Dressing past the interview...
September 23, 2005 10:41 AM   Subscribe

What should I wear to work in a higher education student services setting? Interview attire is one thing - I'm all set with that. But once I get the job, what should I wear to work? I want to build up my professional wardrobe and I want to do it right.

There's plenty of information on the web about what's appropriate or inappropriate to wear to a job interview, but much less about what's appropriate to wear once you get the job. What information there is (I've read JT Molloy's New Women's Dress for Success) seems to be angled towards the corporate world, rather than higher education, and I feel like the rules are probably slightly different.

Background: It's my first professional job after back-to-back college and graduate school. I want to look professional to my co-workers/supervisor, but I thought that wearing a suit every day might be overkill in this setting. I want to be approachable by students but not look like one of them (I'm a petite and young-looking female, so this is a concern).

Please let me know what works/doesn't work for you!
posted by srah to Work & Money (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you have co-workers, you can scope out what they wear and follow suit.
posted by orange swan at 10:42 AM on September 23, 2005

I usually will overdress a bit for my first day on the job, and then see what everyone else is wearing. (It's still a good idea to dress a little better than the average though.)
posted by teg at 10:47 AM on September 23, 2005

Failing that, ask your boss. My sense is that this sort of issue will vary gigantically from one school to the next.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:47 AM on September 23, 2005

I second the suggestion for looking at what others wear. It's the same advice that was given to me (by my parents, I think), and it seems like the best thing to do. I overdressed on my first days of work at two internships I had through college, once fairly drastically (dress shirt/pants, tie, black shoes when all I needed was khakis and a polo shirt) and once less obviously (same get-up as the first time but in a more "professional" setting; my first day there, one of my coworkers tells me to "lose the tie, you're making us look bad!").

I'm not sure how much different it would be for a woman (I'm male, as you may have guessed), but copying what the coworkers do is basically a sure way to "look professional" to them in this particular work environment.
posted by Godbert at 10:52 AM on September 23, 2005

I work in a higher education setting, although I'm in research. Our office (7 women of varying ages) keeps it fairly casual, but everybody is different. Some people wear nice skirts or dresses regularly, others wear khakis and sandals almost every day. I like to mix it up, wearing a skirt one day with nice shoes, then dressing down the next day with pants and open-toed shoes. When I first started, I was guided by what everybody else was wearing, but since then I've individuated and am wearing things that I think are more my style. Finding your own "style" is just as important as fitting in.

If you buy "outfits" rather than "pieces," I'm sure you'll do fine. Also, keeping your wardrobe age-appropriate is a good idea. Having a "put-together" look reflects a person who's got her stuff together. I also, admittedly, have learned a lot from watching "What Not to Wear" (on mute because Stacy's voice drives me crazy).
posted by sarahnade at 11:10 AM on September 23, 2005

One great thing about higher ed is that it tends to run very low on the formality-of-attire scale. I've worked in student services at a big research university for eight years now--first as an advisor, now as a supervisor--and my typical dress for the day would be:
Winter -- sweater, jeans, boots;
Summer--t-shirt, khakis, sandals;
Special event (e.g., big meeting with Provost)--throw on a blazer over one of the above.

Of course, institutions will vary in their degree of conservatism, so the advice about scoping out what co-workers wear is always good. Also, I'm older than you, so avoiding looking like the students isn't one of my problems. (If only...) And I tend to prioritize "comfort" over "looking like a professional," so factor my comments accordingly.
posted by Kat Allison at 11:13 AM on September 23, 2005

When in doubt, but not in a corporate setting I usually wear nice pants and a shirt (not a t-shirt, one with buttons) and carry a smart jackety/blazery thing. Put the latter on if you feel underdressed.

but first and foremost, as everyone else is saying, try and check out to see what others wear.
posted by gaspode at 11:13 AM on September 23, 2005

I work in an environment (public sector) where we have a casual dress code. I always used to wear (as most people who work there do) jeans/Timberlands/t-shirt, until recently, when I switched to trousers and fitted jackets.

I feel just as comfortable, but feel more professional and feel that I'm treated with a little more gravitas by management.

Whilst I agree to some extent with what people have said about following the lead of others, I think that looking professional can make a difference in terms of self-confidence and in being taken seriously by more senior staff, especially in a first job.

I'm not talking about formal business attire, but smart-ish comfortable clothes.

