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.

Mr Blobby

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.

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Elizabeth Moon · 6 July 2016 at 16:23

The semiotics for white male clothing are different from those for women or men of color. There certainly are situations in which any white male (and some men of color) could wear suits while others wear faded heavy-metal band T-shirts and jeans, especially if the media aren’t involved, without much loss of respect among those assembled. The same is not true (yet) of women and most men of color where their status in a field is not yet equal to that of men…and women scientists have reported that even at conferences in their specialty they are too often assumed to be spouses of scientists, not scientists themselves.

Years ago, a woman surgeon I know reported that although male doctors could come into the ER in shorts and a T-shirt, straight from golf or tennis or lounging around, and get respect from nurses and other staff…she could not. She had to dress, complete with heels and makeup and the long white coat. Only then was she recognized, and treated, as an M.D. and board-certified surgeon. Finding an outfit that combines “I’m a professional scientist” with “I’m not here for sex, so don’t hit on me” is difficult. Women are critiqued endlessly on their clothes in all situations, with consequences for those whose outfits are deemed wrong. . Dressing too far up can send “I’m frivolous and here for fun,” (and thus either a wife or a woman on the make); dressing too far down can send “Not serious about science, may be a scientist’s daughter or undergrad.” Assertive “I am a senior scientist” formality can be interpreted as arrogance and thus as “hard to get along with.” (All these problems exist in other occupation-based settings as well.)

Men of color, like women, will be judged more harshly on their choice of clothes than white men. Too formal and too casual will both be noticed and have consequences, in terms of offers of jobs or collaborations. As with women, those who choose to ignore the way their race or sex are judged on appearance may still prosper, but it will be a trickier road.

“Wear what you want” works only for those who a) happen to “want” what is actually acceptable given gender and race or b) are in the privileged position of a white male for whom anything IS acceptable. Those playing catch-up on the social and academic scale usually know their choices are more limited.

    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 6 July 2016 at 21:56

    You may be right. But if I meet someone at a conference wearing jodhpurs, white socks with sandals and a corset it wont make me think any less about what they have to say, regardless of their gender, race, age, religion or starting pokemon choice. I hope that by reading posts like this more people begin to think the same.

      kriggy · 28 July 2016 at 11:30

      Very helpful, I was attending my first conference last year and could´ve used this info. Luckily I was dressed right, not too casual but not too formal.

      ps: starting pokemon choice is much more important than gender race etc.. (jk)

    Sean · 6 July 2016 at 22:55

    Hey, thanks for sharing this. This is really not a perspective I would have been aware of (being a white male myself) had someone not pointed it out to me. It’s not okay that that’s the way that things work, but I imagine a large part of fixing it is first making people aware of the differing attitudes present in our culture.

    Joshua McMannus · 7 July 2016 at 00:18

    Oh please. Stop with the SJW blabber. As a person in the science field (Ph.D. in Analytical Chem), no one cares who wears what as long as it isn’t against safety protocols and you’re not naked. This post is in reference to laboratory environments, not hospitals.

ff524 · 6 July 2016 at 21:10

Consider contributing an (illustrated) answer to this question on Academia Stack Exchange: http://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/11618/what-do-people-usually-wear-to-conferences

BTW Academia Stack Exchange is a great resource for questions on “actual day to day workings of a research job” (full disclosure: I am a community moderator there)

    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 7 July 2016 at 07:39

    I should contribute over there more often. Although I will have to strongly resist the urge to reply to things with “I wrote a blog post on this! [link]”

Ben Hemmens · 11 July 2016 at 11:39

My boss sent me as his stand-in to a conference where he was an invited speaker. He insisted I must wear a suit and tie. Not only was I the only one speaker in my session wearing these, I was also the only one wearing socks.

Michelle Reeve · 23 July 2016 at 16:23

I fell into this trap at my first conference too. I was an undergrad when I attended it, so I was completely clueless. I asked someone (a fellow female academic, experienced in conferencing) for advice on what to wear, and I was told the smart end of smart-casual. So I turned up in +30°C heat in heavy dark jeans and shirts/blouses. It was awful, and I was way smarter than most people. And most annoyingly, the person I’d asked for advice sauntered around the conference in shorts and flip-flops…
Now I really don’t care. I’ll smarten up for my talk/poster, but other than that I go for comfort, always. Conferences are exhausting enough without wearing stuffy uncomfortable clothes!

Is there a dress code for scientists? | Don't Forget the Roundabouts · 1 August 2016 at 09:00

[…] A couple of weeks ago, Mathew Partridge*, who writes at Errant Science posted a blog about what to wear at an academic conference. […]

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