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I came across this highly-upvoted comment on reddit (15,300 karma) by /u/Semi-Hemi-Demigod

The CEO of the company I work for said that it's not uncommon for programmers to be asked to dress down for important meetings. Apparently investors don't think programmers who dress well are good programmers.

I was wondering if this logic applies to academia, particularly in fields like math, computer science, and philosophy where stereotypically many top people dress sloppily. In other words, are there academic contexts where dressing badly will make me seem more competent at my job?

Perhaps this would be an interesting social science experiment to perform, if it hasn't been done already!

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    It sounds to me like the comment has been made in the context of startup culture (outside of that it's not common that programmers would have anything to do with an important meeting with investors). Quite frankly, startup culture is weird, and often very, very illogical. I would not read anything into this. – xLeitix Jan 9 at 9:22
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    The logic doesn’t even apply in software development, let alone academia. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 9 at 14:36
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    I would say it's not actually about dressing up or down, per se, in either case (coder or academic). Rather, it is about trying to fit the stereotypical image of the persona you're going for. For a coder, you'd probably go for jeans and a hoodie, or maybe a patagucci jacket, as opposed to a suit or sweatpants or hawaiian shirt. For academia, you might want some brown loafers, jeans, and sport coat with leather elbow patches, maybe a well-worn briefcase, as opposed to whatever else. – bean Jan 9 at 15:42
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    One day in my undergrad supervisor's lab he told us students that there was going to be a visit from a funding agency the next day. He usually wore jeans and a sweater that his wife knit, so the other undergrad asked "oh, are you going to wear a suit?" to which his response was "I'm going to dress like a physicist, so I'll probably wear exactly what I'm wearing now" – llama Jan 9 at 16:17
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    I think the CEO is saying: I want to wear all black and a mock turtleneck so the investors think I'm the next Steve Jobs and it'll look even more fake if you show up in your normal business casual wear. – davidbak Jan 9 at 18:57
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This is just a complicated race of mind games.

There are many fields where 'dressing up' is the norm, as it gives a first impression of respectability and competence. This is also because in many fields 'dealing with people', being sociable and looking professional and respectable is an integral part of the job.

In the hard sciences, on the other hand, your results speak for you, there is limited interaction with people necessary, and it is widely recognized that "dressing up = being good" is a false association; no amount of tailored suits will hide the fact that you don't know your stuff. The two things are completely orthogonal. Also, many scientists are not 'people persons', to put it mildly.

So when you overdress, this raises a warning in the mind of many scientists: 'Is this guy one of the many people in the world and in other fields who dress up as an attempt of hiding their incompetence? I should be careful in judging him'. But there is nothing inherently bad about it if you really are competent at your job, and you can let your work speak for you. Some scientists routinely suit up for conferences.

Similarly, dressing down is not seen a problem, as long as basic hygiene norms are respected; at most it can raise an eyebrow.

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    @user2768 I would think demonstrating financial success is also looked down upon in academia. Also you don't really have to be financially successful to get a tailored suit, so it could be interpreted as the person wanting to appear financially successful when they maybe aren't. – kapex Jan 9 at 10:09
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    @user2768 I was more thinking about standard situations like meetings, conferences. But yes, there are of course circumstances where it is appropriate. Any situation that involves convincing people to give you money would likely be easier if you wear an expensive suite. – kapex Jan 9 at 10:28
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    @awjlogan True, I admit it, but I find it hard to answer this question without making generalizations. – Federico Poloni Jan 9 at 13:48
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    @user2768: But how many people in the academic world would be able to tell the difference between an expensive bespoke-tailored suit and something bought off the rack at Men's Wearhouse? The problem with signalling success in such a manner is that a lot of people can't read the signals - or misread them, thinking that suit means you're insecure about your professional competence. – jamesqf Jan 9 at 19:11
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    @user2768 I actually doubt that, given that "those that matter" might well mean "the most senior researchers", and these might be the least well-dressed by those sorts of standards, still wearing the same tweed suit as 30 years ago. – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 10 at 9:48
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If an academic is dressed in an unusually casual manner, I generally ignore it.

