Monday, November 28, 2011

A Sartorial Early Thirsty from Albuquerque Adam.

I'm on my way to Seattle in January for the MLA. I already have a job, but I have 4 conference interviews. I'd like to move to a better school if possible, but I'm not willing to sell my soul for it. I am bright, energetic, and I'm told I interview well.

But I'm toying with the idea of dressing for the interviews as I normally dress, work shirt, sport coat (clean, nice), and nice dark blue jeans and boots. I'm not a cowboy. I'm not messy. I don't look like I'm the Marlboro man.

But anything else I'd wear would make me colossally unhappy.

Q: What would you think if a personally wonderful 35 year old guy showed up to a conference interview dressed like that? Or do I have to drink the sartorial Kool-Aid?


  1. The rule of thumb is that you should not be less dressed up than the most dressed up member of the interview committee. Common sense says that means a tie for you, young man, but not necessarily a real suit. I think a decent pair of non-jean trousers, polished shoes, a clean jacket in good condition and a tie should be sufficient, especially if you aren't comfortable in a real suit.

    In my own experience, I've been deeply irritated when someone in the room--whether an interviewer or an interviewee--openly underdresses. Committee members who underdress are showing you who has the power, as if that weren't already evident, and it is fucking obnoxious. Candidates who underdress are being impolite, or trying to be too cool. I'll bet I'm not the only one who feels this way either. We'll see what kind of response you get from others.

  2. The problem with refusing to dress like everyone else dresses is that you don't know exactly how it will be received--it could be that some interviewers really love that you "dress down". It could put off others.

    The basic rule of dressing for MLA is that no one should remember how you were dressed.

  3. "But anything else I'd wear would make me colossally unhappy."

    Here's a suggestion: don't let your wardrobe determine your happiness. Get over it and dress like a professional adult who wants to get a job (or a little kid going to church). Otherwise, don't waste your time and, more importantly, the interviewers' time.

  4. I teach in t-shirts and jeans pretty much all the time (maybe a nicer shirt, but after years of business school enforced dress code you couldn't get me in a skirt or suit).

    I wore a different spiffy suit for every day of MLA.

  5. I completely understand all three of these replies. I have not a problem with any of them.

    However, personally, if I'm responding about how it would affect me, then I'm going to say, the outfit described would be fine. It wouldn't look as odd to me as some of the interview gear people show up with, primarily that shiny European suit that I see all the time on men and women. It has the high neck, I have no sartorial verbiage, it's like Ethan Hawke in Gattaca, but black. See, I'm not being clear.

    If you're dressed like an academic from 2211, then I wouldn't like that either.

    What's the all time winning RYS line about this sort of thing, the impossibly tiny eyeglasses?

    Jeans guy, you'd be okay with me. But everyone above has a point, too.

  6. I have only been on several search committees, but for one of them one of the candidates gave their departmental research seminar in jeans, black t-shirt and brown wool cardigan. My main thought was "hm, I guess she doesn't care much about the job. she must have accepted the interview invitation for the free airplane ride across the country."

    I f*ckin' hate ties, it feels like a noose. I didn't wear a tie for my job interview, but I did wear dress pants and a nice quality "office style" button-down shirt, along with a blazer that was the same colour as the pants. I looked like a typical cubicle worker, but not a stock broker, nor a slacker. Pick a compromise that you're still comfortable in.

  7. If you happen to be a famous white male European intellectual, you can wear whatever you want. If you're just regular, though, show some respect.

  8. "Toying" is an interesting word choice on your part...for multiple reasons.

    Like it or no, interviews are one of those things there are sartorial rules for (and based on your post, you know what they are). When you willfully and knowingly break those rules, you look like a disrespectful asshole who thinks they are above it all (unless you're in film or fine arts, in which case, your clich├ęd commitment to individualism is at least as well-worn as those jeans, but carry on).

    Seriously - who wants a colleague like that?!

    Sometimes, we have to wear things we don't want to in a professional setting. An interview one of those times, especially since there are *plenty* of ways to drink the Kool-Aid and still subtly express your own personal style.

    By all means, wear your jeans and sport coats on the days you aren't interviewing, or to more casual evening events...but, at an interview, show some respect to your potential future colleagues and make the extra effort.

  9. Actually, Archie's comment surprised me. I thought he would say something like, "The most important thing is your publications. If they make me tingle inside--and as long as you're not a rude asshole--then I'll be interested."

