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I'm going to my first conference in about a month, where I will be presenting a poster.

How do people usually dress for conferences? Do I need to dress more smartly than usual? Is formal dress (e.g. a suit) normal? Or does no-one really care?

I'm a PhD student, if that makes any difference, and both my university and the conference are in the UK. It's a biology conference.

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    The running joke at the annual AMS (math) meetings is that anyone in a suit is looking for a job. You can spot them a mile away. Engineering conferences I am told are more formal than math ones though so as someone who has been to this conference before. – BSteinhurst Aug 3 '13 at 16:03
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    When in doubt, overdress. – boscovich Aug 3 '13 at 17:11
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    This is really field-dependent. At my most recent conference, I wore this T-shirt when I gave this talk. – JeffE Aug 3 '13 at 21:51
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    Perhaps something useful could to try to find some pictures from the previous editions of the conference you're attending. Google images should help, but if you're lucky, the conference itself might have published some pictures. For instance, those are the pictures for ISMB 2012: flickr.com/photos/ismb/sets/72157630622865818 – user102 Aug 4 '13 at 6:24
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    It's not only field-dependent, it's ever conference dependent within a field. I would ask someone who knows the particular conference. – gerrit Aug 4 '13 at 21:25
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It depends a lot on the event (some gatherings are more formal than others) and on your status (win a Nobel prize, and you can wear anything you damn well want), but in general, you're not really expected to wear anything fancier to an academic conference than you would for a normal day at work or in class.

In practice, most people do tend to dress up a little bit, just to look their best, but still, even if you just wear your normal clean everyday clothes, you're not going to embarrass yourself (any more than you usually do, at least). As the other answers note, "smart casual" is the usual style here.

Nothing says you can't wear a suit if you want to; I see people do that all the time in conferences. Then again, some of those people also wear a suit to work every day, so...

Still, if you're in doubt, why not ask your advisor (or someone else in your group who's been to similar events before)? That's part of their job: to teach you the basics of academic work, which certainly includes presenting your work at a conference.

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    I will absolutely ask my supervisor, and the other people in the lab, but I don't think it hurts to gather wider opinions. – Jack Aidley Aug 4 '13 at 0:12
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    I believe when receiving the Nobel Price there is a strong dress requirement to wear a tuxedo as man and fine dress as woman. You're meeting the King nonetheless. – johannes Dec 29 '15 at 10:28
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In academia, the dress code is much more relaxed than in business settings, but there are exceptions in certain fields. But overall, people care less about what you wear, and more about what you have to say. (And I must, I quite like it.)

The dress code in most academic events (conferences included) is often called “academic casual”, and is not very strict. If you want to be sure to avoid any gaffe, just stay away from the short pants and T-shirts (overly casual), as well as full suits and ties (overdressed). So, long pants (may want to avoid blue jeans), a shirt (or other top with collar), possibly a decent sweater.

             enter image description here

Regarding women's attire, in addition to the choices above, pantsuits are fine, dresses and skirts (not short enough as to be provocative!) are also okay, but again do not overdress.


Regarding various fields: I have noticed that researchers at physics conferences are usually more casual than chemists and chemical engineers. Others will surely comment about their own field(s)…

One exception I am aware of: law conferences usually follow a more business dress code, rather than casual.

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    In some fields this would qualify as formal. – StrongBad Aug 3 '13 at 15:20
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    @DanielE.Shub for example in Earth Sciences many people where their zip-off pants and hiking boots to the conference. – Paul Hiemstra Aug 3 '13 at 15:25
  • @PaulHiemstra I don't have any other shoes than hiking shoes or hiking sandals ;-) (at least not for job-related stuff) – yo' Dec 27 '15 at 22:03
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It depends on who you are, who your audience is, and what you're presenting.

If your talk is very, very academic, then your best going with business casual. I have never seen a speaker wear a suit and tie.

Christian Renaud's dress at this Siggraph 2009 seems exemplary:

enter image description here

He's got:

  • A light colored shirt with a collar
  • Likely dark colored pants

If you're a woman, women's business casual is usually very similar.

enter image description here

This is Mimi Harris at Siggraph 2009, talking about Web3D.

Sometimes you will see people wearing T-Shirts at academic conferences. This seems to be ok for developers who spend all their time developing software, and are showcasing what they have recently developed.

enter image description here

This is Johannes Behr talking at Siggraph 2008. I kind of believe developers dress this way to kind of implicitly give the impression that "Hey, I was just developing and I popped in to give you this talk. After, I'm going straight back to my desk." A T-Shirt says "this is a casual talk. Relax. I'm showing you some cool stuff."

