The Very Basics
Let's start with some things we should talk about. All of these may be obvious to some of you, but with an abundance of caution, I think they are worth repeating. These rules always hold in professional settings, even when not interviewing:
- Whenever your shirt is tucked in, wear a belt. It literally and visually "ties" your top half and bottom half together. (Without the belt, something will look "off" that you can't explain. Think back to 90's sitcoms.)
- Don't wear a belt with suspenders. (The engineer in you should appreciate that this would be redundant.)
- Make sure your belt matches your shoes. You can pick either brown or black. You can never go wrong with black. (With brown, be sure you match the shade of brown, too.)
- Make sure your socks match your pants. For example: navy socks? navy pants. If you are really desperate, you can be safe wearing darker socks. But...
- Never, ever wear white socks. Not unless you are doing athletics.
- Your socks must be pulled up all the way. The rule is that you should be able to cross one leg over the other while seated without exposing your skin.
- A tie with patterns on it will conceal accidental food stains better than a solid color tie. Also, solid color ties will make you look too uniform.
- Find a tie that makes you feel "on." (Avoid cute ties for the interview.)
- Trim your finger nails.
There are more rules you must follow when doing the academic interview:
- Your shirt must be tucked in. (As a result, wear a belt, and follow all belt rules.)
- Wear a button-up, long sleeved shirt. You can never go wrong with a plain white shirt. (For one day of the interview, you can wear a light blue shirt, and a white one the next.)
- Wear a suit. Because you will be traveling and having a very long day (which can involve all three meals with members of the committee), wear dark colors. Dark colors conceal stains and hide creases. It's always safe to go with dark navy.
- Don't button your suit jacket's bottom button, even when getting measured for alterations. The bottom button is for decoration only.
- Speaking of which, get your suit altered. It will look odd if the sleeves or the pants are too long (or too short, if you buy the shorter one thinking the longer is "too long"!). When you get your suit altered, bring your dress shirt too, and also get that altered. In the end, you will be very, very comfortable.
- Wear nice shoes. As a good starting rule, find ones with thin laces, which are dressier. A Google image search for "mens dress shoes" turns up what I mean, but pick conservatively: A single color (and not in crocodile design) with laces (not a buckle) is what you need.
Now, some of you may be thinking about counter-signals right now. If you are a real hotshot, for example, can you get away with looking like a hobo? Maybe you can get away with it. But could it help? You'll be compared to other candidates, who will be as equally outstanding as you. If they happened to be wearing a suit, and had a well-practiced talk, with no errors on the slides, and done their research about the school and courses? People will say they were polished. It is very, very hard to make that a negative.
If you do feel over dressed you can always remove your tie and unbutton your top two buttons. It's as simple as that.
I recommend Target's Merona line of suits, because you have a grad student budget. They are sold as separates, so be sure you read the labels of the pants and jacket to be sure they match exactly (you don't want to be caught with charcoal pants and a black jacket).
For undershirts, Banana Republic has some great cottons that are breathable and can move with you. They can also help whisk away sweat.
For dress socks, try a department store like Macy's. You want some that can go long enough. (Banana Republic oddly only sells novelty socks, which don't go high enough.)
Since we are talking about fashion, here are some bonus rules:
- Unless you are over 50 years old, don't have cuffs on non-pleated pants.
- Generally, the button-down collar isn't as fashionable, particularly after 5pm... But academia is the exception! Go nuts with the button down, because the dean you meet will probably be wearing one too.
- Also, as an academic, you can wear loafers too.
- Go for a two button suit. You can try three, and one might be too radical. But please have your jacket be single breasted, not double. Otherwise, people will ask you where the dock is or will want to give you their drink orders.
- When seated, don't have your jacket buttoned.
- When you are tying your tie, give it that little dimple (shown to the right). It will keep the tie from looking flat. No one will likely notice, but, you've come this far, so you might as well know.
- When you get into the hotel, run a hot shower and then hang your suit in the steam. The steam will help get out the travel wrinkles (from either your suitcase or from wearing it).
- If you have problems with perspiration, get an antiperspirant and put it on the night before your big day. When you shower in the morning, then you can put on a regular deodorant or a light antiperspirant. Antiperspirants are weird, powerful things and it is the process of your skin absorbing them overnight that makes them effective. This holds even if you wash your armpits with soap the next morning. As such, you probably don't want to use that stuff everyday!
If you followed my Merona recommendation, you may find yourself spending as much for the alterations and dry cleaning as you did on the suit itself. It may not last you for years, but it will still look great and you'll be better served than what they try to sell you at certain overpriced men's suit stores.
After following these rules for a while, you'll start to notice how others dress and you can get more ideas. You can also watch TV and see what the non-eccentric, good guy characters are wearing. (Don't go by what late night talk show hosts wear, which are often funny looking because their job is comedy!) Also, you can never go wrong seeing what The President is wearing. And, yes, his ties have a dimple.