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I'm a male 19 year old Phd student (in a field in the exact sciences), I dyed my hair bright blue. Personally, I think it transmits a great message and is generally cool. Although, I'm not sure how well received will it be in my university, in teaching, while visiting other universities, meeting new researchers I never met before and while presenting in conferences.

Picture of the hair can be viewed here:

Questions:

What effect might dyeing your hair blue have as a PhD student?

  • 29
    That being said, I only remember one situation in my field where somebody’s looks were commented on and that was somebody wearing a tie and a suit as a PhD student. – Wrzlprmft May 30 '15 at 15:51
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    What is the message being transmitted by your hair? I'm not being sarcastic, just curious. Really. – David Ketcheson May 30 '15 at 17:28
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    Go ahead, I think in CS you should be fine. Jason Hartline (eecs.northwestern.edu/hartline) used to have purple hair at some point in time. I am an economist. I went green after getting my first job (my thesis advisor got upset but I was OK with it because he was pushing other students in the mkt), after tenure I went purple. – Dr Pangloss May 30 '15 at 17:49
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    "Personally, I think it transmits a great message and is generally cool." This "coolness" disease just won't die, will it? :( I'm particularly curious as to which "great message" you think bright blue hair "transmits". – Lightness Races in Orbit May 30 '15 at 19:15
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    About half of all female CS students I know had brightly colored hair at some point. The "rebel nerd" look is kind of is a stereotype too - but it's probably confirmation bias because bright hair sticks out more. My first impression of anyone of any profession with brightly colored hair usually is that (sorry and no offense) he/she wants attention. – kapex May 31 '15 at 12:10

11 Answers 11

83

The general advice is that when you're an undergraduate student, a graduate student not yet on the job market, or when you're a tenured faculty, you can do whatever the hell you want.

The problem is that you are vulnerable when you're in the position to be hired, promoted, tenured, or retained. In those cases, having just one conservative person on the hiring/promotion/retention committee (or at the divisional, full faculty, dean or provost levels) can derail you. In those circumstances, you want to stand out in terms of your research, service, and teaching but to try to avoid or mitigate any areas of friction where and when possible.

Since hair color is easily changeable, if I were your advisor, I would recommend that you dress (and hair color) more conservatively when you go on the job market -- and when you come up for promotion/retention/tenure. I would also recommend you wear shoes at your job interview.

The benefit to risk analysis just isn't in favor of frivolity in these high stakes situations. Your departmental faculty may be 100% behind you and your sartorial style but I've seen faculty lose tenure bids at the divisional, full faculty, and provost level despite department support. I've seen grad students not get hired because they wore a t-shirt to a job interview thinking the institution was a cool, hip place. It was, just not that hip.

At all other times during your career, I think you are relatively free to do what you want within the broader norms of your particular cohort and department.

Note that while my home department is anthropology and I'm currently at a R1, I've also taught at two SLACs and have seen enough shenanigans in other departments and at divisional/university levels that my advice is not restricted to just anthropology at R1s but is intended as general advice. Ymmv.

  • 20
    Anthropology must be a lot more conservative than computer science. I can easily imagine a member of a hiring/promotion/retention committee objecting to hiring/promoting/retaining a productive colleague because of their hair color. But I can't imagine the rest of the committee responding to that objection with anything but derisive laughter. – JeffE May 30 '15 at 19:38
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    @JeffE maybe that one conservative person doesn't mention the hair color as a reason, but makes other reasons up? – Paŭlo Ebermann May 30 '15 at 20:23
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    @JeffE Prejudice rarely manifests as obviously as that. That conservative person might not even be making up reasons, the thought could just slightly and consistently be coloring how they think about a candidate. – Roger Fan May 30 '15 at 21:10
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    To expand on @RogerFan 's comment, if a person first sees your hair and gets the impression you're immature or whatever, then when you interact with them, they'll be primed to notice reasons to confirm that impression when they might have otherwise overlooked them -- worse, confirmation bias can come into play too. – Hurkyl May 30 '15 at 21:32
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    If you're dying your hair at least in part to "transmit a message", it shouldn't be a surprise that some people you interact with will receive the message, and dislike it. – Peter Jun 1 '15 at 18:29
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This definitely depends on environment: your research field's culture, your department's culture and your university's culture.

As someone that had a mohawk phase often during grad school, I can only speak from my time in my PhD program in mathematics (in the USA). In my experience, I would cut it off before any conference, any research visit, and the job market as it felt not right for me. I kept the mohawk when teaching. My university never complained about the hairstyle and I won teaching awards from the students. The most I heard from colleagues was that it probably made mathematics "more relatable" to the students and the occasional "you should grow a tail in the back so you're like that jedi...." On the other hand, I would feel uncomfortable with a mohawk in my new university.

In my experience, computer science and mathematics seem culturally the least focussed on appearance. Everything is contextual, though.

  • 6
    Mohawk phase. My brain can't handle this, as all of my professors were ancient or computer science grads. – Compass Jun 1 '15 at 16:15
  • I had a mohawk sometimes as an undergrad .Undergrads were called students back then 1984 .I did NOT have this when in a PAID research position .I do not know what is right in these times .Maybe undergrad is wear anything and staff member get with code ? – Autistic May 7 '17 at 4:03
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In some fields with significant client-facing time, colored hair (or other similar notable features like significant visible tattoos or piercings) is generally unacceptable. My knowledge of this primarily comes from clinical psychology, but I'm sure that there are other similar fields (for instance, social work). For somewhat obvious reasons, maintaining a professional and somewhat conservative appearance is important when a significant part of your degree involves doing clinical work.

In non-clinical fields, I think that this is generally okay (unless you have some particularly conservative faculty), but I will let other answers address that.

