Dressing for a job interview? Just dress for the conference.

Lee Skallerup Bessette offers some good advice for people on the academic job market in “Dressing for Success” without blowing a lot of dough.  Her advice:  make sure that whatever you wear fits well and is in good condition, and she offers a lot of ideas and resources for building a professional wardrobe without a lot of money.  However, she focuses a lot on “suits” for some reason, when I personally don’t think I’ve worn anything that can be called a “suit” for at least 6-7 years, and most men in my field don’t wear suits either.  Beyond the conference, as some commenters note, we almost never teach in suits.  The men in my department tend to wear long-sleeved shirts and ties when they teach, but most of the men professors in other departments wear jeans or khaki pants with a fleecy vest and hiking boots.  (That’s the preferred look around here, anyway, but it’s probably more casual on average than other parts of the country might be.)

My advice to job candidates is to dress to fit in with the best-dressed folks at the professional conference where they’ll be interviewed.  After all, you’ll be spending more time on average hanging out in the book exhibit and lobby and attending sessions than you will be spending in interviews, and you’ll want to look and feel reasonably comfortable all day long.  And fitting in is what you want to convince your potential future colleagues you can do.

At the American Historical Association conference, where many History departments conduct first-round interviews, stylish but simple dresses or stylish separates are the way to go:  women can safely skip the suit in favor of nice skirts or slacks with a professional blouse or sweater (or other combo on top.  Scarves are a nice touch and may serve to keep you warm in the usually drafty interview “pit.”)  While men may want to go the suit route out of habit, in my view the best dressed men at most history conferences are wearing good quality shirts and jackets, but not suits.  (And if you’re really stylish and think you can pull it off, you can even ditch the tie, but hang out near the job register and get a handle on what other guys are doing.  Keep a tie in your briefcase just in case.  You might feel a bit naked if you walk into an interview and all of your male interviewers are wearing ties.  I personally love the no-tie look, but you really must have a top-shelf shirt.  And keep in mind that I’m a lot more fashion-forward than most historians.)

Fashion don’ts:  Above all, inappropriate footwear.  Heels that are too high will make your feet hurt and may lead you to trip and/or fall, which is something that works against one’s dignity and competence.  Open-toed shoes are usually out of place in wintery locations.  Cowboy boots are risky outside the West–be sure it’s a good look on you before you leave home.

Be sure to read the comments on Bessette’s article to get a sense of the variety of people’s opinions on this point.  I’d like to second the commenter who reminds job candidates to look tidy and to clean their glasses before an interview.  Dirty, smudgy glasses are a real turnoff–they do not make me want to shake your hand.  (And of course, these rules go for interviewERs as much as interviewEEs!

What do the rest of you think?  (Am I too latitudinarian on the tie issue?  Maybe some men should weigh in on this for the benefit of interviewees, to be sure I haven’t led them astray.)

39 thoughts on “Dressing for a job interview? Just dress for the conference.

  1. I think it’s going to depend on where you’re interviewing. At my alma mater, profs were incredibly casual- jeans and sweaters. At my current school, suits are de rigeur for the faculty. so it probably helps to investigate the department culture a bit before you go.


  2. Clean, no sneakers and a laptop is all one needs. On the other side of the divide, i.e. engineering and sciences, all you need is a good technical talk, sunny appearance and, if possible, don’t aggravate the mafia members of the faculty.

    Same advise applies to males and females; pretend to be humble not to threaten the mediocre faculty.


  3. I wore suits for job interviews, but I only wore a plain black suit once. It made me look like a banker, and didn’t really work with my coloring. I found some high-quality tweedy suits for cheap at a consignment store in a ritzy neighborhood. The suit I wore for the successful interview was purple and extremely comfortable. I think it’s a good idea to wear something you feel reasonably comfortable in and are not going to fiddle with constantly.


  4. FWIW, I do occasionally wear suits at conferences, and to teach: I decided that since I owned them, I should wear them more than once or twice a year! Also, I suspect that one reason that many people think we only work 6, 9 or 12 hours a week, is that we often dress the way we did when we were students. (This is especially true of men — as H’ann has suggested on other occasions, women tend to dress more formally than men, just because of the authority issues we face.)

