleagues at particular institutions or companies about what’s appropriate for that environment, Peterson says. It’s also possible to politely ask your host or the human resources department about planned activities so that you can be sure to dress appropriately, Kinder says. A good rule of thumb as a job candidate is to find out how employees will dress at an event and take that one notch up, he adds.
If you stick with the two-piece-suit formula, there’s little concern about dressing too formally for an interview, even in a relatively informal workplace. At Liquidia Technologies, employees typically dress in business casual clothing such as polos and khakis, except when meeting outside clients. A tie might not be necessary for a male job candidate, Rothrock says, but a conservative, professional look of a suit or a sport jacket and dress pants is still a must for an interview. Formal wear is too fancy, Thompson says. Men shouldn’t wear tuxedos or three-piece suits, and a bow tie might be distracting. Save formal gowns for festive occasions.
In his recent job interviews, chemist Samarjit Patnaik used the clothing formula of sport coat, dress pants, button-down shirt, and tie for all his interviews, both for industry jobs and for the job he accepted at the National Institutes of Health’s Chemical Genomics Center in Rockville, Maryland. Although the daily work attire at his new job is more casual than it was at his former employer, GlaxoSmithKline, he doesn’t see any differences in appropriate interview attire. “You don’t want any negative impression,” he says. “People will talk about it, so why give anyone that opportunity?”
Because of the multiday format, dressing for academic job interviews can be more challenging, especially for your budget. In his job interviews at primarily undergraduate institutions, developmental biologist Aaron Putzke, a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, developed a clothing strategy that he felt would make him look both professional and collegial, he says: “I didn’t want to come across as someone who wanted to put on airs.” On the first day of the job interview, when he was giving his research seminar, he wore a suit with a tie. On the second day he got rid of the tie, and because he was interviewing in the Midwest in late winter, he added a sweater. All of Putzke's hard work in and out of the lab has paid off; he will start a faculty position at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, this fall.
Even with the best planning, unforeseen problems can come up. If you’re traveling for several days, experts and job candidates recommend taking along a few clothing options so that you can deal with changes in the weather and make last-minute adjustments. An emergency repair kit and even some tape can help you deal with ripped hems or a popped button. Use the iron in the hotel or carry a steamer, and pack a lint brush for clothing touch-ups. Even if you aren’t staying overnight, having an extra shirt in a briefcase or in the car can help you deal with unforeseen problems such as spilled food.
Occasionally things go wrong, like accidentally showing up with mismatched shoes. The best way to diffuse a potential disaster, Rothrock says, is to acknowledge the problem and have a sense of humor about it. But good planning can often save the day. Try your clothes on a few days before an interview to make sure your clothes fit, are clean, and match, she says: “You should prepare your outfit the same way that you prepare for interview questions or for a talk that you give.”
Do: Wear a jacket and clothes that fit well. Men, make sure your shirt collar is the right size: too large looks messy and too small can make wearing a tie uncomfortable. Be sure to hem pants if they’re too long, Kinder says.
Do: Make sure that you’ve removed all tags, tacking stitches, and even security tags from new clothing.
Do: Make sure that you feel comfortable taking the suit jacket off. The shirt or blouse under the jacket should be neatly pressed. Men should wear a long-sleeved button-down shirt. Women should make sure that their blouse is not revealing and does not show cleavage.
Do: Check your clothes in both natural and fluorescent lighting to make sure that colors match, Rothrock says.
Do: Think about the weather when considering your clothing choices. Be sure that you can walk in snow, ice, or rain if you’re interviewing in a climate with those conditions, Putzke says.
Do: Think conservative in terms of your hairstyle, Rothrock says. Women with hair longer than shoulder length might want to go with a low ponytail or put their hair up in a low bun. Men should be careful with the hair gel, she says: “We’ve had some men come in who were seriously shellacked.”
Do: Make sure that any purse, computer bag, portfolio, or briefcase looks neat and is not scratched, Urman says. But if you don’t need it, don’t carry it.
For more comprehensive tips on dressing for job interviews:
- Virginia Tech’s career office offers detailed tips for interview attire .
- Evelinda Urman and her business partner Judie Schwartz of Style Matters take questions at Ask Style Matters .
Sarah Webb has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry. She writes from Brooklyn, New York.