The Thoughtful Animal

Rule #2: No Jeans

I have a confession to make. I would wear a pair of jeans any day over something more formal. I just find it more comfortable, and I maintain that you can look just as good in the right pair of jeans as in a pair of, for example, black slacks. As a result, I often try to justify the wearing of jeans in times that, if really pressed, I would probably admit it wasn’t entirely appropriate or proper. But then again, jeans can be nice. Jeans can be professional-looking. Obviously I wouldn’t wear jeans during the days of a conference in which I’m presenting my work – but what about the other days?

Yesterday afternoon, while beginning to pack for APS, I asked goddess Isis what were her thoughts on the matter. Is the right pair of jeans okay, at least for non-presenting days?

So I will take this moment, enjoying the wifi on my flight to APS while cruising somewhere above Utah at 35,084 feet, to share a rule about academic and scientific meetings.

Dr. Isis responded: “no, you can’t.”

Ever the educator, she didn’t give me any justification or reasoning. This is what we call a “teachable moment.” (Though now, I wonder, if I just caught her while she was, er, otherwise engaged). I was left to my own devices to figure this one out.

And then I went to the gym. Where my sadistic trainer decided that yesterday would be the day to go muscle group by muscle group, and DESTROY each one. I am not happy.

And while I was at the gym, I looked around. And I noticed that some people LOOKED like they belonged there. They dressed the part. They looked like they knew what they were doing. Others, well, didn’t. And then I realized: I could wear the same clothes and put an iPod on an armband and show up to the gym, and then maybe *I* would look like I knew what I was doing too, even though I don’t. This is why I have the sadistic trainer (who is actually fantastic). When I go to the gym, and I can’t figure out how a certain weight machine works, I look to see how other people are doing it, and the people who are dressed like they know what they are doing are the ones I pay attention to.

This was my eureka moment.

At a scientific meeting, you are not only presenting your awesome, awesome data. You are also presenting yourself as a scientific god or goddess to be reckoned with. And you need to look like it. Like it or not, people judge others based at least partially on appearances.

It reminds me of the 1960 Presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy:

The key turning point of the campaign were the four Kennedy-Nixon debates; they were the first presidential debates held on television, and thus attracted enormous publicity. Nixon insisted on campaigning until just a few hours before the first debate started; he had not completely recovered from his hospital stay and thus looked pale, sickly, underweight, and tired. He also refused makeup for the first debate, and as a result his beard stubble showed prominently on the era’s black-and-white TV screens. Nixon’s poor appearance on television in the first debate is reflected by the fact that his mother called him immediately following the debate to ask if he was sick. Kennedy, by contrast, rested before the first debate and appeared tanned, confident, and relaxed during the debate. An estimated 80 million viewers watched the first debate. Most people who watched the debate on TV believed Kennedy had won while radio listeners (a smaller audience) believed Nixon had won. After it had ended polls showed Kennedy moving from a slight deficit into a slight lead over Nixon.

So it is that we have Rule #2: No jeans at scientific conferences.


  1. #1 Cassidy
    May 26, 2010

    …but what if it’s a conference that lots of ECOLOGISTS go to? Then can you wear jeans?

  2. Clearly you’ve never been to a marine science conference. Show up in a suit-and-tie and everyone will assume you’re a vendor.

  3. or worse, government…

  4. #4 Isis the Scientist
    May 26, 2010

    Sorry you thought I was short with you. It’s hard to give you a lengthy answer when you ask me in a venue that limits me to 140 characters.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    May 26, 2010

    Depends on the meeting. My society always meets at ocean resorts, so everyone wears shorts and Hawaiian shirts. Coat and tie (and sweating)? Must be a grad student just minutes before the presentation (after which a quit run to the hotel to change is a must). Then, at other conferences, jeans need to be old, pale and with holes and the usual footwear are either boots or wooden clogs 😉

  6. #6 ecologist
    May 26, 2010

    The previous comments have pretty much outlined the only correct answer to this question — if you want to look like you know what you are talking about (and are confident, relaxed, in control of your knowledge and of the situation), then you have to fit in. At some meetings jeans are fine, and if you wear a jacket and tie you look like you don’t have a clue. At other meetings, it’s the other way around. If you have been to the meeting before, you know. If you haven’t, ask someone who has. And don’t worry about it too much.