    For job candidates, I think professional is key: clean, good fitting clothes that you are comfortable in. If you never wear heels, don’t wear pumps for your interview: get a pair of dress flats. And I always dress up when we have job candidates because I figure if they are dressed up, so should I be. So there is certainly no rule against women wearing dress trousers with a good jacket. At one point in my life, I had a black skirt and jacket (not bought as a suit) but I wore it with a bright magenta-ish blouse and colorful scarf so I didn’t look too boring. I think men should probably wear a dress shirt with a tie, though the shirt could be colored. Neither men nor women should be afraid of color, and I agree with H’ann that good quality separates are a fine alternative to suits.

    I suspect the culture varies both by field (my sense is that the scientists are pretty informal) and local culture. Lit people are much more fashion forward than historians, and art historians beat them by a mile. I try to amp up the fashion level at historical gatherings because our clothes are so boring!


  5. I am pretty much always in either jeans or clamdiggers and a Yankees t-shirt, rocking the danskos. Yet another thing that suckes for women in a patriarchy is that men can dress like slobbes and we are “quirky” or “eccentric”, but women who dress like slobbes are “skanky” or “nasty”.


  6. Wear comfortable and professional clothes that you can keep clean. Fergawdsake, don’t order a dish with tomato sauce at a lunch if you’re wearing a white/light-coloured shirt!

    Shopping at thrift stores and consignment stores can score you some good pieces relatively cheap. You don’t need a tonne of such clothing when you’re just on the market: a few key items that you can match with different shirts, blouses or ties might be good enough to keep you rolling from one conference to the next.

    Make sure you can wear the shoes all day and not fall over your own feet. If you fidget and/or fiddle, bring something suitable such as a pen. Take time to wash your hands, your glasses and make sure that you’re looking presentable before you head off to the interview and good luck! Wish we could be interviewing you for a job!


  7. (1) Avoid tomato sauce at lunch and supper and flaky croissants at breakfast–you never know where those crumbs land. Take a Tide pen in your bag or briefcase.

    (2) Don’t overdue the cologne/perfume/aftershave.

    (3) Nice-fitting clothes help you to stand and sit straight but also feel (and look) at ease. Pockets are useful–a tissue may be necessary if you’ve walked in from the cold. But the slouchy-casual hand-in-pocket stance when standing or seated conveys, for some, a lack of respect (this I learned from my late father, and from my male friends’ interview experiences I learned he was right).

    (4) Outerwear and gloves and scarves should be clean as well–someone will ask to hang up your coat for you, so make sure that lining hasn’t a gaping hole in it!

    (5) The one point my friends and I usually discuss is jewelry–some of us wear our personality in our selection of earrings. We have agreed to disagree about this. But we all got jobs.


  8. For men, I think pairing a nice pair of slacks with a non-matching blazer (i.e. brown or gray pants with a navy blazer) is an easy way to divide and conquer the professional-looking wardrobe. I’ve had good luck scoring blazers and outerwear at thrift and consignment stores. Also keep in mind that the tailor is your friend–getting pants shortened to fit or replacing the brass buttons on an old-school blazer with color-matching ones can upgrade your secondhand bargains.


  9. I think one of the best interview outfits I ever saw was on a friend of mine: she wore a cream crepe-y blouse under a sleeveless camel wool jumper that buttoned up the front, and a kind of watercolor-y silk scarf that coordinated. It was either all Ann Taylor or Talbots and she got it at a thrift store for $3. (And she got the job.)

    I never thought a suit was inappropriate (not necessary, but not inappropriate), but the thing with suits is that if you’re not comfortable wearing them, it really shows. I swear I could pick out the people who’d bought new suits for interviews because they might as well have been wearing neon signs that said “I’VE NEVER WORN THIS SUIT BEFORE!!!” So if you want to wear a suit, I think it can help to give it a few trial runs before the conference. (Probably true for any new outfit, really.)

    I tend to work on the theory that I’d rather be underdressed than overdressed, and that even if you’re much more dressy than your interviewers, at least it shows respect for the situation (rather than dressing down). That said, a friend of mine was outraged to find that fellow (female) members of a search committee disparaging candidates (I think also female) for being TOO well dressed, so clearly not everyone agrees with me.


