Dress to Impress: You, The (Pre-Professional) Graduate [Teaching Assistant] Student

Whether you are in graduate school to earn credentials for the job you currently have, to earn credentials for the job you hope to have, or as a stepping-stone to other pursuits, it’s important to bear in mind that graduate degrees at any level and of any sort–MA, MS, MSc, MEd, MFA, MBA, or PhD–are professional degrees.

Translated, that means: This is not an extension of your undergraduate collegiate experience.

It’s understandable that, being classified as a “graduate student,” it’s sometimes difficult to view yourself also as a professional, but this is the shift you need to learn how to make during your time in graduate school. As a graduate student you are, of course, still a student, but you are a student actively engaged in becoming a professional; in fact, it might be helpful to consider yourself an apprentice in your field of study, rather than a student. The most visible outward sign that you have successfully navigated this shift lies in your sartorial choices. So today, I’m going to talk wardrobe with you.

I am a huge advocate for having fun with clothes and especially for “dressing like yourself.” However, if dressing like yourself does not yet include clothing beyond the jeans, board and bootie shorts, leggings, T-shirts, tank tops, sweatshirts, and flip flips and Birkenstock-style shoes favored by American teens, you should be considering your image in the department. You are there to obtain a professional degree. You will need a committee to oversee your thesis and/or oral and written comprehensive examinations and to write recommendations for your doctoral work and/or job searches. This committee will be made up of professors who respect you and the work you are doing. Those professors will, like it or not, also notice what you are wearing and while it might not matter one whit to them, what if it does? To a certain degree, then, it is in your best interests from the day you set foot on campus to cultivate the impression that you are a responsible and dedicated adult serious about getting this degree. (And yes, you fine arts, unconventional folks, this includes you.)

This doesn’t mean you need to wear a three-piece suit to classes, and obviously if you are in studio arts or other hands-on profession requiring that you get your hands (and everything else) dirty, you’ll be dressing for that work while you are in the studio/lab/other similar location. But when you’re attending classes, meeting with professors, or holding office hours, you might think about skipping the ripped clothing, the visible bra straps, the logo T-shirts, and other signs that you might not be in an adult frame of mind. And if you are teaching a class, or a section of a class, then you should definitely think about the image you are presenting to your students. Even “cool and laid back” professors shy away from wearing ripped or uber-casual or revealing clothing while teaching and, although we would love to think otherwise, women in particular are being scrutinized for their clothing choices.

You don’t have to go out and drop four hundred dollars on a professional wardrobe, and you don’t have to drastically change your basic style. In fact, dependent upon your day job and what’s in your closet already, you may need to make very few adjustments to convey a sense of authority and seriousness of intent both as a graduate student and as a teacher, if you are a TA. Below are some suggestions (and remember, these are only suggestions–you will definitely want to take into consideration where you are going to school, the climate of your department, and how the professors are dressing, and take your cues accordingly.)

Men who identify as heteronormative. For everyday wear in classes as a graduate student/ TA, men can get away with khakis or other similar types of pants and a collared shirt of whatever sort (polo, button-down, etc.) or even a t-shirt in a solid color with a blazer or sweater thrown over it; in cold weather sweaters and sweater vests are customary as well. You’ll want a decent pair or two of shoes, but until you’re on the job market they don’t have to be high-end leather or particularly dressy. You can wear jeans, just make sure they fit well (not too tight, and not sagging to your thighs) and a belt is not a bad idea. You might want to invest in a blazer or similar type of jacket to throw over your jeans if you’re teaching, although on many campuses this is becoming more and more optional. If you are a tie or bow-tie kind of person, go for it!

If you don’t really have a wardrobe beyond your high school threads, and your high school didn’t require a uniform, you’ll want to invest in a few new items of clothing to make the impression you’re after (professional degree-seeking individual). One or two pairs of pants, a handfull of shirts, and a sweater or blazer or two can be obtained very inexpensively at places like Ross Dress For Less, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, department store clearance sales, and Goodwill or other thrift stores. In fact, I 100% recommend hitting up Goodwill. Men (or their wives) throw their dress clothes out regularly and those clothes have usually been worn a handful of times (church, Christmas, Easter, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc.) Macklemore is right–you can get amazing deals for that “twenty dollars in your pocket.”

Women who identify as male, butch dykes, and those who prefer menswear–follow the advice given above. Go for less obviously masculine options (button down shirt, cardigan, pants, and loafers, for instance) if there is any doubt at all concerning your reception, especially if you are going to school in a location where instances of violence against LGBTQ individuals have occurred. You shouldn’t have to forego your identity, but safety trumps fashion.

Women who wear traditional women’s clothing. To be brutally honest, our clothing choices can be fraught. Let’s start with tops. You really want to be aware of what’s showing, especially if you are teaching, and especially-especially if you are teaching men. Wear tops that do not show your bra straps and do not reveal too much cleavage. Do the leaning forward test in the mirror, and forego any top that opens enough to give a good look at “the girls.” If you wear button-down shirts, make sure they don’t gap open at any point; if they do, go a size up (I just don’t wear button downs very often, because it is so hard for me to find ones that won’t gap.) Really scrutinize–which tops are most flattering to your frame without being too revealing? Can you see through the top? If so, you must wear a camisole top under it, preferably in a color that closely matches your skin tone, or the same color as the top itself (white or black is not always your best option). Avoid crop tops (your midriff is irrelevant to a professional degree, save it for weekends) or tops that are tight (there’s a difference between form-fitting and too-tight.) Don’t wear tank tops on their own, although they can be worn as undershirts; sleeveless shirts are fine as long as they cover your bra straps.