  7. At *some* science blogging conferences, oversized themed novelty hats are acceptable.

  8. #8 Jason G. Goldman
    May 26, 2010

    All good points. I suppose the main thing is that you minimally need to look like you know what you’re doing. At best, you need to look as awesome as your science.

    And nobody said anything about a tie 🙂

    I intend on wearing a button-down collared shirt with black slacks. When I’m at my poster, I usually start with a blazer or sport coat but it eventually comes off.

    I wonder what would happened if I stood at my poster (concerning reading and dyslexia) wearing a giant squid hat…

  9. #9 PalMD
    May 26, 2010

    At a scientific meeting, you are not only presenting your awesome, awesome data. You are also presenting yourself as a scientific god or goddess to be reckoned with.

    This. And FTFY.

    I’m still learning this painfully, but thankfully my spouse is rather vocal in support of this approach.

  10. #10 Cherish
    May 26, 2010

    It was a huge shock going from a conference with a bunch of geologists to one full of electrical engineers. Definitely at opposite ends of the spectrum. Everyone gives engineers crap about their dress, but they definitely up the ante when it comes to interacting with people outside of their own organization.

    I don’t think I’ve seen a geologist in a suit at a conference. (Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough.) But everything from a polo or button-down top and khakis on down seemed to be game.

  11. #11 ARJ
    May 26, 2010

    Of course clean jeans are okay at a science conference in this day and age, and don’t let the fashion fascistas tell you otherwise. What’s next, Einstein has to comb his hair!?

  12. #12 Helen
    May 26, 2010

    I’m going to my first conference in July. And all on my own. I feel pretty nervous as it is and now I’ve just read this post. The only nice pants I have are jeans. Being the southern hemisphere, it will be much too cold for a skirt. Now I feel like I need to go out and buy a whole new winter wardrobe 🙁

  13. #13 Namnezia
    May 27, 2010

    My impression is that the only people who dress up at conferences are either vendors, physicians, nervous students or people who like to dress up and usually do so every day. Everyone else seems to come dressed as they normally dress – be it jeans, converse sneakers and a t-shirt or be it slacks and a button down shirt. Some of the biggest big shots in my field are of the former group, others of the latter.

    So my advise is dress as you normally do for work (unless you wear scrubs). Otherwise you will walk around looking uncomfortable and not quite like yourself, and not be able to be fully on and ready to talk about your science because you are worrying too much about your clothes.

    I would second the same advice for what to wear when you are teaching.

  14. #14 kay
    May 28, 2010

    I once was at a conference once that included both yeast geneticists and human geneticists – if I remember correctly, the topic was something like ‘yeast as a model system for studying human diseases’.

    As one speaker observed, you could easily tell the two groups apart: the yeast guys wore jeans and T-shirts, while the human geneticists (often clinicians) wore suit & tie. From that point on, everybody made sure to adhere to this dress code, if necessary by borrowing a tie. One speaker talking about his work on both yeast and human proteins solved his dilemma by chosing an unusual T-shirt/tie combination

  15. #15 red pepper
    May 31, 2010

    I would second the same advice for what to wear when you are teaching.

  16. #16 Heather
    June 1, 2010

    I totally agree, jeans are innapropriate for work (unless it’s casual friday or your lab work is messy) and therefore inappropriate for a conference. Dress for the job you want. If you want to remain a poor and hard ridden graduate student your entire life, by all means wear jeans and a tshirt. If you want a career, at least go buisness casual. And just because some scientists couldn’t put together an outfit that matches (or is clean) and couldn’t find a brush to save their lives, we all don’t have to dress like that to be good scientsts. Oh and I used to work in marine sciences…yes they will wear just about anything. 🙂

  17. #17 Flower Girl
    November 22, 2010

    At some meetings jeans are fine, and if you wear a jacket and tie you look like you don’t have a clue.

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