This question is the flip side of Mistook new faculty member to be a student, how big a faux pas is it?

I'm an associate professor, and apparently I look young for my age. When I meet new people at conferences, they often start the conversation with something like "So, are you a grad student or a postdoc?" It doesn't particularly bother me in itself, but when I politely say something like "Actually, I'm faculty", they get embarrassed and it kind of puts a damper on the conversation. I think this sort of thing has probably spoiled a few potential networking opportunities for me.

  • Are there more tactful ways I can respond to this kind of mistake?

  • Are there things I could do to "look" more like a professor? I already dress reasonably neatly (e.g. no T-shirts) and faculty in my field don't normally dress up much more than that. Should I carry a briefcase instead of a backpack, or something like that?

(I happen to be cis male, work in mathematics, and live in the US, but it would be good to have more generally applicable answers if possible.)

  • 2
    Are you sure you are not giving out signals that the mistake is a big deal to you? It would be hard to squeeze a cigarette paper between a post-doc and faculty, they are virtually the same thing (at least where I'm from). A few years from now would the question be: was mistaken for associate professor when, in fact, I have tenure...? – Stumbler Mar 14 at 14:33
  • 1
    @Stumbler: I do have tenure. In the US system, you are normally promoted from "assistant professor" to "associate professor" when you get tenure (with some exceptions). I am six years out from my postdoc. But anyway, it is certainly possible that I am giving out such signals without realizing it, and part of the question is how I can avoid that. – Nate Eldredge Mar 14 at 15:04
  • Answers in comments and jokes have been moved to chat. Please use comments only for their intended purposes (excluding jokes). Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. Joke answers will be deleted without warning. – Wrzlprmft Mar 17 at 8:57

I would take it as a compliment to be mistaken for being younger. And, even if you don't actually feel complimented, that's a good way to respond. For example, you could laugh and say "Thanks. I wish I was still a young and carefree student, but, unfortunately, I'm a professor."

If you make it appear like you take it as a compliment, people won't feel like they have offended you and it is less awkward. The other party may also intentionally be erring on the side of underestimating your age, because it's seen as less of a faux pas that way.

(I often get people commenting on my height. I always act as if I take it as a compliment and that seems to work well. However, in reality, I'm pretty bored of discussing my disinterest in basketball.)

At conferences, you always have the option of putting "Prof." on your nametag. There is a small risk that this looks pretentious relative to the norms of your community, so it's a tradeoff.

Finally, there is one sure-fire way to appear older.

  • 3
    You could dress (a bit) more formally... depends on what is the custom though.. – Solar Mike Mar 14 at 4:40
  • 8
    I got my first grey hairs at seventeen. – TRiG Mar 14 at 5:03
  • 2
    @TRiG a friend of mine was bald by his 21st birthday... Still ok though.. – Solar Mike Mar 14 at 6:15
  • 3
    ‘…you always have the option of putting "Prof." on your nametag…’ Indeed, you can put your full job title, i.e. “Jane Doe // Assistant Professor // University of Kilmarnock”, which (at least in fields I know) would be slightly less likely to be seen as pretentious than “Prof. Jane Doe”, since what’s generally a bit old-fashioned/stuffy is asking for “Prof.” as a term of address. – PLL Mar 14 at 13:54
  • 1
    Good answer, and I'd just add something that's usually a sure-fire way to leave an awkward moment behind: Pretend it never happened. Continue the conversation just as you would had the comment never been made. If you're awkward, it'll make them awkward. – Dan Mar 14 at 14:52

If you'd like to be more readily recognizable as a professor, change your dress to be a little bit more formal than the graduate students and postdocs around you dress.

In US professional dress for men, there are actually quite a number of noticeable gradations between T-shirt and suit. The rough levels that I've observed, in order of increasing formality are:

  1. T-shirt
  2. Collared shirt without buttons
  3. "Comfy" button-down shirt with pocket (e.g., a flannel)
  4. "Nice" button-down shirt (generally thinner and finer fabric, more subtle pattern and color)
  5. Formal button-down shirt (i.e., the sort of thing you might iron and wear under a sport coat)
  6. Tie without coat
  7. Sport coat + tie
  8. Suit

Those middle levels from 3-5 are subtle but highly communicative. Graduate students and postdocs usually land at levels 1-3, while professors more tend to land from 3-6. From what you've written, I would guess that you're probably typically coming in at around a 2-4 right now, and could upgrade yourself to somewhere in the 4-5 range.

For a woman, the general advice would be the same ("dress a little bit more formally than the graduate students"), but the specifics of how to achieve it are a) more complex, and b) can often take advantage of accessories such as jewelry.

  • 13
    There's also Button-down Shirt and Sport Coat w/o tie. Personally, I think this would fall in at 6.5 on your scale. – Van Mar 14 at 13:02
  • 3
    Also men can take advantage of accessories: Think of a wristwatch or 'serious-looking' glasses – MKR Mar 14 at 13:26
  • 18
    Be careful though. If you reach too high on the scale, the impression you give is more "Ready for an interview" than "senior in the field". – Cecilia Mar 14 at 16:27
  • 6
    I would actually replace 6 with "Button-down Shirt and Sport Coat w/o tie". I frequently see male faculty with a sport coat and no tie (and sometimes dress that way myself). I can't recall ever seeing a professor wearing a tie without a jacket. – Mark Meckes Mar 14 at 16:49
  • 4
    @ElizabethHenning Polo Shirt. Normally have /some/ buttons but not a 'button-down shirt' – JeffUK Mar 15 at 9:09

Storytime. When I was lecturing, I once waited for the students outside the classroom (casually against the wall).

