Dressing M/F Scientists for Success / Three articles by scientists

This step by step article was published in 1997, but I doubt that it’s out of date for practical purposes.

Dressing Scientists for Success: Male Case Study

By Peter Fiske


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.

go to original for photos, etc.


Dressing Scientists for Success: Female Case Study

Women scientists face a much more challenging task when they set out to assemble a professional wardrobe. Women must navigate a much wider latitude of styles, colors, and suitable designs, and women’s styles pop in and out of fashion with frightening velocity. If that doesn’t make it complicated enough, women must also be mindful of how other people judge them by their dress, especially in a male-dominated environment like science. Unfortunately, women have to say and do twice as much with their professional attire than men do and do it for the same money or less.

There is no way I would be caught dead writing an article like this by myself. So I enlisted the help of the one person who I know has extraordinary experience buying women’s clothes–a veritable Clydesdale of fashion horses. I am of course referring to … my wife, Alison!

Together we went shopping with our West Coast fashion lab rat, Jen Nauen.

Jen recently finished her Ph.D. in biomechanics at Scripps and is headed off for a great postdoc at the University of California, Irvine. She has had some work experience at the Environmental Protection Agency and at a science museum, so she is familiar with professional attire. Her goal: a stylish but versatile outfit that would be appropriate at a science conference, in a “corporate casual” work environment, or in an academic job interview–in other words, the killer outfit.

go to original for photos, etc. http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/1998/10/dressing-scientists-success-female-case-study


And from the “freestyle” wardrobe closet: 

Robert Krampf / thehappyscientist.com

My scientific background is in geology, and like many geologists, I rarely had the need to wear a lab coat. The same thing was true through my many years in museum education and as a traveling science educator. Of course, now that I am producing science videos, there are times when I feel that I need to wear something to make me look more scientific. That is why I have a rabbit costume.

But that frou-frou dog is thoroughly embarrassing! 


A more recent article:

Dress to Profess: What Should Scientists Wear?

There’s no wrong answer to the question, “What’s the best piece of advice you can give a science graduate student?” Okay, maybe “neglect your research” would be a wrong answer. So would “hit on your thesis adviser’s spouse,” and “trust that a tenure-track position awaits you.”

But as I sat on one of those “Ask a Complacent Scientist Who Already Has a Job” career panels a few weeks ago at Florida International University, I thought no answer to that question could surprise me. Then one of the other panelists offered an unexpected piece of advice:

Fifty-year-old tenured professors wear whatever the hell they want, and 80-year-old professors emeriti wear the same clothes they wore at 50, minus pants.

“Dress well,” he said.

In any other career, that advice would seem innocuous, even obvious. Of course you want to wear a power suit with 5-inch shoulder pads when you ask the big boss for a raise during a round of golf because (at least according to Bewitched) that’s just what businesspeople do.

But for science? Dress well? Really?

First of all, “well” is relative. For me, dressing well means wearing one of the few items of clothing I paid money for—instead of most of my wardrobe, which I received for free, partly at conference exhibit halls.

More importantly, however, the advice just seems wrong for a scientist. If I came to work in a suit, everyone would ask me, “What’s with the suit?” If I explained that I was just trying to maintain a professional appearance, I’d get looks of pity, assumptions that I’m joking, and possibly a referral to the human resources (HR) department.

“Look,” the HR person would say, “we need to have a chat about your appearance. Are you sure you’re happy here in the lab? If you want to go work at a hedge fund, just say so.”

But for many scientists, dressing well is not just something that fails to interest us. It’s something we actively shun because it might broadcast the wrong priority. Nice clothing says, “I’m someone who cares about appearances, which means I can’t be someone who understands Maxwell’s equations.”

Some say that to succeed in science, we need to focus on our careers as closely as on our work. We need to brand ourselves, have a social media presence, and engage in self-promotion. Appearance doesn’t just imply general hygiene and not smelling like farts. It’s a form of marketing.

Yet, in my experience, the more advanced the scientist—and the more focused and serious—the freer he or she feels to dress like a cartoon hobo. Twenty-year-old interns wear ties. Thirty-year-old industry postdocs wear khakis. Forty-year-old research scientists wear sweatshirts. Fifty-year-old tenured professors wear whatever the hell they want, and 80-year-old professors emeriti wear the same clothes they wore at 50, minus pants.

It’s as though every academic achievement grants you the opportunity to tone down your formality. “Congratulations!” the dean says at your graduation. “Here’s your Ph.D.—now take off that jacket!” (Actually, I wonder: Are the 20-year-olds dressing more shabbily as their careers progress? Or are the best-dressed 20-year-olds getting weeded out by bench work, throwing down their pipettes at age 24, and saying, “Screw this; I’m going to law school”?)

I decided to conduct a highly scientific research study on science clothing, which is to say, I did a Google image search for “scientist clothing.” Here are 10 items the world thinks we wear: (It’s true; goggle it….)

1. White Lab Coat

This is the one piece of clothing that screams “scientist.” It is also worn by doctors, orderlies in sanitariums, and 1950’s ice cream salesmen.

2. Goggles
Goggles make sense if you’re doing an experiment that might splash into your eye. But the perception of scientists as wearers of oversized plastic goggles has gone too far. I once taught a ninth-grade exam review class called “Matter and Energy” (alternately known as “Science for Kids Constantly Distracted by Phones”), and our textbook included instructions for several enlightening experiments. Each one included a photo of happy children taking measurements—but no matter how mundane the activity, the children always wore goggles. Massive goggles. Dropping a marble alongside a yardstick or writing a plant’s height on a clipboard apparently requires full ocular protection. No wonder kids hate science.