Bottoms: They are absolutely verboten if you are teaching, but try to avoid wearing bootie shorts or short-shorts or mini skirts of any kind in the classroom in your capacity as a student as well–you’re trying to obtain a professional degree and it doesn’t matter how nice they look on you, they have no place in that world. Shorts that hit mid-thigh or longer are fine. Better yet, go with capris. Avoid wearing leggings as pants unless you’re pairing them with a sweater or other top that comes to knee length; leggings are not pants (I have heard SO MANY professors complain about leggings; just trust me, it is a thing that is generally loathed.) As a student jeans are fine, although in a teaching assistant mode you might want to go with other choices. If you are wearing white pants make sure they are not see-through. Skirts of a length between one inch above the knee and your ankles are almost always appropriate, although you should consider how body-conscious they are and adjust accordingly (anything that accentuates your bum is not a good choice for teaching, unless paired with a top that covers said bum.) Check to see it’s not see through and if it is, wear a slip or don’t wear it to class.

Dresses. You can wear a maxi dress, although if it has thin straps you’ll want a shrug to wear over it during classes/ in office hours. You can wear just about any dress that comes between one inch above the knees to your ankles, although the more casual styles might require a shrug or draped cardigan or other top over them to be rendered classroom wear. Check to make sure it’s not see through and if it is, wear a slip or don’t wear it to class. Same rules apply to dress tops as to regular tops–you don’t want anything that shows “the girls” to maximum advantage while you are in class for a professional degree, and definitely not while you are teaching. If you can cover the top with a shrug or sweater or cardigan, it’s workable, but otherwise, forego those dresses for slightly more demure choices.

Draping a blazer or a cardigan or some similar longer top over nearly anything can transform it into good graduate school wear. Have a few of these in your closet.

Shoes. As long as they are comfortable, you should be okay with nearly anything, although you should probably go no higher than a 3.5 inch heel in the classroom (and that’s advice coming from a girl who likes her high heels). Sandals and strappy shoes are fine in the summer, particularly in warm climates, but during the winter you’ll want to wear closed-toe shoes and boots.

Accessories, while not required, can be really fun and can dress up an otherwise-bland wardrobe. I love statement necklaces, scarves, and earrings, in particular.

Again, although generally women have more clothing coming into graduate school than do their male counterparts, if you don’t feel that your wardrobe conveys seriousness of intent or is really classroom-appropriate for teaching, then hit up the discount stores, department store sales racks, and Goodwill for a few items to bring your closet into line with your ambitions.

Men who identify as women, trans-gendered women, or those who prefer women’s wear–unless you are transitioning or have transitioned, and dependent upon the degree you are seeking and your university climate, wearing a skirt or dress, or heels, to classes or to teach might not be in your best interest; consider the more casual options, like a button-down shirt or polo shirt with cardigan, jeans or other pants and boots or loafers. Put your personal safety above your fashion sense if there is any doubt at all concerning your reception, especially if you are going to school in a location where instances of violence against trans-gendered individuals have occurred. Safety trumps style.

I’ve created a Pinterest board of looks I have worn and would wear to work as a doctoral student/instructor of record; this will mostly be of interest to heteronormative women readers looking for further inspiration: https://www.pinterest.com/mridleyelmes/things-i-might-wear-to-work-professoracademia/

An article on transgender women’s clothing for work: http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2015/01/07/how_does_a_transgender_woman_shop_for_clothes_in_stores.html

Also, season 10 of TLC “What Not To Wear” features a transgendered woman: http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2015/01/07/how_does_a_transgender_woman_shop_for_clothes_in_stores.html

For lesbians who identify as butch, TheProfessorIsIn has some good advice for what to wear for conferences and interviews: http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/11/07/how-to-dress-for-an-interview-as-a-butch-dyke/ as does Sapphist Gazeteer: http://sapphistgazetteer.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-lesbians-wear-to-work.html

A few places to start for heteronormative men: http://www.quora.com/What-style-options-besides-jeans-and-a-T-shirt-work-well-for-college-age-men  or http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/09/22/style-tips-for-college-men/ or (slightly more dressy) https://www.pinterest.com/alfredstatecd/what-to-wear-to-work-men/

What are your go-to looks for transitioning from undergraduate to graduate student?

About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in General Graduate Student Advice, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dress to Impress: You, The (Pre-Professional) Graduate [Teaching Assistant] Student

  1. commish24 says:

    I usually teach in cowboy boots, jeans (good quality) and a casual shirt or blazer over a shell, but I keep a good blazer and an ecru blouse (and some decent pumps) in my office closet “just in case”–if I get called to a meeting in the President’s office, if I get asked for an interview or a photo, etc. And if I spill juice all over me (which HAS happened), I’ve got something clean to wear. i also keep a pair of decent earrings in my desk drawer in case I have to upgrade my look.

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      I love this idea of having a backup outfit handy! If like me you share a cubicle or other office space, make sure your backup items aren’t inconveniently stored–maybe on a hanger hung on a hook on the wall, or folded and stored in a desk drawer (best with fabrics like jersey or that are wrinkle-resistant.).

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