    You've already got a job. You're not desperate. Why would you want to dress in a way that would make you "colossally unhappy"? Most of it is beyond your control. So just be yourself. And mind your manners. Let them know how much you appreciate your time with them.

    There's no recipe for a guaranteed successful first date.

  10. And please let us know how it turns out.

  11. A disrespectful asshole for wearing a sport coat and jeans? And Archie made similar sorts of language choices above.

    See, this makes me want to quit the profession for new reasons.

    I understand the rules for interview clothes, but, seriously, what you wear to the interview SHOULD mean nothing.

    I know it does, but the outfit Adam describes above would not bother me.

    Also, isn't it the case that we already know people are NEVER going to dress on campus like they dress in an interview? So why the double standard?

  12. Conservative but distictive:

    1 1941 Kriegsmarine U-boat skipper's hat (dirk, with white cover, golden weatherbeaten insignia.)

    1 1941 Kriegsmarine naval jacket (reefer), worn.

    1 pair scuzzy brown, oilstained pants.

    1 pair beatendown shoes, leather.

    1 beaten, half smoked stogie.

    For added realism, don't bathe for a month, or only bathe in salt water. Wear the clothes all the time as well.

    "U-boat men have a U-boat funk" - Unknown French prostitute, La Rochelle, Occupied France, 1943.


    My favorite:

    The Brezhnev.

    1 black pinstripe jacket

    120 Soviet medals (Party, Army, Comemmorative)

    1 black narrow tie.

    1 white shirt.

    1 pair, matching black pinstripe pants.

    (Put the medals on in rows; they had special back-plates for five medals a piece.)

    For added realism, only speak in Russian, slowly. If you don't speak Russian, sound like Yakov Smirnov.


  13. Here's what my advisor told me:

    "When you see an improperly formatted student paper, you're annoyed. That doesn't mean annoyance is rational, and it doesn't mean you can't get over your annoyance to hear what the student has to say; but you're annoyed. If an interview committee sees you improperly formatted, they'll be annoyed. Doesn't mean they can't/won't get over it, but why annoy them unnecessarily?"

    I have precious little interview experience myself, so I simply pass along someone else's received wisdom.

  14. Will, these arbitrary rules matter because they signal your awareness, understanding of, and willingness to follow the same and more important rules once you are hired. If you don't respect them now, how dovthey expect you to act once you're a colleague?

  15. That he doesn't particularly want the job, and that he may be a bit too convinced of his personal wonderfulness to be easy to work with. Also, seriously, if an hour or two in a suit makes you "colossally unhappy," dude, I envy your life. (And mine is a sweet and easy one so far...) There's a caveat, though: the higher up the food chain you go, the less insulted the committee is likely to be by casual attire. Crap schools will be sure to take offense; really great schools might think it's odd, even unprofessional, but they're unlikely to be insulted because they're so convinced of the desirability of the job they're offering. Middle-of-the-road places are more likely to fall into category A than category B - they're populated by people who are, on the whole, far more insecure than the people at crap schools.

  16. Dressing down, as Archie says, is a display of power. That's why it's rude if a committee does it: it means "we've got the job and you want the job, so we don't even have to be polite to you. Also, we fart in your general direction."

    If you do it, it's a display of personal power. "I don't really need this job," it says. And clearly that's what you want it to say, because you made the point yourself - you've already got a job, you don't need another job. You're not begging. You're not like all those other guys who don't have a job and need to suck up. You don't need to suck up, thank you very much. If they don't like your jeans, the hell with them.

    Which is fine, except that that attitude is likely to make sure that you don't get another job, either. "Who the hell does he think he is?" will be the committee's reaction if you walk in in jeans. And after that initial reaction you're going to have to be better than bright, energetic, and a good interviewee; you're going to have to be brilliant. So the question you should be asking yourself is, how brilliant are you?

    Or you could ask yourself, instead, how much you want to risk insulting the people you've flown out to see by wearing jeans to the interview, when it's simple enough to substitute a pair of dress pants and make no other modifications to your proposed outfit. Boots - fine. Work shirt (we're not talking plaid flannel, I assume?) fine. Sports jacket - fine; essential over the work shirt. Jeans - not unless you're a high-ranking European intellectual. Because jeans mean "I'm so much better than this. Also, I wave my dick in your general direction."

