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Dressing Scientists for Success: Female Case Study

Well, it's about time!

Last year, we had a special Tooling Up column on shopping for men's interview clothes. We transformed a scruffy grad student into a handsome professional and, in the process, discussed clothing options for job interviews in a business setting. The time has come to explore the much more daunting task as it applies to women.

Let's face it--men have it easy when it comes to a professional wardrobe. The rules for men's business attire are well established, and the building blocks of a male professional wardrobe are straightforward and interchangeable. Styles in men's business attire change slowly, and classic items never go entirely out of fashion (except possibly that period in the '70s). Still, men manage to screw things up with fair regularity. If any of you doubt me, just go to a scientific conference and watch how some guys dress. Yikes!

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. Meet Jen.

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.

Jen met us wearing the Scripps grad student "uniform": T-shirt, shorts, sandals. Gotta love those schools in Southern California! However, in order to go shopping for business clothes, Jen also brought along a pair of pumps (translation for guys: shoes). It helps to wear attire similar to what you're shopping for, especially shoes.

Like men, women's traditional business attire centers on the suit. However, women have a much wider variety of options, styles, and combinations available to them. This is both a blessing and a curse. The right outfit is out there ... it just takes a lot of looking. So Alison and I spent 5 hours shopping with Jen. (My trip in search of men's suits in our male version of the column was much shorter--more "hunting," less "gathering.")

Step One: The Interview Suit

The most traditional and safest interview suit is actually the same as a man's: a basic blue suit. This is a great "first suit." For example, if you need an interview suit but want to wait until you have a job before you buy the rest of your work clothes because you need the money, you want a blue suit. Look for one that you can wear year-round--silk or lightweight wool--in case it takes time to find that dream job. However, within this narrow category you can find a wide variety of cuts and styles: single-breasted, double-breasted, shawl collar, and even no lapel at all. If you are not sure what is flattering on you, try on as many styles as you can find. I was amazed at the variety of style and how different each one looked when worn. (See discussion below.)

Jen tried on several versions of the blue suit. A slimmed skirt that tapers gradually from hip to hem works for many women. Here, the main point is to find something that you like and that makes you feel comfortable. You don't want to be distracted by your clothing in your interview.

Skirt length: Find what looks good on you. Just above the knee is usually flattering on most women, and it is not too short. To test whether a skirt is "too short," sit down and cross and uncross your knees a few times. Don't buy a skirt that requires tugging or other adjustments when you sit--you don't want to resemble Captain Picard, who constantly tugged his uniform. You do not want to wear anything that could be considered a miniskirt, regardless of the condition of your legs. If you prefer to wear longer skirts, note that they are still professional and can also be very flattering.


Now you have your suit. The next step? Both Jen and my wife are big fans of the basic knit top. This is a really nice version of a T-shirt in a more expensive fabric. A "shell" is the same thing in silk but is a little dated. Knit tops come in all sorts of colors, and the question of "do you wear the collar tucked in or out over the suit" is avoided.



For your interview, wear a white knit top or blouse. No one hates white. Jen looked great in a blue suit and white knit top--very clean looking, no fuss, no muss--all business.

In that same "don't rock the boat" vein, don't look at your interview as a personal fashion statement. You want the interviewer to concentrate on your abilities. Plus, you want to be generic enough that the interviewer can imagine you at work. Here are some tips from Jen and Alison:


  • No dangling earrings--the smaller, the better.

  • No perfume--nothing for your interviewer to hate (or be allergic to).

  • No jewelry except your wedding and/or engagement ring combination.

  • A briefcase or a purse. Carrying both can be too much to deal with.


Reminder: This is for a traditional business interview. Be aware of your interview environment as much as possible. Obviously a Silicon Valley company will be much more casual than an East Coast management consulting firm. But if you are not sure, wear the blue suit. If you are more dressed up than everyone around you, it's okay. You are announcing that you take the interview seriously.

Step Two: Traditional Business Attire


Traditional business attire is more of the same in colors other than blue. You can branch out into more "personal" looks, such as a bright knit top or a matching patterned blouse.


In fact, you can wear brightly colored suits if you want. Keep in mind, however, that colors tend to come in and out of fashion. So a neutral suit dressed up with bright colors is easier and cheaper to update than that great lime-green suit. In addition, you will get more wear out of a neutral suit. (Co-workers will notice how often you wear that lime-green number.) For example, my favorite outfit on Jen was a beige jacket, matching slacks, and an ivory knit top. The jacket is well cut for Jen and gives her a look of competence and authority.

Slacks: A matched suit with slacks and not a skirt is perfectly appropriate. It is not quite as formal as a matched jacket and skirt. In general, the skirt is considered more businesslike than slacks.


Equally appropriate but less formal than the matching suit is an unmatched suit, with a jacket in one color or pattern and a skirt in a coordinating color. Jen looked very Ivy league in this plaid jacket and black skirt. This was Alison's favorite outfit, in part because she totally covets the jacket.

Jen made one point I had not thought about: Be careful about overdressing for situations involving scientists. Don't wear that Armani suit to give a scientific talk in academia. The danger is that your audience will suspect that you value style over substance. Among some scientists, a certain degree of shabbiness of dress connotes a preoccupation with your work. So if you look too good, you must not be working hard enough. Fortunately, this bizarre "retro-snobbery" does not hold true for the rest of the world, where looking good is correlated with being competent!

Step Three: What Works and What Does Not ...

Find the styles that look good on you. People come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and there are clothes for everyone. Bring along an honest friend who won't let you walk out into the job market looking dumb. Often the differences in cut and fabric are subtle but profound. For example, we found two similar outfits for Jen that look very different.


A red blazer over a collared blouse and black skirt was less flattering on Jen. Why? The jacket is too long and too boxy. It narrowed her shoulders and upper body and did not define her waist enough. Jen was swallowed by the jacket.

We went to another store and found a seemingly similar red blazer. This one looks great on her! The jacket is less structured, and because it can be worn open, Jen can define her waist with a black belt. So now Jen is wearing the jacket instead of being dwarfed by it. This outfit (with khaki slacks that need to be hemmed) is too casual for an interview but would work well in a "business casual" setting (yet another fashion permutation).

We have only scratched the surface ...

One day of shopping barely hints at the clothing opportunities for working women. There are a number of excellent books on the market discussing workplace fashion for women. I like The New Professional Image by Susan Bixler, a practical and comprehensive guide to workplace fashion for men and women. For a broader discussion of women's fashion, check out the book Style, by Elsa Klensch.

Dashing the Ph.D. Stereotype

When someone looks at your résumé and sees Ph.D. after your name, their mental image of you may not be flattering! Perhaps the greatest reason to strive for a professional appearance in your dress is to challenge their stereotypes about you. If you walk in the door to a job interview looking sharp and professional, you will set negative stereotypes about Ph.D.s on their heads. The one stereotype left standing is that you are superbrilliant. Just don't dash that one as well!

Best of luck out there, and from all of us at Next Wave--you go girl!

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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