A 'capsule wardrobe' is a good idea for workwear. Good quality, well-cut trousers, one dark pair, one lighter, a skirt, a few blouses/shirts, a couple of jackets and sweaters, a pair of loafers, a pair of low heels, a pair of ankle boots.

Keep to a colour scheme that's fairly neutral such as. brown/beige/taupe, grey/black/white, navy/blue/cream.

Then you can add interesting accessories such as scarves, funky/chunky plastic jewelry, different bags in brighter colours.

I make sure when I shop I buy things that look good but which don't need any more care than a turn through the washer/dryer and minimal (preferably no) ironing. I find a lots of jackets in the local charity shops. And if I've only paid a fiver for them, I don't feel guilty when I jettison them a couple of months later.
posted by essexjan at 11:20 AM on September 23, 2005

A friend of mine was in your same situation a few years back (she no longer works at the university though).

Like you, she's petite and young-looking, and the most important thing she discovered is to dress well enough to differentiate yourself from grad students. She wanted to let people know at a glance that she was not a student, but an (assistant) professor.

Unfortunately (for her), some of the grad students in her department tended to dress pretty well (business casual) so she ended up having to wear business suits to set herself apart. She was more professionally dressed than most of her colleagues, but then she was about 20 years younger than most of them, too.

Good luck.
posted by luneray at 11:30 AM on September 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

The rule of thumb for the staff at my college seemed to be: if you're interacting with outsiders (scholarship sponsors, parents, trustees, Deans from other colleges), you should be wearing a suit or at least slacks and a blazer. If you're interacting mainly with co-workers and students, then business casual (which in California means khakis or black pants with a button-up shirt and maybe a knit sweater in the winter) is more appropriate. I agree with overdressing on the first day and dressing somewhere between your collegues and your boss after that.
posted by muddgirl at 11:33 AM on September 23, 2005

Best answer: Take a look at the Lucky Shopping Manual. It goes through every staple in a woman's wardrobe -- pants, blouses, t-shirts, jackets, bags, shoes -- and explains each different style, what works on what kind of body, and how many of each a woman "needs" in her wardrobe. It also offers practical advice about which items to spend $$ on (tailored pants, good shoes, a nice everyday bag) and where to save your cash (t-shirts, trendy accessories), with tips on what to look for in terms of quality and workmanship on pricey items.

The photos and illustrations are really great, and provide completely normal (but stylish!), wear-to-work outfit ideas that you can adapt to your style and budget.
posted by junkbox at 11:35 AM on September 23, 2005

What others have said, and might I add, don't dress up just a notch above your coworkers. They will find it either insulting ("Does she think she's better than us?") or perhaps worse, amusing ("What's with her outfits?"). The thing to do is dress better at the same level. Example (sorry guy example, I had a hard time doing it for a girl): If everyone is wearing khakis and a polo, take the same level and notch it up. Don't wear a suit, wear casual slacks that are tailored, and a fitted polo (Burberry, Lacoste, Prada). See instead of trying to be better by just dressing up, try to be better by dressing better.
posted by geoff. at 11:43 AM on September 23, 2005

If you're quite a bit younger than a number of your co-workers, I agree that it may behoove you to dress a bit more professionally than you can technically get away with.

Especially use low rise flared slacks and/or flip-flops (oh, excuse me, "thong sandals") in moderation, as they come across as particularly juvenille in comparison.
posted by desuetude at 2:40 PM on September 23, 2005

I spent several years in higher ed in a very casual environment. Almost anything was okay, but to project professionalism and to separate myself from the student interns, etc. I avoided the following:
flip flops, jeans (unless I was doing some manual labor, but then they were never ripped or frayed), tank tops, shirts with logos, sweats, sneakers, or sloppy t-shirts.
posted by annaramma at 3:03 PM on September 23, 2005

I've worked at a university for 6 years. The only person I see in a suit on a regular basis is the Dean, and even she is more often in slacks, blouse, and blazer. Most of the female office staff are in skirts/slacks/nice khakis & a blouse or sweater. Older ones may wear blazers, but nobody under 45 seems to.

I usually wear a sweater, casual blouse (think: Old Navy), or black long-sleeved t-shirt and a skirt or khakis. If I know that I'm not going to have any meetings, I'll wear nice jeans (but I always feel a little naughty when I do). But hey - I don't actually interact with the public & I spend a fair amount of time crawling under my desk to fiddle with computer wires.
posted by belladonna at 8:42 PM on September 25, 2005

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