If an academic is dressed in an unusually formal manner, I assume one of these:

  • They are an administrator, or manager, rather than an academic
  • They are here for a job interview and they don't know it is not necessary to dress formally
  • They are going to an event outside academia, like a funeral

I do not think anyone is impressed by either dressing up or down, but it can send a signal.

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    Isn't formal dress for interviews somewhat country-specific? – user2768 Jan 9 at 8:00
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    Or "they are a group leader in Mechanical Engineering department" also works. – Ander Biguri Jan 9 at 11:56
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    Fourth possibility to an academic dressing formal (as least where I am): thesis defence committee! – Emilie Jan 9 at 14:07
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    Before my first conference I was told by my PhD supervisor to dress smart but don't wear a suit because "people will think you're trying to sell them something" – Daniel Jan 9 at 16:15
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    @jpmc26 - The quid of the question is that in some settings dressing up doesn't project a professional and capable air. – Pere Jan 10 at 8:58
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Let me add a German perspective, biased by an interdisciplinary field of computer science where "the other discipline" is more formal than CS.

  • In day-to-day life, students, doctorate students and post-docs are dressed as they would do in other aspects of life. Some are more dressed up, others dressed down, nothing special. But no one would appear in a suit or nice dress (like e.g. in economics / law where it is quite common in Germany)
  • Professors are usually dressed a bit more formal, also depending on the field. In general, the closer they are to economics / business studies, the more formal the dress. I usually attend in a jeans / shirt combination as long as we don't have guests or formal ceremonies.
  • In formal settings (guests from industry, formal speeches, interviews, ...) a suit / business dress is common, for most a tie as well.
  • In conferences, it's about the same, but the range is broader. Some dress up a bit more then usual (e.g. most presenters wear a suit / business dress). I personally would recommend this (and recommend it to my PhD students), because it shows some kind of respect to the audience. But maybe this is because I have a background in performing arts as well and stage presence is a must there ;-). If someone is dressed informally, I personally don't care.
  • In contrast to some answers, in Germany I would highly recommend to wear a formal dress in job interviews at least for faculty positions. For PhD candidates / postdocs it is not necessary.

I never heard of someone dressing down intentionally.

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    I am PhD student in maths within a CS group in germany and I observed that in average CS people are dressed much more formally than in maths (especially in conferences, maybe this is due to the presence of industrials). – YYY Jan 9 at 20:58
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    I was just having a conversation about this with someone. It seems that academics in Germany tend to be much more formal than I am used to here in America. – user74089 Jan 10 at 2:17
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    @YYY It's definitely due to the presence of people from industry - I noticed that most when I switched universities from one with loose ties to industry but strong ties with the stem fields, to one with very strong ties to industry in most groups. At the first university, it was jeans an t-shirt all around, maybe jeans and shirt and maaaybe a jacket if you had important visitors. At the second university, most professors wore jeans and shirt day to day and had a jacket in their office because you never know when your industry partner is going to drop by, and of course suits for important days. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Jan 10 at 7:41
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    One comment: Wearing the combination of jeans and a (formal or semi-formal) shirt is a European thing. You wouldn't see this in the US as jeans there did not enter every-day office culture there so much. In line with YYY's comment, how much a PhD student dresses up for a conference depends on how applied the topic is. If it's theoretical computer science, going full suit would be odd. – DCTLib Jan 11 at 13:37
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In inverse problems (applied mathematics, more or less) conferences I have seen people dress in a dark suit, hoodies, and everything between. I notice the extremes, but everything between them I ignore, at least to the extent that I could not tell how most people were dressed at a given conference. Any assumptions I make about their mathematical ability based on their dress is mild and unconscious.

At mathematics departments where I have been, some senior people in leadership positions dress slightly more formally (but not all), and some individuals dress more formally, but I do not see much attention paid to this, aside (again) from extreme cases that might be noticed. One typically has some idea of who the people are, so assumptions on their ability are not done based on their clothing.