    But you knew that.

    Oh, keep a tie ready-tied and stuffed into your pocket. Walk by and sneak a peek in the door before the interview. If anyone in there is wearing a tie, slip it on just before you go in. If they're showing you the respect of wearing a tie (I guarantee you they don't wear them as a regular thing any more than you do) you can do the same for them.

  17. I love Cass' comment "crap schools will surely take offense' because I don't think we'd care so much at our school (and I say that as someone who's been on a few search committees----I admit I volunteer for them because I like them and it keeps me from being volunteered for other things I don't like) as long as you looked professorial and put together----so your outfit sounds okay to me. Of course, we are a community college and we don't go to the MLA for interviews.

    I think you need to do some version of what most people are doing at the MLA, barring your being famous or truly exceptional in some way I don't know about. So you can dress on the more casual side of acceptable, but you should not stand out as 'breaking the rules." I think, actually, that it sounds like you could probably replace those jeans with nice tan pants and you'd be okay.

    Of course, I've never been to the MLA, but I do go yearly to a few smaller conferences. I even presented at one in a sort of casual outfit----although only after checking out what other people were wearing and deciding the suit I brought to present in was way overkill.

  18. Burka: the ultimately formal interview attire.

  19. When a male baboon approaches a strange troupe, it's a risky time. He needs to learn the new hierarchy and probably will be rebuffed more than once for mistakes. But if he is socially adept, he'll be grooming others and starting to make alliances reasonably soon.

    Having just served on a hiring committee, I was struck by how much primate hierarchy played a role in our impressions of the candidates. We were turned off by the power-suited individual who kept criticizing our questions and also by the giggler in the ruffled cardigan who kept deferring to us. The ones we asked back seemed to aim for the high middle rank.

    Advice: make some field observations of the other primates at the MLA, as Bella and others suggested, and if in doubt, wear the damn monkey suit.

  20. Yikes! Who knew dark jeans and a sports coat was such a dick-swinging insult to the committee!

    I'm so glad we haven't veered into clothes for women, because I fear I've been wearing the wrong things for ages.

    Adam, I wouldn't think harshly of your outfit. I believe I'd like it.

  21. @ other job seekers reading the comments: Albuquerque Adam is obviously a rock star--already has a job, looking for a better one, four MLA interviews before Dec 1st, etc--so he can dress like one.

    Here's my advice: dress up. It's one of the easiest things to control in a confusing, difficult, weird, and at times soul-bruising process. Dress up so you don't give a committee member simple reason NOT to invite you to campus. I guess that I'm trying to say that by not dressing up a candidate gives another factor to think about. Dress up and the committee focuses on other stuff

  22. @Bubba: That actually is what a lot of us are saying. If you are a super-duper-star, then wear whatever you like. If not, then dress the part of the job applicant. The point is that the threshold at which your publications outweigh the need to act professionally is really, really, really, fucking high. Nothing in the OP, suggests that Adam is within even shouting distance of that threshold.

    And as someone else pointed out, it isn't like those committee members who will be wearing ties and other business attire do so on a daily basis. They are dressing formally, for what is, after all, a formal occasion. To do otherwise is to pretend that you are better than everyone else in that room.

    Maybe it is because I grew up in a different, more formal culture than what you have here in the U.S., but I just can't imagine dressing down for any occasion that demands more formal attire. If I showed up to a job interview dressed as Adam suggests, I would feel seriously uncomfortable and self-conscious the whole time. Dressing appropriately means never having to think about what you are wearing, and never having to wonder what others think about it either.

  23. Here's what worries me.

    If we have to dress to play a role, are we not also prone to acting as if we're playing a role? Why not be ourselves in interviews? (I know this will be seen as nutty, too, I'd bet.) But telling someone to dress unlike they feel - like most folks are doing with Adam - does not feel much different to me than saying, "For God's sake make sure you tell the committee what they want to hear about committee work. Don't give them a reason not to hire you."

    In a desperate economy and situation, maybe we all would dress right, say the things we have to, and eat shit for a paycheck.

    Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to?

  24. Wow, just wow.

    First of all, I regret writing "personally wonderful." All I meant is that I wasn't an asshole.

    And I truly was just inquiring about those clothes choices. That's what I wear to school every day, to committee meetings, to faculty assemblies, to meet the president of the college.

