How to Dress the Science ProfessorHow should you dress for work when a suit ISN’T your industry uniform? It can be tricky situation – particularly if you’re surrounded by people who couldn’t care less how to dress. But there IS a simple answer IF you pay attention.

Let me give you a real-life example:

I know a college professor with a doctorate in Bio-Chemistry. He usually reports to work in casual pants (like chinos and khakis) and a collared shirt. For important meetings or speaking engagements, he’ll wear a coat and tie. The students in his lab and classes refer to him as “Dr.”

One of his colleagues is a woman of similar training who often reports to work in t-shirts and pants that look like they’d been stuffed in a drawer. The students in her lab and classes call her by her first name.  Both professors log the same kind of hours and manage similar groups of undergrads. Yet while the man is enjoying an escalating career that includes choice speaking gigs and elected positions in industry associations, the woman is not really well known outside of her university.

Needless to say, she refuses to believe the difference in their profiles has anything to do with how to dress. She cites “luck” and limited opportunities for women in science as the reasons for her stalling career.

In reality, there are so few women and minorities in the hard core sciences at the university level that those who are talented get noticed and can go far quickly – so long as they dress appropriately for the job.  Unfortunately, in an industry that has long prided itself on being anti-corporate, most would say there IS no dress code.

They would be wrong.

There IS a dress code for academic scientists, just as there is in ANY industry. With just a little observation, it’s easy to uncover. Let’s look at the different elements:

1. Industry Norms

Most of the university scientists I know dress very casually, with t-shirts and jeans or khakis being the apparel of choice for many ranks from graduate students to assistant professors. Full professors, department heads, and M.D.’s tend to favor casual pants (like chinos and khakis), collared shirts, and status symbols like nice watches, pens, or briefcases. Most wear sports coats or jackets when speaking in front of large groups.

2. Comfort

This predominantly casual dress code reflects the fact that science can be a messy business. Whether handling chemicals, animals, or tissue samples in the lab, it’s important to wear clothes and shoes that can withstand the rigors of the job, and that won’t bring too much heartache if destroyed in the line of duty.

3. Peer Expectations

“…women who wear colorful clothes, jewelry, nail polish, and fashionable shoes don’t cut it as ‘geeks,'” reader Judith Haller wrote me back in 2005.

Sad but true, as any fashionista with a love of math or science can tell you.  “Geeks” tend to see themselves as deep thinkers who are above the shallow trappings of clothes, and they’ll poke fun at anyone who is overly attractive or who follows fashion too closely, often dismissing any success they have as “luck” or “a fluke.” Alas, in an industry that prides itself on being “above” appearances, they can’t seem to handle a woman being both beautiful AND brainy. Go figure.

So now that we’ve made note of what’s acceptable in her industry, what’s comfortable on the job, and what will garner both respect and snickers from her colleagues, let’s make a list of what this female science professor might be doing on any given day:

  • Working in the Lab
  • Teaching a class
  • Writing, talking, or planning in her office
  • Attending meetings
  • Advising students
  • Reviewing grants

Have a good picture of this of this woman in your mind?


Now let’s take a page from Business Wear Magic and dress this professor.

Here’s what I’d recommend for how to dress:

    • Appropriate Level:

Casual Tailored

    • Communicates:

Approachable, flexible, knowledgeable

    • Key Element:

A collar

Now if visions of a buttoned down shirt or blouse just popped into your head, keep in mind that collars come in a variety of shapes and styles, including turtlenecks, polos, and even shirtdresses. The key element is the collar; the interpretation is unlimited.

For her day-to-day duties, she can opt for discount or mid-range separates in a handful of her best neutrals, like black, taupe, and navy. Since this particular woman happens to favor floral patterns, which are a bit “girlie” for her male-dominated industry, I’d recommend she keep them subtle and in short supply.

For those days when she’ll be speaking at industry functions or participating in other high-profile events, I’d recommend she add a neutral-colored, simple-styled jacket for extra authority. A vest can also lend authority in such cases, as can a simple, classic dress.

Finally, since she typically wears no makeup, I would recommend adding a touch of color, specifically mascara and lipstick, for high profile industry events.

With just these few little changes, I imagine several things would happen, including:

  • Her students would stop calling her by her first name and start addressing her by her title.
  • They would also stop dropping by her office to pester her for every little thing and become more respectful of her time.
  • So would her peers.
  • Her confidence would increase because of the elevated level of respect.
  • With the added time and confidence, she would produce more.
  • Her now-stalled career would begin to build momentum once again.

All of this because she took the time to learn how to dress appropriately for her job?


In our hectic, fast-paced lifestyles, it’s really easy to just put on anything and walk out the door, particularly when you have small children to attend to (as she does), and you work in a casual environment.  Also, when many of your peers dress sloppily, it’s easy to convince yourself that no one really cares how you look.

But our appearance conveys SO MUCH information about us, everything from how recently we bathed to how much we make to where we came from or where we’re going, that to discount its importance is foolish. Being able to instantly assess someone as friend or foe is a survival skill we’ve unconsciously honed over thousands of years, which is why that sixth sense alerts us to danger when we encounter someone who is not as they seem.

This professor dresses like a college student, and then wonders why she’s not treated like faculty. She wants to be approachable to her students, but can’t understand why they won’t leave her alone. Then, when her fellow professors get together for a few beers after work to “talk shop” and exchange ideas, but don’t include her, she gets her feelings out of pocket.

Appropriate attire will help define her role and set boundaries for everyone she meets. She’ll be approachable, but not always available, which will make her time more valuable. People will respect her more, her confidence will grow, and her opportunities will multiply.

All because she took the time to dress appropriately for her industry.

So that’s how I’d dress the science professor.

Would I dress a music, marketing, or interior design professor the same way? No. They’re in different industries, with different expectations and norms. Knowing what’s appropriate for your own industry is the key to dressing for success.

Business Wear MagicSo how SHOULD you dress for your industry, so that others will treat you will the appropriate level of respect? Download a copy of BUSINESS WEAR MAGIC and find out.


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