What should an academic look like?

Since embarking on an academic career a  few years ago, I have found myself constantly struggling with the issue of my appearance at work – trying to strike a balance between being myself, and appearing suitably professional and authoritative. I know that this is an issue for others too and so thought I would reflect on the issue… So what should an academic look like?

Recently I was reminded by Dr @Nadine_Muller of a conversation we had last year about academics with tattoos – facial piercings etc, and what should you wear both for an academic interview and whilst working as a university lecturer. Others (@memories_child, @clioclothed, @tinyhippo1979) joined the conversation on twitter and suggested that this was something that they also struggled with.

There seems to be a perception that tattoos, piercings etc are not appropriate. I don’t think that this is an explicit requirement, more a general feeling from those of us who are pierced or painted, and silent disapproval from some of our peers. This is perhaps down to a long-held perception as to what an academic looks like based upon tradition, and probably says more about the insecurity of us as individuals that of the institutions that we work for. I am not aware of any academic institutions setting out specific dress code requirements (although of a lot of other organisations do). Whatever the reason, it seems that many academics feel the need to hide their art in order to get the job, or be taken seriously by students and peers once in a job.

In my case I do not have any tattoos  I have a nose piercing and two relatively small ear stretchers (10mm). Until relatively recently, I also had very long dreadlocks. To date I have only had one issue – I was asked whilst having some promotional photographs taken for a university business facing publication, to remove my nose ring. I refused  and the photo that was published was of the other side of my face.

Lately the issue for me has become more about what to wear. I am a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy and I guess kind of scruffy most of the time. I do not feel comfortable in a suit and can’t stand wearing a tie or a pair of stiff shoes. I tend to compromise when I am teaching by wearing an informal shirt over the jeans – but even then I generally feel under dressed. A quick look around at my colleagues reinforces these feelings. Some (male and female) spend their days in a full suit. Others seem to be able to pull of the smart jeans, shirt and shoes look. Some even sport the sports jacket with patches on the elbows cliché.

To be honest I look like a student…

This has its benefits and drawbacks. On the positive, students seem to identify with me a little more and I am told that makes me more approachable. From a negative perspective sometimes colleagues do not recognise me as a member of the academic staff and give me a quizzical ‘why are you in this meeting?’ look. Sometimes students enter the lecture theatre and say ‘alright mate – has the lecturer not turned up yet…”. I also often have my experience questioned – although I am almost 38 years old – but look 10 years younger (apparently) and have had a long and varied career both in academia and industry. Thankfully all of these issues disappear once I start talking – but first impressions and all that…

Of course all of this is not ideal. The way that an individual looks should bear no relationship with their ability to do the job, and any suggestion that there is a standard ‘academic’ look is ridiculous. We should, of course, celebrate the diversity of mind and body within all society in general, and the academy should be no different. However I fear that many academics will continue to feel the need to cover up, dress up and ‘conform’ to the perceived image of a university academic.

As always I would love to hear what others think, so please use the comments to let me know if this is an issue for you…

34 comments on “What should an academic look like?
  1. I think “looking like a student” should not be a problem. I’d rather enjoy it while it lasts– it probably has to do with age rather than the clothes you wear or any body decoration.

    I completely agree with you that “the way that an individual looks should bear no relationship with their ability to do the job, and any suggestion that there is a standard ‘academic’ look is ridiculous. We should, of course, celebrate the diversity of mind and body within all society in general, and the academy should be no different.” It’s up to all of us to create this kind of culture which welcomes and embraces difference (and this includes gender, class, ethnicity, religion, nationality, disability).

    I am tattooed (I suppose not many of my students and/or colleagues know this and now I’m saying this publicly). I do notice people stare at my tattoos when I’m not wearing long sleeves. In a way as you suggest in your post it has to do with my own insecurities– I’m tattooed after all; there would be something wrong with them if people didn’t notice them 😉

    I have to say I am normally shy about showing my tattoos to people who don’t know me well. So when teaching or in professional settings I wear long sleeves, even when the weather is warm/hot. I think that showing large colourful tattoos can be distracting and when I’m lecturing or in professional situation I’d rather be listened to than visually examined/judged and potentially misunderstood or discriminated. I have also lectured and given presentations in short sleeves: often in popular culture conferences or to students that already know who I am and what I like.

    • Thanks for the comment Ernesto – and the honesty. I guess I share your fears that you may not be being listened to if you are being examined visually – its that first impressions thing again. I also suspect that the issues is discipline specific? Perhaps those working in arts/design/culture etc fell less constrained than other disciplines?

