I'm a young undergraduate student currently finishing my next-to-last year as a math bachelor. I plan to apply for a Masters as soon as I finish, and I look forward to a job as an academic researcher.

I'm also deeply involved with the culture of body modification, hosting myself a few tattoos, piercings and one scarification (as of today, all of which could be covered by wearing a dress shirt and pants). I also look forward to further modify my body, including face/hand tattoos, scarifications and piercings.

I know that, in general, this means that I will find barriers to land a job given my future undeniable ``strange" appearance. Now, in the context of academic jobs, how is this culture viewed upon? I've never seen a member of our faculty with any form of extreme body mod, just one or another mild, easily hidden tattoo.

I would like to add that both body modification and mathematics had (and still have) a huge impact in my life, both are my driving force and my passion for them will make me purse my dreams of being a (heavily modified) mathematician, no matter what. I would just like to know what type of obstacles I should be ready to face, when the time comes. Though I repeat to myself everyday that "if I'm good enough at my job, people will need to accept my looks", I would also appreciate a less faith-dependent advice. You know, for the hard days.

To further clarify how is this different from other related questions on tattoos, I'm talking about extreme body modification, while the question linked states: "Of course, if I did get one, it would be discrete and innocent." These images show what sort of looks I aim to achieve: photo 1, photo 2.

  • 3
    @ArnaudD. but maybe this question is still relevant, as while the asker talks about mild, concealable tattoos, I'm talking about extreme modifications. Also, people tend to have different reactions when talking about tattoos and scarifications (the latter begin seen as a much more incisive process). Think about coauthoring a paper with Grace Neutral or Yann Brenyak Nov 22 '17 at 11:51
  • 5
    Your location probably makes a difference. In some countries tattoos are common, but in other countries not. And your field. Perhaps a professor in a business school is expected to look like a proper businessman or woman.
    – GEdgar
    Nov 22 '17 at 12:11
  • 7
    Unfortunately, I would think that these looks are so far too uncommon in general to give you any valid "statistic" on how they would be looked upon in academia and more specifically maths. It is hard to generalize something that is as uncommon, as you will surely understand as a mathematician.
    – skymningen
    Nov 22 '17 at 13:00
  • 3
    Math has a relatively high tolerance for eccentricity in dress and presentation, but what you’re talking about is unusual enough that it’s hard for me to know. Nov 22 '17 at 14:46
  • 5
    @GEdgar To expand on your observation, this would definitely limit your career for safety reasons in some fields, e.g. a chemist doing NMR or physicist working on a particle accelerator.
    – user71659
    Nov 22 '17 at 18:40

You will likely be judged differently in any situation, where you have to be present in person - that is, all kind of interviews (actually even via skype and similar).

Your skills become more important later in your academic life, but the documented skills of say a master student who applies for a PhD position are very limited - personal judgement plays the major role here.

Therefore, you might want to wait until you do a PhD, or even after that. By that time your publications and achievements may speak for themselves and all you need to do is to find a PI that is okay with your looks.

  • I'm at a good position now. My advisor (here there is a national undergraduate research grant program) seems okay with my current looks, he even orients a fellow student way more modified than me. A good deal of our faculty members already knows me, and trough summer schools I've also been present to another place where I consider applying for a Masters degree. But for a PhD seems too soon in my career to have any concrete plan. So holding up the face/hand mods until that is more solid seems something wise to do. Also, mods are expensive, and I won't be able to do many more so soon anyway. Nov 23 '17 at 1:31
  • Also, "I will have publications and achievements that will speak for themselves" seems a good objective/inspirational belief/follow-up mantra to have, given my plans for the future. Nov 23 '17 at 1:32

Though I repeat to myself everyday that "if I'm good enough at my job, people will need to accept my looks", I would also appreciate a less faith-dependent advice. You know, for the hard days.

I think you need to consider very carefully what it means to be "good enough at your job" in the context of academia. For doing research in pure mathematics, that mostly* means doing and publishing good research. However, work in academia almost always involves teaching. Teachers lecture to classrooms of students who expect to get an education in an environment that they feel is supportive, safe, free of distractions, and compatible with cultural norms of behavior and personal appearance. Someone who deviates from these norms, especially to an extent that is likely to cause discomfort among a non-negligible proportion of students, is in my opinion unlikely to be hired to teach at a university in (for example) the United States.

Good luck pursuing your dreams.

Edit: following up on your comment, you should also consider that careers in academia are international by nature, and your experiences in Brazil (which sound pretty positive so far) may not be representative of how people will relate to your physical appearance elsewhere. To reach any meaningful level of success you will likely need to do one or more postdocs overseas and be prepared to travel regularly to conferences in other countries. You should also be prepared for the possibility that you might end up settling down in another country due to any number of eventualities that happen quite frequently to academics (meeting someone, difficulty of getting a job in your home country, or just deciding that you like it better somewhere else with better opportunities). Your body modification plans are likely to have a complicated interaction with the already complicated realities of careers in academia, and possibly create some additional challenges. Something to consider. Anyway, good luck.

*I say "mostly" because the paths to doing good research typically involve forming collaborations, which does depend on things like social skills and maintaining a professional appearance, and the paths to getting people to think that you've done good research involve giving talks about your work, which also depends on those things.

  • "... forming collaborations, which does depend on things like social skills and maintaining a professional appearance" - I surely was overlooking this side of the question. So far, I've been surrounded by people (both colleagues and teachers) who didn't seemed uncomfortable with my tattoos/clothes (which themselves are also rather eccentric at times), and were always very open to discuss problems and mathematics in general. But those people also know me from before mods (I started my body modifications AFTER starting my undergraduate program). I'm rather rusty at making first impressions. Nov 23 '17 at 1:37
  • 2
    It might be good to emphasize that (at least at present in pure math in the US) the academic job market is very competitive, which allows schools toss out good candidates for "superficial" reasons at little detriment to themselves.
    – Kimball
    Nov 23 '17 at 4:16

The kind and degree of "body modification" matters, and what is considered acceptable varies with time. Twenty years ago, you would not have seen any piercings other than earrings at the main professional society meetings I attended. Nowadays, lip, nose, and eye piercings can be seen and are tolerated so long as they're not excessive or flagrant.

However, tattoos are a different issue—facial and hand tattoos are difficult for "professional" employers to deal with, since they are essentially impossible to hide and are considered unprofessional.

That said, you have the right to modify your body as you see fit; however, you should take the likely response of future employers into account before you proceed. (To borrow from Mark's answer, I'd lean with "even after that.")

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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