Interview attire: UK academic edition
August 6, 2012 5:21 AM   Subscribe

What should I wear for my job interview. Difficulty: UK, technical position at an academic institution.

I have an upcoming job interview for a technical position at a UK scientific research institution. For the equivalent job in the US, it's the kind of thing where I'd be as concerned about dressing too formally as I would about not dressing formally enough. In other words, showing up in a suit and tie would probably put the interviewers off and show a bit of a clash with the corporate culture (see this and this for previous AskMe-s addressing the too-formal issue).

How much does this attitude translate to the UK, though? I get the impression that it's more of a jacket and tie country. My interviewers are mostly going to be scientists and programmers. Suggestions?
posted by penguinicity to Work & Money (18 answers total)
I think those questions are significantly different. You aren't interviewing at Tumblr or Zynga! Even though your co-workers may be day-to-day in jeans and sneakers, everyone in a UK university will expect a suit. If the PI's are on the interview panel, they may or may not be wearing suits for the interview, but they will certainly wear suits for many formal occasions and presentations. No-one is going to make fun of you, or think you are somehow not a good fit, for wearing a suit. Conversely dressing down for interview might make you seem significantly less well prepared or professional.
posted by roofus at 5:45 AM on August 6, 2012

Until recently I worked in a UK university IT department, and although we techs would mostly wear jeans and t-shirts in the office, for internal job interviews most would put on a suit.
posted by BinaryApe at 5:46 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think you're likely to go wrong. Showing up in a shiny, well-cut suit and fancy tie may be a little confusing for the interviewers, as they're probably expecting interviewees to look as if they've only made a token effort at being presentable. Turning up looking dirty and disheveled may also worry them, in the sense that it might mean you don't take the position (or your personal hygiene) seriously. Wearing a suit is probably safe, but so would some sort of basic smart-casual (trousers, shirt, clean leather footwear).

Ultimately, these people will have a clear idea of what they're looking for, and that's going to be 80% about your expertise and knowledge, 19% about your ability to fit in and get along with colleagues, and relatively little about your appearance.
posted by pipeski at 5:48 AM on August 6, 2012

For an interview for a white collar job in the UK you wear a suit, irrespective of the corporate culture.

This includes a jacket and tie. In academia I suspect you can get away with a cheap department store suit.
posted by emilyw at 5:49 AM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best answer depends entirely on the details. Is it an "academic institution" (a university) or a "scientific research institution" (government, no students)? When you say "technical position" do you mean back office IT support, or the project manager for their £2bn hardware project?

But really, unless you're interviewing to make the tea, you will almost never regret wearing a suit to an interview in the UK. If it's a warm day and you'd feel more comfortable then you can probably get away with an plain, ironed shirt and the trousers from your suit. Don't wear a tie unless you also wear a jacket — you'll look like a waiter.
posted by caek at 5:55 AM on August 6, 2012

I am a scientist and a programmer and I work on the principle that it's better to be more smartly dressed than your interviewers than less. I tend to go for smart shirt and trousers so you can probably get away without the suit jacket, but I think you're more likely to get a negative reaction for being underdressed than for being overdressed.
posted by penguinliz at 6:42 AM on August 6, 2012

I'm in the US, but on every job interview I've been in (on either side) where an office workplace is casual (people wear jeans), the person being interviewed has worn a suit.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:45 AM on August 6, 2012

Best answer: People working in IT and R&D functions in the UK routinely complain about "suits" who attempt to understand or manage technical functions given only an appreciation for finance and corporate politics. There is a hence a small chance that an employee who wears a suit each day - when his colleagues do not - might have his technical abilities doubted.

But when interviewing this rule goes out the window: wear a suit and tie. It shows you have "made an effort" and hints that you might be the sort of person who adept at managing others and being a spokesperson for your subject area/the organisation. If it should turn out that you ARE over-dressed then interviewers will overlook this - and still give you credit for effort.
posted by rongorongo at 6:46 AM on August 6, 2012

Best answer: Here's how it usually goes down in interviews for offices where corporate culture dictates a more casual atmosphere:

You wear a suit.

Interviewer accepts this as your nod toward appropriate office behavior and standards.