      Alex

  2. I remember going to an enormous (thousands of people) bioinformatics conference as a PhD student while I had my eyebrow pierced and feeling like I was the only person there with anything other than pierced ears. Although I don’t have a piercing currently I’d like to get my eyebrow re-pierced, but I’m applying for postdocs and don’t want to risk it giving a bad impression 🙁

    • I know what that feels like 🙁 – I have been to a couple of conferences where It seemed I was the only person not wearing a suit. People look at you like you are in the wrong room. But then again I do kinda like it when I get up to speak and surprise a few people 😉

  3. I feel like a fraud for not “growing up” and donning the fancy, girly clothes. For me, anything that takes a second thought feels a bit like a costume; I suppose if I’m judged for the perceived poor level of unprofessionalism, I shouldn’t think so much of the institution. Still, it does seem a bit odd that some academics get caught up in this meta game, like teaching or researching isn’t the real goal.

  4. This is an interesting discussion. I am tattooed – not heavily, but in various places that can easily be seen depending on the style shirt I am wearing. I guess I have never felt like anyone has ever paid much attention to my artwork when I am presenting or singing (I am also a liturgical cantor). When I interview for a job I do wear the typical garb of a pantsuit, which does cover up my tattoos, but my intention is not to hide my art – it just happens.

    Where I have received negative feedback in the past is about my clothing choices. I am a graduate student and have been told by professors that my clothing choices in the classroom have been distracting. The institute of the program I’m in meets in the summertime and the air conditioning in the lecture halls is not very good. Last summer I wore shorts and halter tops to class because it was unbearably hot at times. The average age of a student in my program is 45+, older than the typical grad student, and I’m under that. I also work out quite a bit and am healthy. Anyways, the comments I received as that my clothing in class was too tight or revealing. My reply was if the school wanted to have a summer institute they needed to invest in better AC.

    • Hi Krista

      You raise an interesting point about clothing from a ‘too revealing’ point of view. Must say I have not thought about that before – sounds like a very dodgy view your professors hold. I am sure that a lot of people will have something to say about this…

  5. I think I tend to dress fairly smartly, but I’m certainly not the type to don a suit other than for an important interview. You need to feel comfortable in what you wear, or you won’t be able to relax and do your job properly – that’s especially important if lecturing/speaking at a conference…people notice if you don’t feel comfortable and they wonder why. So I’d say it is better to wear what you want to wear, let people make their judgements and then prove them wrong.

    I have a few tattoos – they are small ones, but normally 2 of them can be seen. I’ve never felt the need to cover them in my job, or even at interview…maybe that is just because they are small though?

  6. I actually am still a (PhD) student, but I struggle over my appearance while at conferences – I already look younger than I am, so I worry that my informal, brightly-coloured clothing & pink hair will subtract an additional 5-10 years off my age.

    Admittedly, I get frustrated with the “oh are you looking to start a MSc?” questions, but try to take them as an opportunity. If people underestimate me based on appearances, I just need to let my abilities speak for themselves. Furthermore, having a unique attribute (nose piercing, pink hair, dreads) might help you stand out from the crowd, which could be useful during job searches… then again, maybe not. I’ll get back to you on that in a few months… 🙂

    For clothing, I’ve found that I’m incredibly uncomfortable wearing drab coloured polyester suits. Not only are they physically restrictive and itchy, but they throw me off mentally and emotionally as well. Wearing something that isn’t “me” makes me feel false and unauthentic. And that detracts from my abilities. When I’m comfortable and confident, I’ll do a much better job of explaining my work, giving a talk, or even just speaking with colleagues. I do tend to dress “up” a bit for conferences, beyond my typical jeans, tee, and hoodie, but not to the same extent as others.

    Fortunately, ornithologists are among the most casual of conference-goers, so it’s less a problem if I stick to that realm. I feel a bit more out of place with conservation biology, waterfowl, and wildlife management people.

    Thanks for discussing this problem in a post – I’ve been making to write something similar. I’m interested to read further comments, especially from untattooed/unpierced individuals!

  7. I am very heavily tattooed – I have tattoos on my hands, face and neck. However, my academic work is *about* tattooing, so perhaps that explains my slight free-ride on this (I’ve never had a problem)…

    I do try and dress smart-casually anyway – always a shirt – but often wear jeans. Honestly, academia in genera; and art history in particular do seem to be very tolerant of eccentricity of all stripes.

    • Thanks Matt

      I think that the issue is probably discipline specific to a degree – but agree with your point about eccentricity. When I am feeling particularly scruffy I reassure myself that I am simply being eccentric 🙂

  8. I read an op-ed on the Chronicle’s website a year or so ago about a professor who decided to ‘dress up’ for a while. He invested a lot of money in a few high quality suits and went to work, for lack of a better term, like a business professor. Instantly, his students were attentive, straight-backed, and more mentally ‘present.’ He did note, I think, that the class room turned into a space that was entirely too much energy, effort (and money) for him to maintain and ended up relaxing back to somewhere in between ‘well-dressed,’ and casual. Personally, I wear trousers early on and switch to jeans once we’re all on the same page. Thankfully, we work in field where we have a choice!