    Secondly, I'm hardly a rock star. Having 4 MLA interviews is meager, and even though it's pre-December, even a casual look at the job wikis will show scores of schools already fully invited.

    I appreciate the feedback, even those that took the leap to me being an obnoxious dick swinger.

    I think Compound Calico makes a good point about how we "act" at interviews, too. I wouldn't mind seeing a post about that.

  25. @Cal: I understand what you are saying, but I still disagree. I know that Americans like to talk in terms of being "comfortable" or just being "yourself." And yet, there are still occasions that require us to dress more formally as a way of marking the importance or the formality of the interactions that will occur at that occasion. And by and large, we all know what those occasions are--weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, job interviews and so on. The truth is that in this country there are far fewer such occasions than in other cultures. I see people in jeans at the theatre and the opera all the time. You wouldn't catch me dead in those places dressed like that, but apparently mores have changed in that context.

    Maybe there is a component of role playing there, but I don't see that as a bad thing. What is wrong with saying that a job interview is not a normal everyday kind of interaction, and that no one in that room is presumably being themselves? Not to go all Norbert Elias on your ass, but formality of dress and comportment does serve an extremely useful social function in these situations. It signals that certain behaviors are out of bounds in that space.

    And why is it that it is just about the job candidate being constrained here? The committee members are likewise constrained from blurting out that the students at their school suck, or that such and such a colleague is a raving asshole. Aren't all the conference interview horror stories centered around moments when committee members stray outside of the bounds of formality into uncomfortable and radical informality (or honesty if you like)? If wearing a tie helps remind them not to do that, then I think they ought to wear the tie.

    The point is that viewing this as an imposition on the candidate (forcing him or her to eat shit, as it were) is simply a distortion. The constraints cut both ways (or at least they are supposed to) and that is ultimately for the best, I think.

  26. Calico:

    Of course we aren't being ourselves in the interviews. I suspect I am not alone on this site in my tendency to be irritable, sarcastic, and critical. These are all genuine facets of my personality that I _absolutely_ quench during an interview. Along with them goes most of the good jokes I'm thinking while I stand there, and much of my quickness, since I'm self-editing.

    Situation normal.

    Another slight comment to the main poster: sartorial choices are dependent on field. Some fields are puffed up with appearances, others pretend to be oblivious. You know which one you are in.

  27. I'm late to the party, but I'll weigh in:

    I teach in jeans and a sweater, since it is effing freezing around here 7 out of the 9 months of the school year.

    I would never EVER dress like that for an interview, even if I had a published novel and scads of peer-reviewed journal articles. It just isn't done.

    I'm with Archie. Dress for the occasion, and you won't have occasion to wonder whether you didn't get the job because you weren't dressed right. When you get the job, dress however you like. Until then, follow protocol.

  28. When you dress too casual for an interview, nobody knows if you are

    A) communicating who you really are
    B) ignorant of how to behave in these settings
    C) being an asshole
    D) actually a slob and this is the best you can do
    E) trying to make us think you are a star

    We just don't know.

    It's an audition for a part. Here are some lines. Read them. Don't show up and do some comedy improv. We will wonder if those are the only jokes you know.

  29. @Adam and Cal: I am not suggesting that interviews can't be improved, or that there isn't space for honesty. They can. I just don't think that changing how we dress is going to produce those improvements. Asking better questions, and having the courage to give better answers are the road to making those interviews produce better results. Not wearing jeans and boots. In other words, Adam, I'm going to guess that you could wear flip flops and a speedo to the interview and you would still give the same sneaky, trying-to-please answers as you would if you were wearing a suit.

    The suit isn't the problem. The conference interview format is the problem.

  30. My two favorite academics of 2211 (or the late 2300's for that matter)

  31. Throw the whole interview system out. Seriously. It's awful. The paperwork orgy. The speaker phone clusterfuck. The conference orgy (sometimes!). The campus interview with its daunting travel and schedule.

    Can't we just do a big lottery for open positions?

  32. With regard to Archie's comment that, "The committee members are likewise constrained from blurting out...."
    Many years ago, when I was a brand new hamster-weaver, one of the old farts who was interviewing me did blurt out, "I HATE IT HERE!!!!!" After he had his little meltdown, I spent the rest of the day being polite and hoping to get as far away from that school as possible. