I can recall the horrid stench of body odor emanating from the auditorium doors. I was attending my first departmental chemistry seminar as a graduate student on a hot afternoon in late August. I had to cover my nose so as to not gag from the putrid fumes. “Oh, someone probably got a thiol on themselves in lab,” I was convinced, believing it to be socially unacceptable to not wear deodorant in graduate school. I was kidding myself. Just when I thought it was all over, I spotted a fourth-year in the audience sporting plaid pajama pants. It was 5:00 p.m. The student’s adviser was in the next seat. I left the seminar in shock. This was my first real taste of academia.
As a fourth-year, I have overcome my academic culture shock and am much more accepting of the casual environment. While I’m sure we all rejoice in the relaxed ambience that characterizes academia, there comes a time when we must venture beyond the scholastic realm and into a professional setting. This is especially true when we find ourselves interviewing for a job. Even if you aim to stay in academia and are seeking a postdoc or professorship position, I can promise you that showing up for an interview in your daily lab ensemble—an acid-eaten tee shirt, no deodorant, and plaid PJ bottoms—will not go over well. “Oh, but my research will sell itself!” you may declare. Perhaps on paper, but in real life—where your interviewer’s olfactory and visual senses play a role—you should try to dress the part. Here we provide an overview of essential dressing and hygiene tips that are appropriate in the professional interview setting. Take heed! We know the importance of data presentation when composing figures for peer-reviewed papers. The same goes for your personal physical presentation in interviews. Like it or not, looks do matter.
Dress to Impress
Maybe it’s been years since you last stepped inside a clothing store. I understand—it’s difficult to focus on fashion when your main priority is synthesizing the first room-temperature superconductor or discovering novel cancer-fighting pharmaceuticals. Personally, I enjoy perusing style magazines and Pinterest boards in my “free time;” I also partake of the occasional retail therapy when dealing with failed experiments or lackluster referee reviews. But I know others who absolutely abhor shopping and find the concept of matching outfits overwhelming. This article is not meant to overwhelm—it’s meant to help alleviate your dress distress. I promise—landing that dream job will be so much more of a reality when you walk into the interview feeling confident and composed. A polished outfit can actually have that effect.
If you believe a suit is, well, suitable for an interview, then you are not wrong. The safest choice of garb to wear to an interview is a classic-colored suit—usually navy, black, or gray. Men can pair this with a button down shirt and tie. For women, a V-neck or scoop neck top generally goes nicely. However, be sure the neckline remains modest if you lean forward. If a blouse buttons down the front, check for gapping. Many a professional woman has resorted to a well-placed inside pin or two between the buttons that don’t quite do their job. While pencil skirts are an alternative to pants, they should be worn at or below the knee. In this setting, be sure to wear neutral-colored or conservative solid (i.e., no fishnets, patterns, or bright colors) stockings with skirts.
By simply removing your jacket, you can effortlessly transform a suit from business professional to business casual. For that reason, make sure the top under your blazer is comfortable—and appropriate. Ladies—you may think no one will see that cropped top (or bandeau) under your jacket, but be wary. What if you spill your iced skinny caramel macchiato on your jacket five minutes prior to your interview, but have no Tide-to-Go handy to remove the stain? Or what if the AC is broken and it’s 100° F in the office and you have no choice but to remove your blazer—or risk sweating through your suit or suffering from heatstroke? Or both? Armpit stains don’t look good on anyone. Rule of thumb: Always expect the unexpected, and wear decent clothes underneath your suit.
To match your suit, you need professional footwear. Men should invest in a pair of dress shoes. Women have a little more leeway with footwear, but should stick to dark-colored, closed-toed shoes. While some heel is fine (I’m a proponent of the kitten heel)—anything with a platform or stiletto should be avoided. Flats are appropriate and potentially more comfortable. Dark boots are also an option—and can be paired nicely with a skirt. You won’t know how much walking you’ll have to do on your interview—around the lab or plant site—so comfort is key.
You should assemble your outfit with the same attention to detail that you would use to assemble your answers to potential interview questions.
Personality and Accessorizing
My favorite color is pink (hex code #FF69B4, to be exact). This color has manifested itself in all areas of my life—from PowerPoint presentations, to décor in my apartment, to figures in my papers. I feel most confident when I am wearing my color. I am also very particular about it. I don’t do magenta, fuchsia, or “pale violet red.” While I would never go with a full-on pink pantsuit (honestly, only Jackie Kennedy could successfully pull that off), I’ve managed to successfully incorporate the color into my interview outfit a number of times, be it a pink sweater, V-neck blouse, or pink nails. When there is a will, there is a way.