A student came to me and asked "Hey, do you know dr WoJ? Is he tough?". To what I replied "Oh yeah, but he is a great guy".

We came in together, our ways split while he was walking towards the other students and I went to the head of the classroom. I smiled a few times when looking at him when he was trying to somehow shrink.

I still smile when I think about that, nobody makes the mistake anymore (sigh).

Bottomline: enjoy being seen as younger than you are. The way you look is only a part of how students will see you (from experience on both sides of the fence - the part "how do I look" is not that important).

Ah, another story. I had my first lab as a lab teacher (during my doctoral studies - I was running the lab for the students, asking them questions, marking, etc.). I was late. I ran to the lab and the janitor stopped me yelling that I have to change because if all the students came with their stuff it would be the end of the world (more or less).

He closed the door and told me to be back when I am without my coat etc. - and that I am lucky that the teacher is late :)

It took me some time to get in.

Bottomline: you may actually consider, in specific conditions, to look like a teacher.

  • 9
    I've read that Wojtyla (the same who later became the pope John Paul II) had pretty much similar situation, just it was before an exam. A very nervous student asked him if this Wojtyla is very harsh, so he asked if the guy was prepared for the exam and started asking him questions as if he was checking how well was he prepare. Imagine how the student felt, when eventually Wojtyla asked for his examination card to put there a note (a decent one as the student indeed was well prepared) ;-) – Ister Mar 14 at 15:16
  • 6
    I mentioned to my wife during dinner this story and she told me that her brother had almost the same one. He was going to his office when two students asked him about himself (not knowing him, they were on their way to meet him for the first time), they chatted on the way and ended up in front of his office where he invited them in. – WoJ Mar 14 at 21:13
  • I laughed and cringed so hard at these, thank you all for sharing :) – Mehrdad Mar 14 at 21:30
  • 1
    What does "nobody makes the mistake anymore (sight)" mean? I assume it should be sigh, but I guess your sight could be so bad you have super thick glasses and that made you look more like a prof – user94036 Mar 16 at 18:20
  • @user94036: this is a typo, should be sigh. Corrected. – WoJ Mar 16 at 20:17

People often think I am much younger than I am, and they might express said confusion with remarks similar to the ones you get. When people do get my age/position wrong, I normally point out they are ~ a decade off in their judgment, which always elicits surprise, never embarrassment.

My take therefore is that if you point out people are misjudging your professional position people might get embarrassed and forever try and avoid you, whereas if you causally drop 'thank you, but that was X years ago!' people will not feel so embarrassed. Do not drop you status as faculty on their heads immediately after correcting them, let them ask you.

Let people think they complimented you for your superiors youthfulness rather than tell them off for dissing you -- that seems the outcome you wish to get.

  • 1
    First answer that actually addresses the OP's stated problem rather than telling them to be glad about being seen as younger than they are. – Endre Both Mar 14 at 16:22

Facial hair could help

As a guy in his upper thirties who until recently was still getting pegged as being in his upper teens to lower twenties, growing facial hair (a mustache and goatee) has helped quite a bit. I now routinely get called "sir", which didn't happen before. I'm not saying this will solve your problem, but if it's an option it can definitely help.

  • Indeed! – Count Iblis Mar 14 at 23:44
  • 1
    As it happens I already have a full beard (trimmed shorter than the guy @CountIblis mentions, though), but I agree that it would be even worse if I didn't. – Nate Eldredge Mar 15 at 4:41
  • Fair enough. Though @CountIblis brings up (visually) a good point, which is (and not saying this applies to you) that at least in current U.S. fashion how you groom yourself while wearing facial hair matters; if trying to look older, it's important not to choose a hairstyle and clothing (and facial hair style) that aligns with the current fashion trend of young adult guys, many of whom also wear facial hair. – bob Mar 15 at 12:41

As a staff member (in the no man's land between students and faculty) who dresses casually, others on campus would always ask what I'm studying. Then over a summer vacation I stopped shaving my salt-and-pepper beard. When I returned, everyone suddenly treated me like I had tenure. I was flabbergasted.


It doesn't particularly bother me in itself, but when I politely say something like "Actually, I'm faculty", they get embarrassed and it kind of puts a damper on the conversation

I'm answering this based on that you do not appear to be bothered my the initial mistake, but how the conversation ensues. In that case, I'd recommend against changing things like how you dress or what you carry, and instead focus on how you respond. Being polite when you tell them the mistake is fine, but the way you express it will define the rest of the conversation. So yes, if you're polite, but serious, they might feel awkward. But if you smile and take it as humorous mistake and tell them with a light, almost laughing tone (not actually laughing, but maybe a little chuckle) that you are a faculty member, then, yes, they might still be a little embarrassed, but they will probably be comfortable about it. Maybe even inject an "I get that all the time." This would be less drastic than changing your dress style or daily behavior.

protected by Wrzlprmft Mar 17 at 8:53

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.