K.D. Shives is pursuing a PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. She can be found blogging about current topics in microbiology at kdshives.com and on twitter @kdshives.

As an undergraduate I had a wardrobe consisting of state university sweat pants, hoodies, flip-flops and free t-shirts. And why not? It was comfortable, easy, and everyone else dressed that way. However, when I got to graduate school I realized that my undergrad wardrobe was not going to cut it. There was no formal dress code, but it was clear by looking at my peers and professors that I needed to step up how I dressed in order to both fit in and be taken seriously. It is important to dress the part as graduate school is where we really begin our careers as scientists and start to interact with members of our field. Thankfully though, day-to-day academia can also be rather casual and there are many options for dressing.

Additionally, there is no need to sacrifice personal style. In the past many believed that young women in  academic careers needed to dress in a rather forgettable, mature, and even frumpy manner in order to be taken seriously. I have some major issues with this advice. No young woman attempting to establish an academic career wishing be taken seriously should intentionally go for frumpy and invisible. It’s also pretty obvious when a young woman is dressing too mature and ends up looking as though she is wearing a costume. I believe that as young female academics we have more options available to us that will still get us taken seriously. A well cut jacket over a cute top and properly fitted jeans is age appropriate and endlessly customizable without being distracting. Cute flats can be just as comfortable as those disintegrating Converse in the closet. By intentionally dressing we can craft an image that is age- and work-appropriate while retaining our individuality.

Here are some quick and simple upgrades from an undergraduate to a graduate work wardrobe:

  1. Cleanliness is key:  No more “off the floor, out the door.”
  2. If you sleep in it or wear it to the gym, it doesn’t go to work. No sweats, baggy tees, yoga pants, amorphous tank tops, hoodies, etc.
  3. Pay attention to fit: Cheaper clothes can look great if you find the right fit. Even expensive clothes look ridiculous if they are too tight or baggy.
  4. No visible bra straps/visible underwear/obvious cleavage/micro-miniskirts: This really should go without saying. Some would argue not baring your shoulders in a very conservative environment. Look at the culture around you for guidance. For skirts, two-three inches above the knee is as high as you need to go.
  5. Get some good shoes: Flats, pumps, boots, etc, as long as they are in good condition and walkable. Try to leave the gym shoes in the gym bag.
  6. Don’t be afraid of second hand when on a budget:  Graduate stipends can be notoriously tight, so try curated second hand stores such as the Buffalo Exchange which often have great clothes at high discounts.
  7. Discount stores can be great: This is similar to the second hand advice. Stores such as Nordstrom Rack often have the same clothes as the primary store at a good discount. This is a  great way to get more high-quality items with good construction that will last and won’t break your budget.
  8. The blazer is your friend: A good blazer thrown over a tee and jeans instantly upgrades a look. Try to find one that fits you well in a neutral color like black, navy or khaki; it will last forever.
  9. Upgrade your bag: Don’t be afraid to ditch your old backpack in favor of a functional messenger bag or multifunctional laptop case. Bonus points for natural materials like canvas or leather.
  10. Have a few “go-to” accessories: Having one or two good accessories such as a nice watch, earrings, or belt can tie together a very basic outfit that would be otherwise unremarkable

For a myriad of social and even psychological reasons it is advantageous to dress the part. Taking the time to dress appropriately can bolster your confidence and professional image. It doesn’t mean throwing out everything in your closet and adopting a new identity but slowly incorporating more appropriate and personally authentic items over time. It can even be a fun process if you have the right outlook.

So, are there any other tips that you have for those transitioning their wardrobe from undergraduate to graduate school expectations?


11 Responses to Dressing for Battle: Academic Armaments

  1. Dawn says:

    Good tips! I’d add, “Don’t shop in the Juniors section.” Some women can still fit in Juniors sizes, and the clothes tend to be less expensive and trendier, BUT Juniors items also tend to be very poorly constructed from low quality fabrics.

  2. Eva says:

    I agree with most of the above, yet I find it very hard to balance my age/look with conference-appropriate academic attire…

    As for day-to-day clothing that is suitable for assisting students and talking to funders, I have gradually started to replace T-shirts by blouses and detailed tops and hoodies by knit cardigans. A blazer is a step too far for me still, and since I bike to campus, I had to replace my beautiful leather bag by a solid backpack.

    • KD Shives says:

      That’s a really good point you have about the backpack. Functionality really does trump the little things in the end, especially when you’re on a bike.

      I don’t wear a blazer in day-to-day, I save it for presentations and interviews usually. It’s nice to have one though in case I need it.

  3. I wouldn’t want to be at a university where I am judged by my clothes. How shallow.

  4. Bethany says:

    Academichic.com is my favorite place to go to for grad student fashion advice. They’re no longer updating, but their archive is amazing. They even have several guest posts for guys as well.

  5. Love these tips – simple, straightforward, easy to follow, and a nice way of defining the differences between under- and post-grad dressing.

  6. K says:

    I think it’s very interesting how much the standards of dressing vary from department to department. As a field biology grad student, I sometimes feel that what is acceptable in other departments comes across as too dressy. On days when I interact with students I try to dress more professionally-which in my case sometimes means field chic instead of a blazer.

  7. Deborah Kilgore says:

    Follow the model of the best dressed professor you know. Now is a great time to visit consignment shops for deals on fall/winter jackets, shirts and more. A regents professor of chemistry recently advised students in a workshop on hiring to avoid anything that distracts from eye contact. She explained that meant everything from oversized prints to cleavage, bling or extreme hair. Don’t dress like a funeral director or for a club night.

  8. […] the length is long enough to sit down in across from your interviewer comfortably.  See my post “Dressing for Battle: Academic armaments” for a rundown of basic upgrades you can make to your work wardrobe that apply to the interview […]

  9. […] the length is long enough to sit down in across from your interviewer comfortably.  See my post “Dressing for Battle: Academic armaments” for a rundown of basic upgrades you can make to your work wardrobe that apply to the interview […]

  10. […] the length is long enough to sit down in across from your interviewer comfortably.  See my post “Dressing for Battle: Academic armaments” for a rundown of basic upgrades you can make to your work wardrobe that apply to the interview […]

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