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Credit: Hal Mayforth

Dress to Profess: What Should Scientists Wear?

There's no wrong answer to the question, "What's the best piece of advice you can give a science graduate student?" Okay, maybe "neglect your research" would be a wrong answer. So would "hit on your thesis adviser's spouse," and "trust that a tenure-track position awaits you."

But as I sat on one of those "Ask a Complacent Scientist Who Already Has a Job" career panels a few weeks ago at Florida International University, I thought no answer to that question could surprise me. Then one of the other panelists offered an unexpected piece of advice:

Fifty-year-old tenured professors wear whatever the hell they want, and 80-year-old professors emeriti wear the same clothes they wore at 50, minus pants.

"Dress well," he said.

In any other career, that advice would seem innocuous, even obvious. Of course you want to wear a power suit with 5-inch shoulder pads when you ask the big boss for a raise during a round of golf because (at least according to Bewitched) that's just what businesspeople do.

But for science? Dress well? Really?

First of all, "well" is relative. For me, dressing well means wearing one of the few items of clothing I paid money for—instead of most of my wardrobe, which I received for free, partly at conference exhibit halls.

More importantly, however, the advice just seems wrong for a scientist. If I came to work in a suit, everyone would ask me, "What's with the suit?" If I explained that I was just trying to maintain a professional appearance, I'd get looks of pity, assumptions that I'm joking, and possibly a referral to the human resources (HR) department.

"Look," the HR person would say, "we need to have a chat about your appearance. Are you sure you're happy here in the lab? If you want to go work at a hedge fund, just say so."

But for many scientists, dressing well is not just something that fails to interest us. It's something we actively shun because it might broadcast the wrong priority. Nice clothing says, "I'm someone who cares about appearances, which means I can't be someone who understands Maxwell's equations."

Some say that to succeed in science, we need to focus on our careers as closely as on our work. We need to brand ourselves, have a social media presence, and engage in self-promotion. Appearance doesn't just imply general hygiene and not smelling like farts. It's a form of marketing.

Yet, in my experience, the more advanced the scientist—and the more focused and serious—the freer he or she feels to dress like a cartoon hobo. Twenty-year-old interns wear ties. Thirty-year-old industry postdocs wear khakis. Forty-year-old research scientists wear sweatshirts. Fifty-year-old tenured professors wear whatever the hell they want, and 80-year-old professors emeriti wear the same clothes they wore at 50, minus pants.

It's as though every academic achievement grants you the opportunity to tone down your formality. "Congratulations!" the dean says at your graduation. "Here's your Ph.D.—now take off that jacket!" (Actually, I wonder: Are the 20-year-olds dressing more shabbily as their careers progress? Or are the best-dressed 20-year-olds getting weeded out by bench work, throwing down their pipettes at age 24, and saying, "Screw this; I'm going to law school"?)

I decided to conduct a highly scientific research study on science clothing, which is to say, I did a Google image search for "scientist clothing." Here are 10 items the world thinks we wear:

CREDIT: Hal Mayforth

1. White Lab Coat
This is the one piece of clothing that screams "scientist." It is also worn by doctors, orderlies in sanitariums, and 1950's ice cream salesmen.

2. Goggles
Goggles make sense if you're doing an experiment that might splash into your eye. But the perception of scientists as wearers of oversized plastic goggles has gone too far. I once taught a ninth-grade exam review class called "Matter and Energy" (alternately known as "Science for Kids Constantly Distracted by Phones"), and our textbook included instructions for several enlightening experiments. Each one included a photo of happy children taking measurements—but no matter how mundane the activity, the children always wore goggles. Massive goggles. Dropping a marble alongside a yardstick or writing a plant's height on a clipboard apparently requires full ocular protection. No wonder kids hate science.

3. Mortarboard
Thanks, Google image search, for reminding me that scientists wear a mortarboard (flat graduation hat) to work every day. The mortarboard is the universal symbol of scholarship, and wearing one means that you are smart. In addition to scientists, it's often apparently worn by owls.

4. Wacky Science Tie
As mentioned above, most scientists don't wear ties. But there's always that one guy. You know who I mean. He has a collection of dozens of science-themed neckties and bowties—constellations, periodic table, bacteria, fractals, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew—and he wears a different one every day. When he's not pirating manga or 3D printing his own circuit boards, he loves to remind the world that the conceits of fashion exist to be intelligently mocked. Let me tell you a secret about that guy: That guy is awesome.

5. Lab Timer
Yes, this counts as apparel, since you clip it onto your clothing. Not only does it help remind you when experiments need your attention, it helps remind everyone in the room. "BEEP-BEEP-BEEP! MY EXPERIMENT NEEDS ATTENTION!" it shrieks. "I'M IMPORTANT! I'M DOING LAB WORK AND NOT JUST SHARING BABY ELEPHANT PHOTOS ON PINTEREST!"

6. Pocket Protector
Like masking tape on eyeglasses, there was a time when this accessory was synonymous with general nerd culture, even though no nerds actually wore them. Now pocket protectors appear to have become an emblem of science, even though no scientists wear them. Come on, world: Pens aren't dripping ink like they were in the nineteenth century. We've gone to practically universal ballpoint. What's to protect?

7. Glasses with a Little Eyepiece that Lets You See Things Better
I asked my wife to name something scientists wear. She said, "Glasses … with a little eyepiece … that lets you see things better?" I think she thinks scientists are jewelers.

8. Gloves
Whether latex or nitrile, thermally insulated or polyurethane coated, gloves are a great piece of science clothing because they give you superhuman powers. You can handle hot, cold, sharp, or caustic substances without injury. In fact, if you wear latex gloves long enough in the lab, you'll start to wish you wore them all the time in real life. "Look how grippy my fingers are!" you'd boast. "I can precisely manipulate tiny things! I feel like a basilisk lizard!"

9. A Pencil Sticking out of Your Hair Bun
I've avoided discussing female-specific fashion because (a) it feels creepy for me to talk about what women wear, and (b) I don't actually understand anything about women at all. But the pencil-in-the-hair-bun is fairly straightforward. It's a pencil, and it sticks out of your hair bun. Then again, lab notebooks should be written in pen, so maybe this fashion has evolved. Women who maintain electronic lab notebooks presumably keep a flash drive in their hair. I don't actually understand anything about women. At all.

10. BSL-4 Positive Pressure Isolator Suit
According to the Internet, which is never wrong, most scientists dress for work as though they're going to toss around a flask of Marburg virus while fabricating microchips inside a walk-in liquid nitrogen vapor phase freezer. The idea that we'd just stroll into the lab in street clothes is abhorrent, because it makes us seem human.


The man who suggested scientists "dress well" certainly practiced what he preached; despite the Florida heat, he wore a sharp-looking suit, including cuff links and one of those dress shirts whose collar is a lighter color than the rest of the shirt. (You know the kind I mean. Like the kind the boss wore in Office Space.)

Dressing well for an interview makes sense. It's a sign of respect and broad-spectrum cleanliness. But in everyday lab work, each step toward formality feels like a pretention that distances us from humanness, from preoccupation with substance, from truth. We are not gullible businesspeople whose stature can be influenced by something as frivolous as the name on a label. We are scientists, and our work is more important than our shoes. Self-promotion falls flat unless there's a hard-working scientist self to promote.

They say you should dress for the job you want. Fine with me. I choose to dress for the job that doesn't care how I dress.