By Anita Patrick and Anne Pharr

What to Wear on the First Day

One of the conversations we have with women as they transition to grad school and to various opportunities is: “What am I supposed to wear on my first day of grad school? To a conference? To an interview? To my first day in a faculty job?”

I’ve had people tell me they asked their male advisor for advice, and received word that their advisor has been instructed never to talk to women about how they look, what they wear, or their bodies. And while we affirm this good advice, if your advisor can’t discuss this with you, whom do you ask?

What to wear may sound like a less important topic, but it is an opportunity to affirm our embodied selves going through the world, and an opportunity to look carefully at our institutional norms and decide how to engage them.

So, we asked two trusted friends of The Well this question.

What to wear on the first day of graduate school?

by Anita Patrick

Be encouraged that among the many decisions that have to be made as you start graduate school, figuring out your attire does not have to be stressful. I know contemplating appearances can be overwhelming but a good rule of thumb is not to overthink it. 
Your day-to-day life of going to class most likely won’t be that eventful but at times you may be called into "special activities" such as working in a lab, presenting, teaching, or trekking across campus. In which case, I highly encourage you to familiarize yourself with 1) the terrain of your campus, 2) indoor climate of buildings, 3) good walking shoes, and 4) obviously the weather of the day. 
This is my most straightforward and practical advice from my time as a grad student. You may notice I didn’t tell you a particular style to adopt. Purposely so. Do you wear business casual? Casual? Do you wear slacks? Pants? Can you wear jeans or your favorite pair of Converse? Not to mention bringing your trusted monkey lunchbox. The answer to all those questions is yes. 
You will see all types of attire and accessories among the graduate student population. Thus, my simple and practical advice is to be comfortable and presentable. Be yourself. Don’t let the grandeur of the stage that is graduate school freak you out. Simply consider your task for the day and dress accordingly. Enjoy! 

What to wear on the first day of a new faculty job?

by Anne Pharr

Higher education is a particular culture with its own unique set of customs, expectations, and norms. For some, those norms come as no surprise, which makes them easier to navigate. For others, though, the norms may seem hidden and hence, more difficult to anticipate, creating discomfort or anxiety.

One area of uncertainty — perhaps especially for women — may have to do with what to wear on the first day. The “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” adage only adds to the pressure, making the decision feel insurmountably important. So if a soon-to-be-new colleague approached me with this question, I might engage her in a conversation about the following ideas. 

First, I would encourage her to name a few women she considers to be professional role models. Whether it is a former professor or someone from a previous or the current institution, thinking about how those individuals dress for the job — and what about their choices is important — can be a good starting point for deciding what she might include in her first-day outfit.   

I would also invite my colleague to think about who her students are and how she wants them to perceive her on that first day. While she certainly wants to demonstrate professionalism, she may also want her students to recognize that she is approachable and caring. Such an impression is conveyed through her words and demeanor, but it can also be subtly impacted — or undermined — by clothing choices. 

I might also suggest my colleague consider her age in relation to her students. For better or for worse, some students may view and interact with a younger professor in ways that are less professional. Unfortunately for women faculty, this dynamic may not change with years of experience. If that is a concern, my colleague may want to let it inform her clothing choices.   

I would encourage my colleague to dress in a way that is not only professional but also congruent with who she is. Wearing clothes that feel more like a costume than an extension of who I am has never worked for me.  In fact, it has at times reinforced my own tendency towards imposter syndrome, making me less genuine in my interactions with students and colleagues. 

Exploring the cultural norms of higher education isn’t just for the purpose of conforming. Instead, this information provides helpful knowledge — knowledge that lets us determine the degree to which we want to adhere to those norms. This kind of knowledge leads to agency, letting all of us — students and faculty — interact appropriately in a particular context while also remaining true to ourselves.

Photo by Kristin Hardwick on StockSnap

About the Author

Anita Patrick earned her BS in Bioengineering from Clemson University (2012) and her PhD (2020) in STEM Education through the Department of Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas at Austin. At UT Austin, she served in her local Grad InterVarsity chapter as a student leader from 2019-2020. Anita is currently a post-doctoral researcher in Psychology at Spelman College. Her research interests include engineering education, career decision-making, student motivation, and cultural identity. In her free time, Anita enjoys creative writing, drawing, and studying foreign languages (especialmente español). 

A graduate of Baylor University, Anne Pharr has taught English and First Year Seminar at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1998.  In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Anne serves as program coordinator for the First Year Seminar course and, along with some of her colleagues, developed a college-wide initiative, Partners for Student Potential (PSP), whose mission is to deepen and broaden faculty and staff awareness of the challenges and strengths represented by at-risk students.  PSP activities have included gathering and sharing PSCC student stories at the Walking the Hero's Journey blog as well as interviewing PSCC faculty and administrators about their own college struggles in the Partners for Student Potential podcast.  Besides enjoying family and friends, Anne's passions include writing, music, reading, exercise, Huckleberry the dog, and a great cup of coffee — preferably first thing each morning. More of her writing can be found at her two blogs: shadowwonder (on Christian spirituality) and gritology (exploring how educators and parents can cultivate grit, determination, resilience, and perseverance — and why we should).


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