interview clothes

Pardon my making an executive decision here, but it seems that the “what to wear to an interview” thread that got started in the comments on a prior post should get its own line. Here is the original question: One grad student told me that her adviser said not to wear black at a jobtalk, nor shoes that were too stylish and “youthful.” This same adviser reportedly said that one wasn’t to dress too nicely, either, lest they look too wealthy and ‘unneeding of the job.’ The first few replies are here , which can be characterized as scary stories about people making you feel bad about your clothes. Apart from getting scared by academic legends, do people have any real opinions about what to do for an interview?

My opinion for what it is worth, since I am notoriously clueless about fashion. I once read a book giving advice about what to wear for various occupations that had general advice on the order of “spend 1 month’s income on your clothes”!!. For educators the advice was: “Try not to be too sloppy.” So I think that probably benchmarks us. Wear something you feel comfortable in that is on the dressy side of what you normally wear, so you will satisfy the people who feel you should look like you are making some sort of effort, but wear something that feels like “you” and not a stranger. You want people to notice you and not your clothes. If your normal comfortable style includes some fashion or pizazz, then go for it but avoid extremes. I also think women should avoid spike heels, but that is because I think they are equivalent to foot binding, and I hate to see young women give up on all the political advances we made when we insisted that women should wear shoes you can walk in.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

13 thoughts on “interview clothes”

  1. Whoa! Three posts go up in 8 minutes, a Scatterplot record! Sorry to Ramona for pushing her debut post off the front page!

    We can take up the clothing question now, but I still like the idea of considering some piece of floating-academic-wisdom as a regular weekly feature. All that we need are a choice about what day of the week for the post to go up, and ideally a catchy name.


  2. Agreed. My advice would echo that of olderwoman.

    Here are a few things I would suggest based on observations where I have been on the other side of the interview table (n=approx. 36)

    1. If you are pale, have very light hair, and blush intensely when nervous, do NOT under any circumstance where a red suit.

    2. Show enough common sense to take into account the weather where you are interviewing. High heels and a short skirt are a bad idea for a campus with a forecast of temperatures maybe reaching a high of 0 degrees F with snow and ice cover.

    3. Men, you are better off wearing something slightly less dressy than a suit that hasn’t fit properly since you bought it for your high school graduation/friend’s wedding four years ago/grandfather’s funeral it.

    4. Generally, err on the side of your clothing being forgettable. This is not the time to make an extreme fashion statement with fur-edged lapels on a suit jacket (debates about whether the fur was real or fake aren’t going to help your chances when the committee makes its selection). Orange and lime green suits don’t really look good on that many people.

    My guess is that most people worry too much about the issue of what to wear. I opted for simple dresses often with matching jackets or long skirts and sweaters depending on the weather. I think I did okay with regard to outcomes. I have had 4 campus interviews, three resulted in offers and the final one would have had the funding for the position not been pulled. I doubt what I wore helped or hurt me in any of those decisions.


  3. You want people to notice you and not your clothes.

    This seems to be key here. What are clothes/accessories that will distract people?

    I’d say, if the clothes don’t fit or aren’t clean, that can be awkward. I agree that they need to be comfortable. There are enough distracting and stressful events that go on during the interview process that the last thing one should be dealing with is feeling uneasy in one’s clothes. (And yes! This certainly goes for shoes!)

    I’d recommend layers to the extent possible, and a nice enough shirt that one can take off one’s coat/jacket if a room is too hot.

    Jeremy, can you say more about the centralized manner in which this series would function? Would only one person be posting those questions? Would there be a phrase before the title “Plotbusters Anonymous: xyz”? I’m not convinced that people should have to hold back on such topics. But perhaps you are looking to introduce them based on emails someone gets or something so that not only Scatterplot contributors can add to the list of issues discussed. I’m just curious about the logistics.


  4. As a graduate student, I can only remember three of the outfits of some unknown number of job candidates who gave talks. One I remember because she looked nice and professional (and later became my friend): an olive drab skirt-suit. Good talk and she was hired.

    Another was a woman in a bright red mini skirt-suit and high heels (I think she was a potential senior hire). Her talk was good but her outfit garnered about equal attention. The students were pretty impressed that she wore something so daring. She was hired elsewhere in the university.

    he third was a man with a studied hipster/cool/academic look: jeans, tweed jacket (probably with elbow patches), white button down shirt and huge black-framed glasses. His talk was also good and we got a kick out of his non-standard outfit. It was the jeans and glasses that made it “pop.” He got an offer but there were complications and he wasn’t hired.

    However, the more standard your outfit it, the more attention people will pay to your words. It is worth making some effort to look clean, neat and somewhat conservative. If you come in wearing super nice “business school” or “law school” outfits, people will notice, but I can’t imagine it hurts you.


  5. The clothes should be something that is in your usual style. Otherwise, they may make you feel uncomfortable or a bit (more) unreal during the talk, which could affect your performance. They will also be suitable with your usual style of conversation and gesture, and your self-presentation will be consonant.

    The story about the red mini-skirt outfit is interesting. Such an outfit sounds like a bit of a highwire act: if it succeeds, it makes an impression. If it flops, it will be a big flop and you may not know it. I try to stay away from highwire acts when I’m interviewing for a job.


  6. You also have to check out the culture of the department in which you will be interviewing. We recently interviewed for a senior prof and had three finalists visit campus. One wore unmemorable clothes. The second wore a suit. The third wore shorts and a slightly grubby t-shirt, with flipflops that he slipped off partway through the day.

    In most universities, I think it would be the third person whose attire would be cause for comment. As it was, he blended in just as well as the first guy, since that outfit is pretty much the uniform for the other researchers in that dept. And his job talk was about field-work in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, so he just came across as rugged and ready for anything.

    People whispered rude comments about the second guy’s suit all day, “Who does he think he is?” etc.


  7. I think olderwoman’s initial frame of this problem is the most useful. For women, interview clothing is a special problem, and they are likely to draw negative attention to themselves no matter what they do. Whether they err to the boring/frumpy/all black side of things, or whether they are up on the red miniskirt highwire, they run the risk that someone will judge them for it. It is, in my view, exponentially more difficult for women to wear the outfit that will be generally acceptable than for men. While men might get some bad attention from wearing sneakers or having a stained shirt, the norms are clear. For women, not so.

    That said, I have to side with those who advise to dress your identity, on the dressed-up side. If wearing a fabulous outfit makes you feel like a great candidate, then that’s the best choice for you.


  8. I remember once seeing a job talk by a woman who was wearing this shirt with a strange design on it that I realized, maybe halfway through, was these giant gondolas with gondoleers. Then I thought, “she’s wearing a shirt with gondolas” and, “I wonder if she got that while visiting Venice.” And maybe, “I would never wear a shirt with gondolas on it to teach. And certainly not to give a job talk. Would I if I were a woman?” And on and on. I don’t really know if it was a negative impression, really, but I usually am pretty oblivious to clothes and instead I found that my contemplation kept returning to the gondola shirt.

    I think there was a moral to that story, but it’s really late and I’m not going to bother trying to reconstruct it.


  9. I would like to second two pieces of advice for women that have already been offered–1) try to find a slightly dressier version of what you usually wear and 2) wear layers with the bottom layer being one that you would be happy enough to be seen in without the outer layer. It is important to feel comfortable and confident. Then, wear that outfit for a day at home to see if it really is comfortable as you go through your day. Many outfits feel comfortable in a dressing room when you are not doing much. And one additional suggestion — spend the time and money to get a comfortable pair of dress shoes.


  10. People whispered rude comments about the second guy’s suit all day, “Who does he think he is?” etc.

    I find this kind of reverse snobbery pretty irritating.


  11. I swear that I commented on this yesterday, providing a link to Dan Myers’ discussion of this (and whether it was wrong for women to wear black on the market) on his white cards message board last year, but I echo what’s been said here by cutting and pasting my comment from that discussion:

    I bought a black suit for the job market. I wanted a different color (not because I’d heard the Wisconsin rumor, just that I don’t wear much black), but comfort trumped color. I found one jacket that I really loved and felt was comfortable and flattering, and it only came in black, so I built my suit around that. I did wear a pink shirt underneath to soften it up a bit.

    Comfort is what I would suggest people focus on. Not that any suit is really comfortable for some of us who would like to live in jeans, but finding one that you’re comfortable in and that you feel suits you will help give you much needed confidence to sustain you through the interview.

    Also, although I bought a pair of “comfortable” (and I use the term loosely) heels, I ended up wearing dress boots for all my interviews and was a MUCH happier person than I was hobbling around in those heels at the ASA meetings.


  12. These kinds of conversations always give me anxiety, because I’m about as short as a pre-teen and look terrible in suits, jackets, coats, sweater-sets, and just about any other layering situation. I know, I know, jackets aren’t the rule. But still. My style (and my body) are not conducive to academia’s standards of “normal.” It’s just something some of us have to deal with.


  13. Well, I’m not “normal” for other reasons and never look fashionable or appropriate by the usual standards. Thus I get really annoyed (as do some others) about all the irrelevant personality attributions that are made on the basis of clothing. (This would be different if the job were fashion-related.) You obviously have to go with what looks and feels good to you.

    I think the layering point was just that rooms can vary tremendously in temperature and it is nice to be able to adapt.


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