  10. I want to add: do not obsess about this! I’m someone who does notice how people look, which is how I know that Historiann and Susan both look great at conferences and their advice is worth taking. And yet, noticing does not mean caring. Yes, be clean; yes, look professional, no jeans, no t-shirts, no sneakers, no midriffs. But I once knew someone who interviewed while wearing a jacket which didn’t fit, which ze wore buttoned so it pulled and gaped across hir chest. I also remember it as being made of a quite unattractive fabric, but I may have exaggerated it in my mind over the years. Anyway, ze was great, got the job, got tenure some time ago and has had a brilliant career of scholarship and teaching, and may never have worn a jacket again. Really, you might as well look as nice as you can, but if you’re the kind of person who would rather poke your eyes out with a stick than spend the amount of time shopping that’s suggested in the article Historiann links to, don’t feel like you’re killing your chances.

    One thing that I do think is important. History Maven says don’t overdo the scent. But do not smell like smoke! Try to change into your interview clothes after you smoke. Or, if you’ve been outside for a cigarette, check your coat at the hotel coat check (even if you have to pay for it) rather than take it to the interview. If your coat makes all the other coats in the suite’s closet smell like smoke, that’s not good. (On the other hand, I once saw a candidate get the shakes during a job talk; I found out later that ze was wearing a nicotine patch so as not to have to smoke during the on-campus, but ze was sweating so much that the patch came off.)


  11. Koshembos must live in a science universe other than mine. My experience in the physical sciences is more accurately represented by what CPP wrote. I will not be taken as seriously as my male peers if I dress as casually as they do. I do happen to think that professional attire is appropriate at meetings and on campus though so this reality is no big deal. I would not want to show up to class in jeans and a t-shirt.

    I was at a scientific event with a senior male colleague recently, at which I was asked repeatedly if I was my colleague’s student. Each time I replied in my best disinterested voice “no, I am his Chair.”


  12. Only one advice, for the fashion forward types: no bangles, please. I attended once a presentation by a job candidate, and every time she moved her hand, the bangles would make a noise. It was really distracting, and at the end, I couldn’t really judge her presentation objectively. And I know I wasn’t the only one who felt like this.


  13. Totally agree with Historiann about dirty eyeglasses being repulsive. It’s irrational–dirt on the lenses has nothing to do with dirt on the hands–but there it is. Once I noticed how grossed out I was by other people’s glasses I had to start paying attention to my own.

    To me a hint o’ risk in a wardrobe looks good. If men are wearing suits, then I say dare to wear a button-down collar; for women, if you’re inside a dark conservative suit, try a loud print blouse. And every gender should consider skipping suits when peers aren’t in them. Scarves, big necklaces, bright earrings, bold neckties &c. make me think (even when I should know better) that the wearers are thinking big.


  14. Sounds about right to me. One of our most recent hires never wore a suit, either at the conference interview or on campus. But she was stylish and professionally dressed, and by far the most poised person we interviewed (smart, excellent scholarship too, but everyone noted how poised she was). No one noticed or at least no one commented on the lack of a suit. I think a nice business dress (Calvin Klein, Ann Taylor, etc) can be quite effective as well. And often more comfortable than a suit per se. And wear shoes suitable for the weather — if it’s snowing, people will laugh if you lack boots not that you’re wearing them.


  15. The suit or suit-equivalent is the order of the day at the MLA. The best dressed there are usually wearing *designer* suits (superstar people, sure but still) and everybody else is wearing their sunday best, too. Now, you can refuse the suit if you are super funky, or quirky, or not on the market…. but the suit is the order of the day at the MLA for those with interviews, for those giving papers, and often for people on search committees. Look, I actually own a wool cape which is too dressy for most every occasion in my life. I wear it every year at cold locations to the MLA and it makes sense. Perhaps historians are just more casual than literature people?


  16. Much of the advice out there seems very hetero- and gender-binary-normative. It would be fun to see a queer version of the article! I identify as female, and queer, and I present as andro-to-butch in both casual and professional situations. There are definitely queer sartorial codes which many of us choose to use, or not, in our self-presentation, and we seem to have our own specific, if unwritten, assumptions about what looks professional and what doesn’t. I’m not sure I could articulate them, though.