I realize that pink is a bit daring for some, however. Perhaps you would prefer to reveal just a hint of personality. Scarves or simple jewelry are a great means to achieve this. A pearl necklace and stud earrings are both elegant and sophisticated. For men, a nice watch, tie tack or tie bar, lapel pin, or a combination of them, will do the trick. Experts err on the side of caution where untraditional piercings—such as those in the eyebrows, lips, or tongue—are concerned. It may be best to omit them for an interview. They also suggest covering tattoos. If you feel naked without polished nails, like I do, I’d stay away from blues, greens, and yellows. I admire women with red nails (they exemplify boldness), but for an interview it’s better to tone down the nail color. Anything from nude to light pink is perfectly acceptable.
In addition to nail polish colors and jewelry, bags are another important accessory. You should always bring a few copies of your resume to an interview, ideally in a portfolio. This, along with other essential items, should be placed in a leather (or vegan leather) tote bag or briefcase. If your budget really won’t accommodate leather, these items should be placed in a clean, neutral-colored tote bag or briefcase. If your outfit is black, a corresponding black bag should accompany it. As you may be aware, it is a fashion faux pas to mix brown with black or black with navy in large amounts. Don’t be that person.
Tailoring: A few strategic alterations done by a skillful tailor can make all the difference to the way a suit looks on an individual of either sex. Good department stores often offer this service for free, but sometimes there is a charge. A reputable drycleaner may also be able to recommend a tailor. A well-placed adjustment or two can yield a huge payoff for your overall look. Remember to allow time for alterations—they can take several weeks.
Backup Plan: The truly prepared always keep a fresh shirt or blouse, tie (for men), and stockings (for women) with them for emergencies.
Coordinated Accessories: You might also want to be aware of coordinating the color of your portfolio, bag, or brief case with your belt and shoes. If you are unable to match everything, your shoes should always be the darkest element of your outfit, to “ground” it visually.
Cuticle Care: Moisturizing your cuticles is another detail that can make hands and nails look significantly neater for both men and women. There are plenty of good cuticle creams on the market, but rubbing a little Vitamin E or petroleum jelly into your cuticles before bed for several nights will also do the job.
Neaten Hair: Control flyaway hairs by spritzing hair spray onto a boar-bristle brush and going lightly over your hair with it.
First and foremost, please wear antiperspirant. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy—just something to prevent the smell of body odor and to avoid sweat stains. Conversely, avoid cologne, perfume, or other scented products, as they can go too far in the opposite direction. Some people are highly allergic to certain fragrances and may enter anaphylactic shock if they inhale even a tiny amount of perfume. Let’s try to avoid that happening to your interviewer.
Second, make sure your nails are clean. Remove chipped nail polish, as this can be distracting. Everyone should clip and file jagged nails. You don’t want them catching on your clothing or scraping your interviewer when you shake hands.
Third. Try to tame your hair. Trim split ends. Get those eyebrows under control. Men: Whatever your personal preference is regarding facial hair, make sure it’s well-kept and clean. Also, be conservative with the hair gel. No need to go overboard.
Both men and women might want to consider using a “military tuck” for shirts or blouses. There are tutorials for this online, but basically you gather excess fabric at waistband level, at the sides. The front and back of your shirt will look smooth. Then you fold the excess fabric flat at the sides, toward the back. Finally you button your waistband. This technique creates a neat, “finished” appearance. Remember to line up your shirt buttons with your zipper or fly and belt buckle. (If your waistband has belt loops, you ought to be wearing a belt.)
Putting It All Together
You should assemble your outfit with the same attention to detail that you would use to assemble your answers to potential interview questions. Try on your clothes a few days before the interview to make sure they fit. Check the colors in natural and fluorescent light—sometimes brown appears black in certain settings. Also, inspect your clothes to make sure all of the tags and size stickers have been removed. And finally, relax. Many times, something will go wrong. You may find yourself wearing two different-colored socks, for example. The best thing to do is simply laugh it off. Employers like people who can laugh at themselves—it shows humility, which is an admired personality trait. So study up, suit up, and smile. If you give it your all, you’ll have no regrets.