I do dress slightly more fancily at job interviews and conferences, because I do believe it has a small effect on self-confidence and response from others.

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    "I do dress slightly more fancily at job interviews and conferences" i.e. I put on a shirt and not the nerdy old T-shirt, in my case :D – Ander Biguri Jan 9 at 11:58
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    This is BY FAR the best answer, dress so you feel the most confident/comfortable. Your performance in the interview is what matters - dress so you perform your best. Don't dress down or up for other people within reason. – WetlabStudent Jan 14 at 6:17
  • I wore a suit to my first astronomy conference, where I was presenting a poster. I had several people come by and joke: "First conference?" – rhombidodecahedron Jan 16 at 13:07
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I don't know about "dressing badly", but not wearing a jacket and tie was reasonably standard for the professors and professional staff that I encountered in getting my two master's degrees - one in Oceanography and one in a Computer Science-affiliated field that often interacted with teachers. (I'm in the US, btw.)

In the Oceanography school, given that it was a 'wet' science (i.e. lab and field -based), ties and jacket would get in the way and just be prone to extra wear and tear. Even the folks who had more of a desk job (many people specialized in computer modeling) tended to decent casual to business casual - usually only going to business casual on the days of seminars. So the dress norms for the campus were everything from bathing suits / other clothes for field work up to business casual; ties and suits as everyday clothes were an indication that someone had moved on from lab or field work and was in administration.

In the CS-related field, obviously, 'wet' field work wasn't a thing. Most grad students wore kinda whatever. Most professors wore business casual: khakis and a button down shirt; some routinely wore jeans (especially on Fridays). It is true that the higher up the food chain you got, jackets and ties became more of the norm again. At the time I started the program (part time grad student), I was also a high school teacher. My typical clothes were khakis, pressed shirt, and a sport coat. I was definitely the most formally dressed in the grad student office. I got confused for faculty fairly often. There were also a fair number of professional staff working on the team. E.g. the chief software engineer for the group I was with was not faculty. He normally dressed in jeans, but this was not out of place.

Your question seems to be about meetings. I figured it was useful to discus normal dress norms first, though. For presentations at conferences or poster sessions at the university, grad students tended to find more formal clothes (some went for full suits, most went for khakis/shirt/sport coat/maybe a tie). For internal group meetings, there was no effort to wear anything other than what a person normally wore. If there was a meeting with a prospective new faculty member, people might dress a bit more nicely than normal, but there was no effort to break out (e.g.) ties. However, the CS-related group often had conferences for teachers. During these events, grad students and staff were expected to dress 'nicely' (e.g. khakis and a nice shirt). Grad students from my group often went into classrooms; they were expected to dress at least business casual.

On the whole, I don't think anyone (besides the students, when they could get away with it) dressed "sloppily". Hygiene was good; nobody was working in sweatpants at the CS school; folks doing field work in oceanography wore what they needed to, but usually kept decent clothes nearby. Certainly nobody was told to dress down appear like they were better at their job.

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Just to make two more probably-obvious points: first, people may make subliminal, subconscious judgements that they will act upon without being willing to defend the basis for the action if it were brought to their (conscious) attention; second, people may/will (thinking of the first point) presume that you've made a conscious choice to dress however you dress (and comport yourself).

The second point may need some amplification: people will (perhaps only subconsciously) presume that you "know what you're doing" in dressing or behaving how you do when you interview with them, etc. And, then, perhaps subconsciously, they may wonder why you'd choose to dress/behave in a fashion that you could/should have known might distract or offend or ... them.

For that matter, and not without at least a slight reason, it's not surprising that a person could subliminally think "If this person is so willing or eager to disregard my preferences/opinions/whatever at this point, how can I trust them to take care of my interests subsequently?"