  17. @LouMac – I think there is room for individuality, but remember at the conference or on campus interview, you need to present “professional” in a way that can be read by those who are not part of your community. (And it depends on what kind of jobs you are applying for: if it’s a generic history job the advice would be more conservative than if it were a queer studies job.) That said, I think the advice of good fitting, professional clothing which you wear comfortably works regardless of gender presentation. If you’re comfortable in what you are wearing, and don’t make a big deal of it, your audience will mostly be fine.


  18. Dr. Crazy: I’m surprised to hear that suits are still where it’s at at the MLA. I just don’t think suits are at all in fashion for women these days–but maybe you were writing about the men? I don’t think historians are more casual than lit types, just less stylish overall. So I think that a cape is JUST the thing for a winter conference!

    I think the last time I wore a suit to a conference was in 2006. But, I wore a suit to my conference interviews in 2001, and to my on-campus interviews then, too. But that was 11 years ago!


  19. MLA=good suit, very good suit, and I have a very fancy wrap, too. Good shoes needed as well.

    Business dress is good for job interviews but at least for dean and perhaps talk, at least a blazer, some kind of jacket.

    In general you have to look at what the fancy stars are wearing and wear it.


  20. And be aware of the weather. If you are coming from California, and headed for an interview in Minnesota in March, the weather is going to be cold, cold, cold, or if you’re lucky slushy and cold. And vice-a-versa, coming from Wisconsin and interviewing in New Mexico, so you clothes AND shoes need to work with that.


  21. This is great advice, Historiann. I would also tell those grads who *do* pay attention to what they wear on a regular basis to trust their sartorial judgment. Some of the advice out there is not great. I remember getting advice that women candidates should avoid any feminine details whatsoever — skirts, dresses, bright colors, shirts other than standard button-fronts. On the other end of the spectrum, I heard that any ensemble other than a skirt suit and pearls was unacceptable. But neither of those ensembles would suit my personal style, and so I wore a professional outfit that was true to my own taste. I think there are limits to this, but as long as your outfit is professional, looks good, makes you feel good, and is not distracting, you should be fine.

    Also: if you want to stretch your dollars, sign up for emails from stores like Ann Taylor or Jos. A. Banks. They have killer sales on a regular basis.


  22. Going by what your colleagues wear and do can be surprisingly tricky to figure out. At Major Pseudology Conference, I often see people dressed in their best suits (all genders) for interview and presentation purposes, even when I know for a fact that they otherwise live in their jeans and thrift-store shirts. Seeing a colleague in a suit is grounds for a conversation: “Going to a conference/interview/funeral/wedding?” Unlike most academic disciplines, pseudologists can actually earn some street cred by dressing in eccentric, individualistic ways for their daily routines. We like to think of ourselves as kicky, free-spirited people who do not kowtow to the gods of fashion. You’d think we would show off this tendency at high intensity when we get together. And yet we tend to wear suits at conferences and job talks. And the fashion-forward suits that Historiann seems to have in mind belong only to the younger set of attendees, especially those on the hunt for a tenure-track job. Securely tenured pseudologists tend to show up in slightly unfashionable and unexciting suits that fit oddly.

    Dunno. Guess I’ll have to pack my suit and my sport coat this year. And maybe stop by Jos. A. Bank for some more shirts?


  23. I remember finding this very hard to figure out at my first conference, in part because of my subfield and it’s self images.

    Grad students wore suits or jeans and t-shirts and little in between. Junior faculty wore nice jeans or other slacks, but not nessecarily suits. Senior people looked like they were about to go on a hiking trip. North face fleece was a standard. Everyone at all levels wore hiking boots.

    On the other I went to another conference in a related but not the same subfield and EVERYONE was in suits and nice ones at that.

    I’m female, but overweight and tend to wear suit jackets at least because I buy well structured ones that fit me. I feel like it negates a little bit of the opinion that heavy people are somehow sloppy.