  • 6
    @ResearchEnthusiast Sure, but the question's scope can be broader than that. If someone googles this in a couple months (and most stackexchange sites are built for google traffic) they might not necessarily be from your field and might find this helpful. And the CS/math perspective is never underrepresented at this site. – Roger Fan May 30 '15 at 15:50
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    @ResearchEnthusiast In computer science, where it's not unusual to see acceptance of graduate students who aren't even wearing shoes, funky colored hair fits in just fine. – jakebeal May 30 '15 at 15:56
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    @jakebeal: you see graduate students like that. But do you see faculty like that? – GEdgar May 30 '15 at 17:09
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    @GEdgar: Sometimes, yes. – arc_lupus May 30 '15 at 20:53
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    @GEdgar: Yes, I see CS faculty walking around without shoes in the department building. – Phil Miller May 31 '15 at 0:06
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At my former department Ph.D.'s were obtained by students who had dread locks, lots of tattoos, or changed their hair colour on a monthly base, and a male wearing skirts. So at least in mathematics blue hair should not be a big deal. At an early stage of your career some deviation from the norm might even be advantageous. When visiting a conference you get too much information to process in too little time, so you do not remember every single talk. But you might remember the guy with blue hair talking about Ramsey theory.

14

Go for it. You won't be the only one. For instance, take a look at Lorrie Cranor, a Professor at CMU in Computer Science. Professor Cranor is an extraordinary researcher, a leader worldwide in her field (perhaps the leading researcher in her field), incredibly well respected for her many deep and seminal contributions. She has also sported blue hair from time to time.

Lorrie Cranor has blue hair

So, in my opinion -- go for it. Feel free to show a little personality. Academia is populated by people, and everyone is different. Don't be afraid to be yourself.

  • 2
    I would say, Go for it -- when you become a Lorrie Cranor. Until then keep it professional and focus on your studies rather than your hair. – A.S Feb 20 '17 at 21:53
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It could be an effective form of personal branding. I went to a conference recently where a graduate student had blue hair. She was the most memorable person there.

  • 1
    I would think that there are more important traits for personal branding than hair color or such. That is, of course, if we're talking about professional personal branding, which is implied by the OP posting the question on this site. In regard to your "most memorable" remark, I hope that you meant non-professional impression, otherwise it would be irrelevant IMHO. – Aleksandr Blekh May 31 '15 at 4:47
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    @AleksandrBlekh branding is not typically based on matters of substance. – Anonymous Physicist May 31 '15 at 19:25
  • You're right, but only partially - while product/service-focused companies' branding is mostly not based on substantial matters, I think that professional personal branding in academia is. – Aleksandr Blekh May 31 '15 at 23:04
  • I bet if you will come to the conference absolutely naked or just with nipples showing from your costume, you will be remembered as well (and way better than any girl with a blue hair). The question is: do you want to be remembered as that freak who do not understand professional norms, or a guy with the most excited and interesting talk. – Salvador Dali Jun 2 '15 at 9:17
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    @SalvadorDali the lack of creativity ("freaks") is very ironic considering your nickname. – MathAndCo Jun 2 '15 at 11:46
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From a practical point of view, that would depend on the background color of your slides when making a presentation. Blue hair on a blue background ... a real faux-pas. Blue hair on a red background would be even worse.

6

I've seen at least one computer science professor at an Ivy League school dye his hair an interesting colour (green, blue, yellow). And most of my class-mates thought they were cool.

Do be careful though - some people might not take you seriously. One thing I noticed about these professors is that they were incredibly confident and incredibly smart, yet friendly at the same time.

Does look pretty slick though!

0

It strikes me as the type of thing which could be frowned upon in job interviews and many non-academic environments, but radical styles may be more accepted in academia. Before I quit my PhD, I knew someone in my department who dyed her hair green!

Maybe it's not the sort of thing that would create a great impression if you're very new to the department you're working with, but maybe if they already know you really well then they may just view it as a phase.

0

I can't bring any good example on hair color, but I think that brightly coloured suits might seem as odd and unprofessional as brightly coloured hair. Xavier Sala i Martin, professor of Economics, is popular for his brightly coloured and ever changing jackets, which he wears even in very professional contexts. When asked about them in interviews, Xavier Sala i Martin plainly explains that his jackets are just a marketing strategy. Therefore, Anonymous Physicist's answer about hair colour as personal branding or Jan-Christoph Schlage-Puchta's one about being remembered could be pointing to effective and not so unusual strategies.

-4

Nice question. Though it did strike me as being somewhat out of the blue...

Smart to be asking after the fact. 19 years old and already on the Pile it Higher and Deeper track...who wouldn't get the blues! Ok I'm done.

In the academe, and the exact (as opposed to the approximate) sciences in particular, it is tacit knowledge that blue hair is a major showstopper, effectively ending one's academic tenure. Actually, security isn't really supposed to be letting you on campus (nb for those campus visits). Needless to say, job talks and conference presentations should only be done remotely (avoid using Zoot for avatar though tinyurl.com/nzo9cgo). ;)

Seriously, I would suggest the following rule of thumb: Even a genius should look presentable during formal networking or when interviewing for jobs.

If blue hair = presentable in the 21st century, then no worries. But some old school (20th century) profs might not be as "with it."

Applying the rule of thumb to your questions suggests that blue hair should be OK when (a) teaching (undergrads will assume you are cool and/or strange, grads will have enough problems of their own to notice/care); (b) meeting other researchers (unless...see rule of thumb).

To go all the way, you will also need to frequent the gym, and dress the part (despite comments to the contrary, I suggest suit and tie as daily wear). And you just might be taken for a blue chipper. Good luck!

protected by Wrzlprmft May 6 '17 at 10:59

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