Yes, I know, this touches on various volatile issues... but, apart from what people should or should not do in reaction to one's dress or behavior, the present question (and, often, others) are about what will/may happen. How to "win friends and influence people"? :)

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There are articles theoretically showing when "dressing down" is interpreted as a favourable signal: Too Cool for School? Signalling and Countersignalling and the articles citing it on Google Scholar.

I do not know of an empirical test with clothing, but in the context of hotel advertising, higher ad expenditure is sometimes associated with lower quality: see this Tourism Economics paper.

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While it probably varies by field, most academics seem to fall on a spectrum from "pyjamas" to "business casual", depending on how much they personally care about fashion. There's a few factors influencing it like age, student vs. postdoc vs. faculty, whether they have an event (meeting, talk, teach), whether they work at a desk or a bench, but I don't think there's really any universal rules. The one thing that seems extremely rare is formal dress like a suit, that you would wear, say, in court (I'd say job interview for a company, but then companies also vary a lot).

Because the suit (or the equivalent for women) is so rare, I think if you dressed up that much, you would get some pushback. Presumably if you kept it up everyone would adjust to it after a while and just accept it as a quirk of yours. Although, often, people who dress in suits are either coming to interview for a job, or they're sales reps from a company or similar non-academic people, so perhaps you might not want to be confused with them.

As for dressing down to be perceived better in a meeting, not knowing anything about the audience, I doubt it would work. As I said, there's a spectrum from utter slop to business casual, so long as you're in that spectrum, it's "good enough" and it doesn't really matter where you are inside that spectrum. The guy wearing gym shorts and flip flops isn't going to like you more or less for wearing nice pants and a button down shirt, most likely he will ignore it because he's used to working with many people who go with either option, and does not consider it a remarkable trait. Like I said, if you go outside the spectrum and wear something like a suit, people might be surprised and/or confused.

Now if for instance you're about to have a meeting with a bunch of people who you happen to know are all strongly prejudiced about wearing one kind of clothing, and not the other, obviously dressing in that particular way will help make a good impression. But this isn't something that can be guessed easily from field or institution. You can also never know if people will generally like you more for being on the low or high end of the usual spectrum. It all varies tremendously from person to person (and not really with any useful groupings like field) so if you really want to go down this route your best bet is probably go to the office and see what people actually wear.

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are there academic contexts where dressing badly will make me seem more competent at my job?

In my experience with CS in the United States, no.

  1. You rarely have someone making important snap judgements about you. In a situation where they need to evaluate you -- a talk, job interview, etc -- they have something meaningful to go on.

  2. Most people you need to impress have seen plenty of smart and less-smart folks of all sorts, so they distrust the stereotype anyway. Smarts and reliability/maturity are treated as separate axes and you want to impress on both.

The only context I can think of is if teaching a class of impressionable undergraduates, maybe this strategy could make an impression on them for a lecture or two. But I think your teaching will be much more important after that.

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    "You rarely have someone making important snap judgements about you." How about meeting new people at conferences while giving a talk or otherwise? At least as a junior scientist, those people might be hiring you in the recent future. – Tommi Jan 9 at 14:02
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    @TommiBrander, In my own experience - as in (1), if giving a talk then people evaluate you mainly on the content, if meeting them briefly then they won't make an important snap judgement (e.g. decide to review your application or not based on 5 minutes). Further, as in (2), someone making important decisions like hiring is even less likely to rush to judgment based on superficial cues, and if they did, dressing down/sloppily is not a good bet: more likely to make a bad impression than good. Just my experience. – usul Jan 9 at 18:39
  • I would think that there is a non-zero chance that someone decides to follow or not follow your talk on frivolous reasons, or that if you made an impression, they might be curious about you and hence give a little more attention to your application than otherwise, etc. My best guess is that such snap judgements are made all the time and that they can have real effects, but I can not point to a study to support this, as this is very far from my field. I agree that dressing down is not a good bet. – Tommi Jan 9 at 18:53
  • @PascLeRasc Neither would many others, but academicians being humans, things like appearance and first impressions do affect our decision making. The effect might not be terribly large, but it almost certainly is there. – Tommi Jan 10 at 19:57

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