3. Mortarboard
Thanks, Google image search, for reminding me that scientists wear a mortarboard (flat graduation hat) to work every day. The mortarboard is the universal symbol of scholarship, and wearing one means that you are smart. In addition to scientists, it’s often apparently worn by owls.

4. Wacky Science Tie
As mentioned above, most scientists don’t wear ties. But there’s always that one guy. You know who I mean. He has a collection of dozens of science-themed neckties and bowties—constellations, periodic table, bacteria, fractals, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew—and he wears a different one every day. When he’s not pirating manga or 3D printing his own circuit boards, he loves to remind the world that the conceits of fashion exist to be intelligently mocked. Let me tell you a secret about that guy: That guy is awesome.

5. Lab Timer
Yes, this counts as apparel, since you clip it onto your clothing. Not only does it help remind you when experiments need your attention, it helps remind everyone in the room. “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP! MY EXPERIMENT NEEDS ATTENTION!” it shrieks. “I’M IMPORTANT! I’M DOING LAB WORK AND NOT JUST SHARING BABY ELEPHANT PHOTOS ON PINTEREST!”

6. Pocket Protector
Like masking tape on eyeglasses, there was a time when this accessory was synonymous with general nerd culture, even though no nerds actually wore them. Now pocket protectors appear to have become an emblem of science, even though no scientists wear them. Come on, world: Pens aren’t dripping ink like they were in the nineteenth century. We’ve gone to practically universal ballpoint. What’s to protect?

7. Glasses with a Little Eyepiece that Lets You See Things Better
I asked my wife to name something scientists wear. She said, “Glasses … with a little eyepiece … that lets you see things better?” I think she thinks scientists are jewelers.

8. Gloves
Whether latex or nitrile, thermally insulated or polyurethane coated, gloves are a great piece of science clothing because they give you superhuman powers. You can handle hot, cold, sharp, or caustic substances without injury. In fact, if you wear latex gloves long enough in the lab, you’ll start to wish you wore them all the time in real life. “Look how grippy my fingers are!” you’d boast. “I can precisely manipulate tiny things! I feel like a basilisk lizard!”

9. A Pencil Sticking out of Your Hair Bun
I’ve avoided discussing female-specific fashion because (a) it feels creepy for me to talk about what women wear, and (b) I don’t actually understand anything about women at all. But the pencil-in-the-hair-bun is fairly straightforward. It’s a pencil, and it sticks out of your hair bun. Then again, lab notebooks should be written in pen, so maybe this fashion has evolved. Women who maintain electronic lab notebooks presumably keep a flash drive in their hair. I don’t actually understand anything about women. At all.

10. BSL-4 Positive Pressure Isolator Suit
According to the Internet, which is never wrong, most scientists dress for work as though they’re going to toss around a flask of Marburg virus while fabricating microchips inside a walk-in liquid nitrogen vapor phase freezer. The idea that we’d just stroll into the lab in street clothes is abhorrent, because it makes us seem human.


The man who suggested scientists “dress well” certainly practiced what he preached; despite the Florida heat, he wore a sharp-looking suit, including cuff links and one of those dress shirts whose collar is a lighter color than the rest of the shirt. (You know the kind I mean. Like the kind the boss wore in Office Space.)

Dressing well for an interview makes sense. It’s a sign of respect and broad-spectrum cleanliness. But in everyday lab work, each step toward formality feels like a pretention that distances us from humanness, from preoccupation with substance, from truth. We are not gullible businesspeople whose stature can be influenced by something as frivolous as the name on a label. We are scientists, and our work is more important than our shoes. Self-promotion falls flat unless there’s a hard-working scientist self to promote.

They say you should dress for the job you want. Fine with me. I choose to dress for the job that doesn’t care how I dress.


Happy, Happy! Lookin’ at rocks…


2 thoughts on “Dressing M/F Scientists for Success / Three articles by scientists

  1. Ergo, it’s not enough to ‘do’ the work – one must also ***sell*** one’s work also. This requires CONvincing one’s compatriots that one is 1) an asset to their schemes (of domination, or whatever); 2) that one is not a threat to them and their schemes; 3) that one does not have the social equivalent of ‘cooties’.

    The list is a fair bit longer, and I’m not altogether sure just what is on it beyond the three thing’s I’ve listed.

    I am altogether certain, however, that for one of ***us*** to pull off the *sell* part, we would need to acquire a large measure of NPD/ASPD – a fair bit more than most Norms, in fact – as we would be playing by an entirely different (in a bad sense) version of the ‘rules’ compared to those same Norms.

    More, it is likely that we would actually ***need*** to become full-fledged ***diagnosable*** PDers to actually participate in society, as we would be viewed and treated as if we were ‘hard-core *social climbers*’ – and that simply because we ***would be doing*** that exact thing.

    In Normdom’s hard-coded ***caste system***, untouchables are not allowed anything outside of their position of being outside of humanity, and their presence is tolerated so long as they are useful in achieving the ends of their betters (like a draft animal). If they don’t serve the purposes of their masters by work, then they are to be scenery in their masters’ ***power-plays***.
    Any other activity is seen as useless/pathological/evil, and is dealt with viciously and ruthlessly.

    I would say that the example of ***dalits*** parallels ours; and as there is little call for dung-gathering in L’amerika, we have little use to Normdom’s schemes.


    • When all the socio-psycho blah, blah, blah is done; the studies, lies and propaganda finished, “having the cooties” is as good an explanation for neurotypicals as to the origin of our defective “condition” as any other.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s