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Dress the Part: Back to Grad School


Apr. 3, 2016 Inside Higher Ed

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… 

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!

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