When people ask me what I do and I reply that I am a scientist, they often seem perplexed. The reason for their confusion is that, apparently, I "don't look like a scientist." Could this failure to conform to the scientific norm seriously blight my career prospects? Is fashion an irrelevance in the intellectually superior world of science? Isn't it about time scientists shook off their scruffy image?
In the science world, it seems, there is a strict dress code that dictates that shabbiness is next to godliness. Tooling Up's Peter Fiske has suggested that "some scientists even consider good taste in clothing to be a sign of inferior intellect, an indication that someone needs to cover inadequate work with corporate attire." Having canvassed opinion on this subject, it appears to me that this view pervades the science community. So beware: If, like me, you have more back copies of Vogue or Elle than Nature or NewScientist lurking on the bedside table, you may be seriously impairing your credibility.
Obviously, when the workplace is a laboratory, there is an issue of practicality; so it is hardly surprising that an informal dress code has developed. If safety rules are being properly adhered to, then most of the day is spent safely enveloped within the scientist's cocoon, the white coat. This saves the average scientist not only from coming into contact with all those nasty chemicals, but also from having to think any more creatively than "Wrangler's or Levi's today?"
The collective opinion of my lab colleagues is that "science is about ideas and hypotheses, and how you dress is irrelevant." They do all agree that, in general, they smarten up their act slightly if attending a conference, but they definitely wouldn't go as far as donning a suit for a presentation. In fact, being overdressed scores negative Brownie points. One lecturer I spoke to said he remembers not listening to one guy at a conference because he was wearing a suit. He actually distrusted the data that were being presented, because "he looked like a used-car salesman." He did concede, however, that if he were presenting at a medical conference, he would probably wear a shirt and tie. In fact, all the people I talked to concurred that they would adopt smarter attire at a medical conference, the reason being that "doctors generally wear more formal attire because they have more contact with the public, and scientists wouldn't want to be looked down upon [by medics] because of the way they dressed." The opposite was also true; medics attending a basic science conference wouldn't dream of turning up in a suit, as they wanted to be seen to be taking science seriously.
The thorny issue of what to wear becomes even pricklier if you are a female scientist. In a male-dominated world, women find it harder to be taken seriously anyway, so overenthusiasm on the fashion front may be seen as indicating a lack of focus. Most of the female scientists I know have a healthy interest in keeping up with the trends but would avoid wearing anything too outlandish in the lab or at a conference. (Fuchsia pink hanky tops with matching stilettos are best kept for clubbing.) On the subject of women's dress code the guys agree that, although a short skirt or revealing neckline would guarantee no shortage of drinks at the conference bar, it is unlikely to further a woman's scientific career.
When it comes to presenting ourselves to the wider public, even scientists agree that we could do better. The "real" world recognises that image plays an important role. It could be argued that the switch in fortunes of the Labour Party is due partly to a major shift in image. No one would dispute that Michael Foot was a man of great intellect, but the Paddington duffle coat didn't inspire public confidence. In a recent dictum from New Labour, prospective women candidates were advised to wear a smart suit, brightly coloured blouse, and NO DANGLY EARRINGS.
In a world where scientific achievement either goes unnoticed or receives bad press, is it not time that scientists, like the rest of society, start to dress for success? Perhaps our arguments would appear more cogent if advanced by someone whose finger is on the fashion pulse. In an era of clever sound bites, the ideas and issues in science are complex and difficult enough to get across to a wary public. Dressing as if caught in a '70s time warp only serves to reinforce the science stereotype.
What is a scientist to do if, after years in the casual clothing comfort zone, it is necessary to dress for an interview? Because scientists are notoriously poorly remunerated, clothes may not have been top priority. And if you are a recent Ph.D. graduate who has been studying on a studentship, chances are you are broke. Borrowing a suit from a friend is one possibility, but if it doesn't quite fit it won't send the right message to the interviewer and you won't feel comfortable on the day. It doesn't have to have a designer label to look the part. Lots of high-street stores sell good-quality suits at reasonable prices. Fresher faced Ph.D.s might like to note that if you have been unemployed for 6 months and are aged 18 to 24, under Labour's New Deal scheme you can get a clothing grant of up to £200 to help with the purchase of suitable interview clothes. (Contact your local Job Centre to find out more).
Whether you're planning to make a career in research or are breaking out into business or industry, isn't it about time you had a fashion makeover? If we all do our bit, one day in the future people will have no reason to say, "But you don't look like a scientist."