    I will say that the dress culture at different institutions even for students can be surprisingly diverse. My PhD institution is a lot more dressy than my masters institution. The suit or their closely related equivalents are very common for professors and students only slightly less so.


  24. So glad I skipped out on academia to a career where they give you a uniform, during the interview they don’t care what you wear, they’re only curious if you can do the job! : )


  25. Dr. Crazy and Z are right that MLA is pretty suit-y.

    Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the dress-up that suits involve, and I own a number of them. But some are in fun colors and weaves, and even the darker ones I often wear with patterned tights or big, bright vintage jewelry. Like Susan, I’ve taken to wearing a suit the first couple of classes each semester so they get more wear.

    All that said, I’d never ding a job candidate for NOT wearing a suit, if he or she were dressed neatly and professionally, and if you’re going to lay out bucks for nice interview clothes, definitely buy something you’re comfortable in and will wear again. (It might be smarter for a grad student to invest in one or more nice skirts/slacks and tops, which can be worn regularly for teaching as well as conferences, rather than a suit if s/he will rarely wear it again.)


  26. Meghan R.: what completely assy (and as you say, contradictory) advice, at least for most humanities disciplines. I have worn skirt suits and pearls–but like I said, it’s been at least 5-6 years. (And now that I think of it, it wasn’t even a matchy-matchy suit, but rather a non-matching jacket and skirt combo.)

    I agree with others in this thread (Susan, Ruth, etc.) who have said not to stress out about this too much. I would never hold someone’s fashion sense against them–although I’ll be unlikely to look to them for guidance in my own wardrobe! For most historians, I think if you look tidy and reasonably pulled together, you will be just fine. The sad fact is that we set the bar pretty damned low, so of course it would be unfair to ask the poorest and most junior people to uphold standards that we don’t as a profession.

    I guess the upshot of this thread is to be sure to clean your glasses, make sure your clothes fit, and match your outfits and footwear to the weather. IOW, if you paid attention to your parents in preschool, you should be able to dress yourself by now just fine.


  27. Hm – went up to our History department just the other day and was flabbergasted at the clothes – a lot of jeans and T shirts, on professors, for one thing, and then those who were teaching were in sort of bad jackets and things like that. There are some male Fulls in English who dress like that, too, but anyone younger wouldn’t unless it were the weekend and they did not expect to be seen, and nobody in a foreign literature would be so unfashionable.

    Architects have good clothes, too, I’ve noticed. At university level meetings they look infinitely classier than the people in Business, for example. One of our vice presidents, a professor in the Business school, keeps addressing meetings while wearing bejeweled flip-flops. It is so crass I cannot believe it.


  28. I still have the olive-green suit that I bought from Men’s Wearhouse under the El and dragged halfway across the country for the interview(s) that brought me here. But it’s in a deep end of a long closet that I think of as “archival.” That grandmotherly advice to just be “presentable” (and proportionable, venue-wise) should probably get the job done. The idea is to not give your auditors/deciders an excuse to be distracted from what you’re about. (If they are too easily distractable about the fine grained details, you might not want to co-habit with them for a number of years anyway). As for daily office wear, it should be more individu-able, although I have to admit that I get pained if/when I see colleagues on their way to teach looking like they’re going to or coming back from a sleep-over on a wreck-room floor.


  29. Most of this conversation seems to focus on AHA interviews, preliminary interviews… but what about on-campus interviews? Like, people on search committees: do you want a candidate to be wearing a suit? A blazer? Do funky jewelry and/or patterned tights and/or clothes with some character detract from how seriously a candidate gets taken?


  30. @Kira, what’s been said works for on campus as well as conference interviews. I think some funky jewelry, or patterned tights are fine: I’d read those as saying, “I know what’s expected but I’m really an interesting person!” At least that’s what I always meant by my flashes of color or whatever. The key, as Indyanna noted, is that you want people to pay attention to what you are saying, not to what you’re wearing. Suit or separates can work fine. I suggest a jacket just because room temperatures vary, and you want to be prepared!


  31. Kira–the focus here is on convention interviews because that was the focus of the original article. I just added my two cents that fitting in with the rest of the conference is a reasonable way to approach dressing for a conference interview.