Checks little box in mind next to "Can wear suit."

Double checks little box in mind next to "Knows appropriate corporate standards."

Interviewer says, "Very nice suit. As you can see, we're more of a tshirtnjeans/khakisnpolos kind of place around here."

You thank the Interviewer for the tip, and assure him that when you are hired to work in the office, you'll be the best darn tshirtnjeans/khakisnpolos wearer in the office.

Remainder of interview is conducted without a subsequent thought as to your attire.

(As an anecdote - I've pushed this issue a couple of times. On a first interview with an environmental nonprofit, I was told "Yeah, as you can see we're pretty casual around here." and I STILL wore a suit to the second interview. I got a gentle ribbing about it, but they excused it as a professional habit that they'd have to break me of and I got the job anyway. Being overdressed may expose you to a bit of good-natured ridicule, but I sincerely doubt it will lose you the job if you're a good candidate.)
posted by jph at 6:47 AM on August 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'd go for a good suit and nice shoes, tie if you're comfortable wearing one.

I've just come out of a series of interviews for similarish roles and everyone wore suits though it was painfully obvious how uncomfortable some people were in cheap ill fitting ones.
posted by brilliantmistake at 6:49 AM on August 6, 2012

My interviewers are mostly going to be scientists and programmers.

This indicates you should wear a suit. The scientists themselves undoubtedly wore a suit to their interviews (eg, I've never seen a scientist give a job talk in anything other than a suit, no matter how casual the workplace). So it makes sense that you should wear what everyone else wore when they interviewed for the jobs they now have.
posted by deanc at 6:51 AM on August 6, 2012

The academics will have worn a suit to their interview. The programmers might not have done.

Regardless, you're not going to go wrong wearing a suit to an interview at a UK research institution.
posted by pharm at 7:27 AM on August 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, all. Suit it is.
posted by penguinicity at 7:35 AM on August 6, 2012

One of my interview panel (at a UK scientific establishment) said to me some years later, with long hair, in my ripped jeans and faded metal t-shirt, "You know, you really fooled me at the interview". I took it as a compliment.

Definitely wear a suit. You can sort of work out what you can get away with once you start the job.
posted by salmacis at 7:46 AM on August 6, 2012

The scientists themselves undoubtedly wore a suit to their interviews (eg, I've never seen a scientist give a job talk in anything other than a suit, no matter how casual the workplace).
This is not always true, and I doubt it's usually true. I've never worn a suit for an interview, and I've never seen a scientist give a job talk in a suit (having spent most of my career at a notoriously old-fashioned UK university). If I did see someone give a job talk in a suit then I would probably join my colleagues in thinking him very strange. If the OP were to follow your advice to wear what his interviewers once wore, and was applying for a job in my field, he certainly would not wear a suit.

That being said, given he's interviewing for a non-academic job in a UK academic institution, I agree that a suit is the lowest risk thing to wear.
posted by caek at 8:03 AM on August 6, 2012

I work in a UK uni and have never seen someone in a job presentaiton of interview in less than a shirt and smart trousers, but usually its a suit. I would recommend a suit. (Maybe unless its bioscientists, some of them can be suspicious of anything that can't be comfortably worn in a jungle.)
posted by biffa at 8:42 AM on August 6, 2012

Yes, for an office/business job in the UK for god's sake please wear a suit, shirt and tie, because then you can't go wrong. You could be okay with a smart, well-matched jacket and trousers but why take even that risk? In the UK the attitude towards anyone who doesn't do this is, at best, "Well, doesn't s/he think they're above the need to follow convention?" and at worst "Scruffy clueless nitwit: next!"

Just wear a nice, smart, well-fitting suit. Probably medium to dark in colour. You really can't go wrong with that. Once you get the job you'll be able to relax a bit, with luck. I worked for many years in a company that allowed me to turn up every day in jeans, T-shirt and biker jacket, but I sure as hell wore the suit and tie to the interview that got me the job.
posted by Decani at 10:53 AM on August 6, 2012

Ack. I misssed "Academic institution". I would still say my advice applies. Play safe.
posted by Decani at 10:55 AM on August 6, 2012

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