    • Thanks for this – very interesting! I know there is a lot of research out there on the importance of clothes (in particular shoes) in the workplace both in setting an atmosphere for those around you, but also in making yourself feel authoritative or equipped for a particular setting. Never though about a more considered strategy such as you suggest…

      Alex

  9. Very interesting discussion. I also look younger than I am and people sometimes think I’m in high school or doing a bachelor, although I’m about to start a PhD. I’ve tried dressing more “grown up” than the students, using nice shoes (with heels) and a blazer. But I often feel over dressed and just like you I’m worried that people won’t take me seriously. It’s also difficult to find nice clothes and shoes that are practical and comfortable for hours of lab work.
    I agree that we should all be able to dress the way we wan’t too, both “extra fancy and un-fancy”, but I also think we all are guilty of judging people by their clothes…

  10. Thanks for writing this! Like I said on Twitter, my mods are something I’ve never given a second thought to in relation to academia, though I am now (belatedly) wondering whether I should be… 😉

    I guess I’m fairly well modded. I’ve got half sleeves and a leg piece, chest piece, and wrist and hand tattoos, as well as stretched ears and facial piercings, so there’s always something on show. Though I’m a PhD student my day job is in the Civil Service and I often meet company directors, MDs and high-ups in the Civil Service, and the clothes I wear to work usually consist of a V-neck top, so my chest piece at least is always visible. I’ve never had any negative comments from my (very professional) workplace though, and I assumed that academia would be the same. I’m really not sure if I’m bothered if it’s not though. I think what’s clear from the comments that other people have made is that feeling comfortable is by far the most important thing. I feel far more comfortable when I have some mods on show than I do when I cover them up, and I’m going to do my best work when I’m comfortable – regardless of whether others are comfortable with my mods or not.

    (I’ve written a couple of pieces for BMEzine.com on having visible mods. I’m putting the links up in case anyone’s interested, though they were written a good few years ago! http://news.bme.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/pubring/edit/A51222/artbecom.html http://news.bme.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/pubring/edit/A50804/artmodsa.html)

  11. N1 Alex – finally a proper academic discussion about academic attire…

    Have to admit to getting asked if I’m a student quite a lot – and bear in mind, I teach at the OU where fashion is [employer_deleted].

    I have to admit to playing on that a bit and did sit in the ‘audience’ at one tutorial. Then, after it was about 3-4 minutes late in starting and we were all complaining about the missing lecturer, I got up and said ‘right, I’ll do it myself’.

    Another recollection would be in a management meeting (not at the OU) where dress code was raised – and the possibility of a dress down Friday was being debated. Sitting there in my charity shop, 7-years-out-of-fashion-wear, I tended to get a few frowning sideways looks. I then suggested that we have an ethical dress policy or socially sustainable dress policy – this was not met with the ringing endorsement that I thought it might…

    So I reckon it turns out that clothes are really boring socio-political symbols. They enforce pack positions (@sinner’s lecturer is a good example) and they do actually matter in terms of how we recognise and respond to status. Not saying that’s right, it’s just conditioning.

    Final recollection would be that I very recently attended an interview dressed ‘normally’ (I wear trousers with BIG pockets and the rest is charity shop whatever) and it wasn’t a problem.

    The problems start when you take your clothes off…

    • Hi Derek

      Thanks for the comments. Love the idea of an ‘ethical clothes’ day. I can only imagine the response from my colleagues if I suggested that 🙂 and yes – unfortunately the way in which we dress does appear to be entangled within our whole social system – reinforcing rank, structures and importance etc. Perhaps that’s the solution. Ban clothes – might have to move somewhere warmer though 😉

  12. I’m not an academic but I work with them. The comments about my piercings (from academics; to students I am ‘miss-with-the-piercings’) are frequently hilarious: my favourite subtle enquiry about how pierced I am was ‘How long does it take you to get ready for an MRI scan?'(10 mins, if you’re wondering but most of that is filling in forms and assuring technicians I haven’t forgotten one). It’s not serious but definitely shows their confusion with such commonplace mods. None of the circa 600 academics and PhD students I work with in an engineering faculty have more than a few earrings visible at any time.

    An interesting things is that discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of appearance is explicitly *not* illegal or even cautioned against in many institutional policies (including mine). I raised this in my equalities training and noone saw it as a problem. This does bug me a bit.

    • Thanks for the comment

      You raise an interesting point about employment policies – could be quite worrying from a discrimination point of view. I am not aware of any policy on this at my institution.

