When I was a relatively young scientist just starting out in the big world of science I, like most people, didn’t have the slightest clue about almost any of the actual day to day workings of a research job. My most googled for things in my first days of work were not “how do I pipette?” it was “how do I write an SOP?”, “what to include in meeting minutes” and “health and safety form examples”.
Which is why just before travelling to my first academic conference, I was pretty stressed – not about the work I was presenting, that I’d spent several months prepping and several years of education filling my head with background. But instead I was more stressed about something that I’d had no preparation for at all, what I should be wearing.
Seems mad I know but honestly, I googled “what should I wear to a conference?” and was sorely disappointed by the lack of help. So this is my way of rectifying the lack of knowledge a much younger and slightly more naive me would have wanted.
I just assumed that professional conference meant smart suits when I first started. Seemed a no-brainer – I’m meeting Professors and researchers from around the world and so I should impress them with my super smart clothes. Problem with that is a) I only have one suit so during a conference longer than 2 days, it’s going to be progressively less pleasant to sit next to me and b) I have to travel with a nice suit in some way that means that it doesn’t look like a bag of crisps that that has been stored between sofa cushions. Considering its popularity a suit is not really practical.
Then I rationalised that these are all professional science people, none of us wear suits in the lab so maybe I should go in my normal lab clothes. At least I’d be comfortable. Perhaps that is the done thing and we’ll all be sitting around in faded band t-shirts and jeans talking about nanoscale lithography. But again, the niggling doubt that I was meant to be impressing my future employers suggested this seemed like a bit of a risk. What if they didn’t like Heavy Metal and took offence at my t-shirt! As it turns out, this is a slightly prophetic concern as my current boss is a diehard Mod and would rather be seen dead than standing next to someone in a Iron Maiden t-shirt.
However, both of these neurotic and panicked theories are sort of wrong and right in equal measure. I’ve been to a myriad of conferences big and small, and now I can say that basically you’ll see everything. Some people go in suits and all layers of smart attire, I’ve even seen someone in something I’d loosely describe as a ball gown. I’ve sat next to people in faded band t-shirts for bands that would make Iron Maiden blush. And that’s not to forget the contingent of very traditional academics who wear bow ties and more tweed than you’d find in Harrods menswear department.
My theory is that everyone is basically confused at what to wear for conferences and so the end result is a mish-mash of different levels of smartness. Not that the wide range means that people don’t judge – there are always judgy horrible people who will sneer if you button up your cardigan on the wrong side… But there will be a mix of people judging you for trying too hard to be smart and others who will glare at you for not coming in full evening wear to a half-day seminar.
So my advice to you and to anyone else attending a conference is – don’t worry so much. No matter what you wear there will be people looking scruffier or smarter than you and you won’t look out of place. No matter what you choose to wear, some people will probably mutter to themselves but these people are impossible to please and are not worth even thinking about. The majority of the people at academic conferences care about what you have to say not what you look like, so relax, and enjoy nerding out with cool science.