Most job applicants are aware that their suitability for a position will be judged on the basis of their experience, skills, and education. Many also realize that personal qualities—their drive, amicability, how well they work with others, and so on—will help convince a prospective employer that they are the right candidate for the job.
But prospective employees—and scientists in particular—may overlook another key factor, one that is harder to grasp, gauge, or predict: the general, personal impression you make during the interview. Despite new, sophisticated interviewing techniques, "[i]nterviewers are limited in how much they can get to know a job candidate, so they will take in any information they can to help make a judgment. This happens on a conscious and unconscious level," explains Basking Ridge, New Jersey-based psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps, in an e-mail to Science Careers.
I just knew I had to change to be able to present myself in a good and honest way.
As in any other social setting, your first impression can make all the difference. Yet, much about the psychology of how first impressions are made remains mysterious; consequently it's hard to know what to do. Still, there are some things that you can do to ensure a good first impression: dress appropriately, cover your tattoos, and present yourself in a neat and tidy way.
Grooming and the way you dress for an interview are clues that you provide—intentionally or not—to your prospective employer about who you are and, in particular, your suitability for the job.
"People who are well-groomed are giving a message of being capable and having it 'together', whether or not that's true," Becker-Phelps writes. It's a feedback loop: Good grooming and dressing communicate self-assurance and help most people feel and act more confidently. "If you feel good about how you look and what you have to provide, you will naturally convey that," Becker-Phelps writes. So, make sure to include physical appearance in your interview preparation. "Take the time to groom yourself for this (e.g. haircut and hair styled well, nails trimmed, showered)," Becker-Phelps advises. Also "[d]ecide ahead of time on an appropriate wardrobe for what you are trying to convey."
Even if up to now you haven't paid much attention to how you dress or groom yourself—or you have chosen not to conform to traditional standards—remember that in deciding how to dress, shave, and wear your hair for a job interview, you are making a statement. "As a form of nonverbal communication, attire and grooming convey intention. A short skirt implies a party, dirty nails indicate poor hygiene," writes Alfreda James, assistant director of the Career Center at Stony Brook University in New York, in an e-mail to Science Careers. So make sure to communicate how seriously you take this interview by picking a style that matches the circumstances. "Appearance should not distract from a discussion about professional goals," James writes.
During the interview, your appearance should also convey respect for the job and for your future colleagues and clients. James recommends avoiding tight clothing "in the form of blouses and shirts showing distress at the buttonholes," short skirts revealing thighs, ties featuring cartoon characters, visible tattoos, multiple ear studs, and tongue piercings. "Long hair in both men and women should be pulled back. Safety is a major concern in lab settings, and the presence of flowing locks might communicate a lack of attention to hazards in a workplace," James writes.
Finally, your appearance helps reveal whether you will fit the culture of your new workplace, especially in an industry context. "It's important to fit with company culture because it's central to how people connect with each other, establishing norms and implicit rules that people work and live by. Dress is one way of expressing your relationship with that culture," Becker-Phelps writes. So, before the interview, ask the human resources staff or person arranging the interview about appropriate attire, or look at the corporate website to figure out how the company's employees present themselves, James suggests.
If you are ever in any doubt, "play it safe and always be smart and tidy, i.e. professional looking," self-employed knowledge broker and writer Alex Bielak, who previously was director of the Science and Technology Liaison group at Environment Canada, writes to Science Careers. "People would be idiots not to given what is at stake."
Still, be yourself
Even for people who naturally pay a lot of attention to their appearance, going to an interview usually means having to change their style for a day, to dress up a notch or two. But don't push it: You still want to feel comfortable in your interview clothes. Dressing to leave a good impression, or to fit in with a culture, shouldn't imply having to go against your personality.
In fact, doing so could backfire and cause you to lose confidence on interview day, as medical doctor Lisa Sahlin Torp realized just in time. When Torp secured an interview for her current position, as a fellow in the Clinical Innovation Fellowship program at the Center for Technology in Medicine and Health near Stockholm, she "had an image of what I thought the employer was expecting," she writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. "The job wasn't really usual for my background … and I thought that I should wear a black suit." So she wore a black suit—and showed up at the interview "feeling like I was pretending to be an economist," she writes. Her confidence waned as she waited for her interview to start. Fortunately, "I had grabbed a light colored blouse and put it into my bag before leaving the house, so minutes before the interview I ran to the toilet and changed into it."
If, like Torp, the way you dress is part of your personality, or you cultivate a distinctive appearance and it's important to you, you have a decision to make: Do you want to try and conform to company standards, even if in doing so you don't feel like yourself? Or is it more important to present yourself on your own terms, come what may? That's a decision that only you can make; just be aware of the professional risks.
Torp's compromise worked in her favor. She doesn't believe that her quick change of outfit affected what she said in the interview, but it did change her mental state for the better. Feeling more like herself made her more relaxed and more confident that she could deliver good answers, she writes. "You cannot act to be the person you think the employer is looking for," she writes. "I just knew I had to change to be able to present myself in a good and honest way."