      On a related note, I used to work in retail management, and the organisation did have a dress code policy which stated no visible tattoos or facial piercings. The ridiculous thing was that the company was a music retailer and it seemed crazy that staff were expected to not look like the customers they were often serving 😉

      Alex

  13. Got the same issues man. Currently, I work as a National Program Officer for one of the UN-funded NGOs in the Philippines. When you are in the world of development work in this country, you have no choice but to come across and deal with old [and most of the time] stereotypical people. When you’re young, you would always be branded as someone “inexperienced”, “incapable”, or worst “incompetent”. Just like you, when I attend meetings, these old folks scrutinize me as if I am a deadly bacteria under a microscope. My early months had been a struggle to prove something that you are way beyond your youthful look. These same people would wear the most formal outfit always, as opposed to me being rocker-ish or I-don’t-care-about-you-but-I’ll-wear-this. But eventually as I talk to discuss agendas in meetings or train/teach fellow health service providers, this twenty-something national program officer gets respect, eventually…

    It’s my long way of saying that carefree professionals like us get the most unfair treatment in our own industries because we are always judged because of our facade and not with what we are capable of doing as individuals. I am glad to have found someone like you online, whom I can relate with.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Dr. Alex. 🙂

  14. Completely agree on this, and I have the same issues as you regarding sartorial elegance and go for the same jeans and casual shirt combo, sometimes with a jumper over the top of the crumpled shirt. Occasionally I feel like an unmade bed but then I am employed for my research capability.. annoying thing is that i have a couple of colleagues who are all style and no substance, who spend more time on polishing brass blazer buttons than doing any research or updating their material problem is it takes time for the students to become wise to this and there is an element of them having preconceived notions about who is the most ‘professional’.
    I also work with some colleagues in the medical profession who explain to me that the ‘look’ is all part of the professional presentation. When a patient goes to talk to a senior surgeon they expect the professionalism of a three-piece suit. This is something I struggle with especially when appearing at interdisciplinary conferences – I am an engineer by profession so not one used to Savile Row style.
    Not sure what the solution is other than to suck it up every now and then and dress in an uncomfortable fashion. I have a colleague who is a pharmacy researcher whose wardrobe seems to consist entirely of tie-dye t shirts…not sure I could get away with that so I guess it all comes down to how much of ‘the game’ any of us want to play.

  15. I’ve taken one of the first MOOC’s out there last year and one of the two professors was Peter Norvig.

    Although topics were quite interesting and challenging you could bet your bottom dollar that on the collaboration forum there would be at least a thread discussing Peter’s shirt at any time.

    Course title should have been hawaiian shirts and artificial intelligence 🙂

    http://singularityhub.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/PeterNorvig.png

  16. Nice blog Alex, you’re quite right, skills shouldn’t be judged on appearances. Unfortunately I think we’re stuck with it. Jeans etc. just don’t have the same gravitas in our respective lines of work, especially art the height up the trees we have reached! Now when I finally get back out on site, that’s a different matter!

  17. Great piece! I’m about to return to the classroom after a couple of years of only teaching online courses, in which I never met my students face-to-face, and upon telling my mum today about my new role, her first question was: “Does this mean you’re brushing out your hair?”.

    I have two nose rings and dreadlocks, as well as tattoos that are never really visible (well, my leg is in summer if I wear shorts or a dress, but seeing as it’s the middle of the Australian winter right now that isn’t an issue!).

    I don’t even think about the fact that I have nose rings. They’ve been there for so long that they’re just a part of me, and no one has ever commented on them. My dreadlocks are a relatively recent venture, having been developing over the past eight months or so as I push my way through the end of PhD hell. (It’s been a somewhat therapeutic exercise to let my hair go wild.) I tie it up most of the time due to its length and thickness so I doubt most people even realise.

    I’m in culture studies and have become well accustomed to being one of a bunch of interesting-looking folks, from the political science lecturer in his mid-50s that had Einstein hair and two full-sleeve tattoos, to my coworker with a lip ring, and many with wonderful, colourful hair. I’ve always just taken it for granted that academics – in my field at least – can get away with being a little bit different looking, and it’s no big deal. We’re lucky like that.

  18. I don’t want to look like the students, meaning i tend not to rely on jeans and t-shirts. I wear suits, sportcoats, ties and an arsenal of polished shoes. I actually help students (guys) with what to wear for interviews. So, to a group of aspiring art majors I try to instill some knowledge and protocol on how to dress for the business world. I also try to impart some sense of confidence and how be courteous, articulate and not be a social liability. I’m fine with the tattoos, but there is a world beyond tshirts and converse sneakers. Students and their professors can find a way to show respect to their chosen fields, be comfotarble with a little more formality and not be ridiculed for giving more consideration to how they present themselves.

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