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Dress the Part

Tips for looking stylish and professional on a grad student budget.

April 3, 2016

Patrick Bigsby is a student, employee, and wrestling fan at the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




If your latitude is anything like mine, spring is right around the corner and it’s time to mothball our sweaters and overcoats in favor of more seasonally appropriate attire. While the prospect of being able to go outside without head-to-toe Gortex makes me giddy, this time of year is also cause for apprehension about seeing my fellow teaching assistants head off to work in mesh basketball shorts, too-tight graphic tees, ragged cargo pants, or Joe Boxer waistbands. Before I’m accused of telling people when to wear pink, I offer those examples not to deride others’ fashion sense but to counsel about the message the wearers might be inadvertently sending.


I’m far from an expert on haute couture (more generous criticisms of my personal fashion include “Western janitorial,” “man-sized lobster,” and “please stop with the suede already”), but I have been able to develop some strategies for shopping and dressing, and I do think there are many benefits to be had in developing a professional wardrobe, particularly for TAs.


Show your students you take class seriously - and encourage them to take you seriously. By dressing neatly, you’re implicitly setting the tone for your students by demonstrating that you took the time and effort to prepare for class. While the substance of your teaching obviously takes precedence, looking authoritative helps your students remember that even though you might be younger than the average professor, you are still a real teacher and serious scholar. How formal you want to appear depends on your institutional culture and personal taste, but I’d recommend at least a couple degrees more formal than your students’ attire.


Think outside the box to stay within your budget. Beyond the usual sales racks, there are other opportunities to grow your professional closet on the cheap. Secondhand stores (I’m a Goodwill guy, personally) are a great place to look for accessories like blazers and belts at a reduced rate. I wear a tie every day I teach (and frequently at my second job), but picking out lightly-used, brand-name ties for less than $2 apiece keeps me from repeating too many over a semester. Craigslist can also be a valuable resource, particularly in college towns where recent graduates and established professionals are routinely leveling-up their wardrobes. If you can find someone your size, you might even be able to perform a total upgrade in one fell, affordable swoop.


Don’t abandon your personality; showcase it! My colleague K.D. Shives has made an excellent case for expressing your personal style with professional bounds, and I wholeheartedly agree. While your work clothes can key your students in on when it’s time to work, they can also serve as an opportunity to reveal some humanizing details about yourself, like your fondness for grandpa sweaters or your admiration for a particular scholar. One of my coworkers has made a tradition of wearing professional black-and-gold combinations to show her school spirit – to the point that her students expect it on game days lest she jinx the team!


It’s better (and cheaper) to mix and match staples than to try to overbuy. When a new item of clothing catches your eye in the store, take utility into consideration before deciding to take it home. You can get a surprising amount of mileage out of a few basic combinations; some solid-color shirts or blouses, a couple skirts or pairs of pants, and a jacket or two are a lot more useful for day-to-day use than that fox fur coat or floor-length sequined dress. It’s perfectly fine to expand your wardrobe slowly based on what best meets your needs rather than to try to turn your classroom into an impromptu runway.


Streamline your routine with a professional uniform. Much has been made of the clothing habits of highly successful men and women. Having set parameters for your work attire cultivates your professional image while also reducing the time you spend deciding on or even fretting over what to wear.


Talk to snappy dressers you admire. My colleague Natascha Chtena described her own transition to a professional wardrobe and assembled a great set of online resources for readers looking for inspiration. In addition to scouring the web, take a look around your department and see who’s looking fresh. Don’t be shy about asking where they shop or asking for style advice.  First, that’s a huge compliment and, more practically, an easy way to network with your colleagues: one nattily dressed dean at my institution received so many questions about her clothes that she started auctioning off shopping trips at an annual departmental fundraiser!


While we’re all working toward a very specific outfit, graduate school is the perfect time to expand your sartorial horizons.


Do you have any style tips to share? What does your work uniform look like? Let us know in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user Forgemind Archimedia and used under Creative Commons license.]


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