  • This is clearly field-dependent. I suppose mathematics and computer science are somewhat more casual than other fields. For example, suit and tie is not unusual for some of the senior professors in chemistry and chemical engineering, especially at the bigger conferences. It's also a usual attire for researchers from the big companies… – F'x Aug 3 '13 at 20:51
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    @F'x: It is field dependent, but the nature of the dependence may not always be obvious. In my experience from conferences on mathematical biology, the mathematicians seem to be a bit more formal on average than the biologists, although people from both fields do span the full gamut from suit and tie to shorts and T-shirt. The type of casual dress also varies somewhat between fields: a stereotypical mathematician might wear a plaid cotton shirt and corduroy pants (and glasses), while a biologist might be more likely to go for "field casual", such as blue jeans and a wool sweater. – Ilmari Karonen Aug 4 '13 at 11:36
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    And in software, Hawaiian shirts are reserved for the greats. – y3sh Sep 22 '15 at 1:52
  • +1 for "Hey, I was just developing and I popped in to give you this talk." – semi-extrinsic Nov 30 '15 at 14:00
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The important thing is to wear something you are comfortable with. If a suit/tie/dress really makes you uncomfortable or self conscious, don't wear it regardless of what other people are wearing. If you are comfortable wearing anything, I would error on the side of too formal. It tends to be easier to make an outfit less formal than more formal and while I have never heard comments about how someone dresses at a conference, I have heard negative comments about how a candidate dresses at a job interview (always that the dress was too informal). I find that a good starting point is to look at what people wear when they are teaching.

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For women and men, I would err on the conservative side for conferences - but this does not mean you should throw out your own, personal style. My first conference, I felt awkward and uncomfortable because I had decided to wear pants and a blazer instead of one of my usual dresses. I though the pants made me look more professional - but they fit poorly and made me feel insecure.

Here are some tips from my department: http://ucfhistory.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/what-to-wear-to-your-first-conference-10-tips-for-grad-students/

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In my experience the dress code at academic conferences is really casual. I would just wear what you would normally wear to work, possibly avoiding shorts when giving a presentation (although I have seen plenty of people presenting in shorts). You could also wear a suit, although I think you would be one of the few that does. If you do want to make your clothes a bit more formal for your presentation, I would wear only the jacket of the suit combined with nice shoes, with for example jeans and no tie.

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    What are 'normal pants' ? – earthling Aug 3 '13 at 11:44
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    @PaulHiemstra Your answer covers males. What about females? I once saw a female graduate student crying in the hotel lobby after her advisor scold her about the length of her skirt. – scaaahu Aug 3 '13 at 12:48
  • @scaaahu For females I would mostly avoid anything that's too revealing, since that is the tendency for some styles of womens' clothing. If you're doing a presentation and/or want to be more formal, a blouse and a long skirt or pants would work. T-shirt and shorts should be fine for attending talks, doing poster sessions, etc. – Jake Aug 3 '13 at 15:18
  • @Jake I agree, wearing revealing clothes will distract people from your presentation, and make you look less professional. Again, I think that dressing as you would at your ordinary place of work is a good rule of thumb. – Paul Hiemstra Aug 3 '13 at 15:23
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    @scaaahu The dress codes for female academics could best be summarized as "A goddamned minefield." – Fomite Nov 29 '15 at 23:13
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This is profoundly field dependent, and even within what could be considered the same field, may vary based on individuals and the slant of the conference. For example, in conferences I regularly attend:

  • At a computational conference, half the attendees were wearing the conference t-shirt. I felt perfectly comfortable presenting in jeans and an untucked button-up shirt.
  • At a public health conference, "someone wearing a navy blazer" is almost 100% predictive of that person being a clinician. Wearing a sport coat with no tie is "dressed up".
  • At medical conferences on the other hand, the same attire is "dressing down" a bit, and visually separating myself as "not a clinician".
  • At homeland security conferences, nearly everyone is in a shirt and tie with a blue or black blazer, besides the academics.
  • At all of these, the military types are in whatever uniform they're mandated to wear by their service.

I could credibly be giving the same talk at each of these. There's also differences by rank ('Big names' in my field are often dressed considerably down - at one point pink parachute pants) and other aspects like gender (women are, in my experience, more harshly judged for 'missing the mark' in either direction).

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Note: I'm female.

The conferences I've gone to weren't overly dressy. I've gone to a few chemistry conferences, a multi-disciplinary conference, and one for writing. I wore black slacks a nice top and I fit in pretty well.

However: I wanted to make a great impression and wore really nice shoes. They weren't crazy shoes, but there was a LOT of walking (and thus a lot of blisters.) Make sure your shoes are comfortable not just for standing in, but for walking.

Next time, I'll still dress nice, but I'll wear much more comfortable shoes.

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