    I’d say that paying attention to the clothing of the interviewers who may call you back for an on-campus interview is a really smart thing to do. Did the men wear jackets and ties? Did the women wear suits, or less constructed/funkier looks? Did it look like they made an effort, or were they complete slobs? Take your cues from them–unless they were complete slobs of course. In that case, I’d aim higher.

    I personally like individuality in clothing, but I don’t hire people for their fashion sense. After all, a dark suit with changes of blouses/sweaters/shirts make a great deal of sense for a travel wardrobe of limited size and complexity, especially when one is interviewing in most places in North America in winter.


  32. Whatever shoes you wear, makes sure they are polished, re-heeled and resoled. There’s nothing that makes a person look unprosperous than being, well, down at heel.

    My mother always said this, and I think it’s true. Plus, sitting on those damn couches, you can’t help but focus on shoes.

    I don’t think trans- or cis-men ncessarily need to wear ties. A nice sweater under a jacket is perfectly nice, although passing from one temp zone to another can be tricky.

    The Radical — who is gendered somewhere in the middle of whatever genders folks are aware of, regardless of how few that might be, — always wears black, black, black, and black. It strikes a good note between “ick I don’t wear grrrl clothes”and “I am being formal.”


  33. When I finished the PhD, I decided that I would never wear a !@#$@ tie again. That’s it. I’m done with the damned nooses. There is not enough pay out there to make me wear a tie again. It’s not principle, it’s disgust. It’s my weird thing.

    Interview: Blue blazer, solid button-down color shirt with collar, immaculate khakis, new dress shoes, dark socks. Yes, I have to actually decide about the socks.

    Teachies: Well-loved, worn down tweed sport coat that is immediately draped over a chair, like I’m frickin’ Fred Rogers, khakis, some combination of socks and foot covering that is not sandal related. Occasional baseball cap to be doffed, if doffed is the word I’m looking for, when I reach the classroom. Occasional ceramic necklace with space alien medallion or WWII 103d Infantry patch on it, depending on the topic (I teach lit classes about WWII and conspiracy theory). Would consider the space alien medallion for an interview (I would, of course, have a story about it and demonstrate that it is actually sort of consistent with my research and teaching agendas). A computer bag with only a notepad in it completes the effect. 🙂

    In interviews, candidates have relatively little information about what’s going on in the heads of the people making decisions. I have a feeling that folks get superstitious about the tiny, insignificant things they happen to have control over. Not worth it.



  34. Guys, Gentlemen, Dudes, lend me your ears… A dress shirt in the wrong size will make you look goofy: either you won’t be able to button the collar, you’ll look like Lurch from the Adams Family or you shirt tales will puff out so you look like the Michelin man.

    Please do make sure that you buy shirts that fit you. Even if you are going to buy some off the sale rack, or in a thrift store, first go to an upscale department store and have your measurements taken. Be sure to write down, chest, neck and sleeve length. There is some variability in the accuracy of these measurements between manufacturers, but they are close enough. Be sure to try the shirt before you buy.

    Second, if you plan on wearing a dress shirt without a suit coat or a sports coat, consider spending a little more to buy the ‘trim fit’ shirts. They look better with chinos, slacks and jeans. Even better, they are not just made for skinny guys. If you buy the right chest size, they even fit those of us who are a little thicker around the middle than we should be.

    And I really like the advice given up thread and in the post. Make sure you feel comfortable in the clothes you wear to the interview. Wear your suit or interview outfit multiple times to teach in and to present in, even if you are a little over dressed for the occasion. This dress rehearsal will let you iron out the bugs in your clothes and help you make sure you are wearing the right size of everything.


  35. Dress rehersal is a pretty good idea–but if you buy clothes that fit (and shoes that fit, too), they won’t need a “break-in” period.

    Great advice on the trim fit. Thanks for the insider perspective on men’s clothing, Matt!


  36. This advice actually makes life more complicated for everyone. Just wear a suit, people. Don’t make yourself crazier by researching the wardrobe culture of your prospective school(s).

    It’s not that complicated. It’s like a uniform. And no, it may not be a 100% fit with your colleagues (or at least the colleagues at School X who may inexplicably favor shorts and birkenstocks), but you can’t quite make a mistake either.


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