I was invited to interview at several graduate schools this upcoming February. All of the programs are in the fields of biochemistry and biophysics. What is appropriate attire for graduate school interviews? One of the schools mentioned business casual. Does anyone have any good suggestions? I thought about wearing a sweater with an oxford underneath. However, I will also bring a sport coat just in case.


4 Answers 4


In general, you want to look neat enough to make it clear that you are taking things seriously, but not so formal that you give the impression that you are overly formal or don't understand the norms. Typically slightly overdressed is better than slightly underdressed. Your goal is to have people not particularly notice what you are wearing, and instead listen to what's coming out of your mouth.

Standards vary slightly from field to field: in my experience, mathematicians tend to be the most informal and chemists the most formal of the STEM world (business students and liberal arts exist in their own separate universes, which I am less familiar with).

In general, however, I would suggest that men wear a sharp-looking long-sleeved button-down shirt, long pants, no jacket or tie. For women, the rules are more complex (and I am less familiar, but am incorporating advice shared from experiences of female scientists who I know), but something at that same level of "business casual" is probably good; long-sleeve button down, or a sweater; avoid cleavage or anything that can be taken as sexy. Unfair though it may be, pants are probably better than even a long skirt or dress for that reason. Heels can help for height, but don't wear sharp heels or heels that make noise. Low to no makeup, as there is often prejudice against that (again, not claiming any of this is fair). Make sure your hair is clean and presentable too; if you have long hair, you will probably want to tie it back (men and women both).

Contrary to all this: if you have a strong sense of style and good personal visual taste, you can probably make all manner of things work. But make sure you're confident you can pull it off---if you can, you probably already know it. For the rest of us, I just recommend making the clothing unmemorable.

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    Skirts and dresses on women can be just as professional as pants. (Obviously, they should be professional-looking skirts and dresses.)
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 3:59
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    Also, I suspect that when you say "low to no makeup", you really mean "low to no obvious makeup". There's nothing wrong with women wearing subtle, natural-looking makeup to an interview. That "subtle" look can involve a lot more makeup than a casual observer might realize.
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 4:14
  • @ff524 Agreed on both counts.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 4:34
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    This answer would be immeasurably improved by removing everything you wrote about women's clothing etc.. It doesn't sound positive, and the OP is clearly interested in men's clothes, so it would be fine to just take that whole section out. You've got a big string of don'ts. And an extremely restricted, conservative array of choices for the female job candidate.... Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 7:42
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    One other note for women: wear comfortable shoes. On campus interviews, you might be asked to walk for considerable distances across campus (and up and down hills). You don't want to suffer through blisters. p.s. I disagree about removing the info on women's clothing. I was actually pleased to see it even though it wasn't asked for. Helped counter the perception of male-bias / androcentrism that SE as a whole has.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 7:58

"Business casual" — which you've already been told explicitly — seems safe and corresponds to my experience with graduate student interviews.

Although there is no generally agreed upon definition of business casual, it is generally interpreted to mean:

  • Men: A collared shirt and slacks with a nice pair of shoes. A blazer or sweater would be typical. A t-shirt, jeans, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes, or any athletic-wear would all be too casual. A suits and/or tie would generally be considered too formal.
  • Women: Trousers or a knee-length skirt with a blouse or shirt with a collar although a dress that is comparably formal could also work. Jeans, tank tops, flip flops, or athletic wear would be too casual. A gown or a suit would be too formal.

I had to look up oxford!

I'll focus my answer towards men's clothing, since that was the nature of the question.

Your proposal sounds fine for the shirt (I would call it a tailored shirt or a button-down shirt) and a sweater (I assume you mean a pullover). A look I like is a V-neck sweater over a shirt with tie. That is such a happy medium between formal and casual. However, to some people, ties are anathema, so I'll reassure you that you don't need to wear a tie.

In general, overdressing a little bit is not as bad as underdressing a little bit. So, don't go in a T-shirt.

Now, one thing you might want to take into account is that in February, temperatures are unpredictable. Once in a while you find yourself in a place that's overheated, and in that case it's good to be wearing layers. With that in mind, if you think you might get uncomfortable if there are nerves conspiring with a thermostat set too high, then perhaps shirt without tie, plus sport coat you can take off during the interview if necessary, would be more practical than the shirt plus sweater. (But for some people, temperature variations are not a big deal.)

For someone who doesn't like to wear a sport coat, an alternative would be a nice fleece jacket or vest, not too thick so that it doesn't look like something you'd wear on a camping trip.

Now let's talk about the bottom half. If you're going to Minnesota, you'll need long underwear and slacks that are roomy enough to accommodate. I would avoid jeans, since jeans = casual. Dress pants are okay, and something in between is okay too. Unless you will be wearing boots, check that the pants are not too short. Sit down and make sure you haven't got too much leg showing.

Avoid the socks that are so low-cut that it looks like you're not wearing socks. We do not want to see any ankle skin in business casual.

You may wear dress shoes if you wish. You may wear another type of shoe that doesn't look old or scuffed. You may wear boots, and you should plan on that, if snow is likely where you are going. (If this were a summer interview: sandals <> business casual.)

Accessory: you'll need some kind of bag. Knapsack is fine if that's what you're comfortable with. The guideline for a knapsack is the same as for the shoes -- nothing old or starting to wear out.

Coat: make sure it's clean and tidy. A dirty coat, and too-low socks, are the most common faux pas I tend to see around campus.

Gloves/mittens, hat: make sure you dress for the weather. It would not make a good impression to seem not to know how to take care of yourself!

Briefly, for women: choose something that wouldn't make you stick out in a crowd, avoid anything low-cut, and avoid showing anything that might be interpreted as an undergarment. Other than that, just go for something comfortable, that you enjoy seeing when you look in the mirror, and you'll be fine.

Make-up: if you use make-up normally day to day, do that; if not, that's perfectly fine too. But please don't use any perfume or anything scented. (Same for men.) You don't know who might be allergic.

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    +1 for scents. I get a migraine with many perfumes, aftershaves, and laundry softener smells. I'm not alone.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 19:39

The United States is weird when it comes to how to dress with regards to interviews. You say several school and I noticed that the answers thus far neglect to mention this as well: there are regional differences with regards to what is considered acceptable business casual. The East Coast tends to be much more formal than the West Coast and for the rest of the county the mores can be all over the place.

Generally a the major rule of thumb is that you want to dress at least as formal as the person interviewing you, if not more so. If one of the schools told you business casual, then assume business casual for all of the schools to make your life easier. If you have a smart sport coat or blazer and build you outfit around that then you should be fine. Males should generally avoid ties as they are rarely worn by Americans any more outside of business and finance. As others have noted, make sure you are wearing shores that are comfortable and broken in as well. Also, make sure they don't make much noise when walking since that can be a distraction when you are having a conversation with someone while walking with them.

Do a Google image search for people attending a poster session for a conference in your field. Most of the presenters are going to be dressed some variation of business casual and it will give you an idea of what is expected in your field.

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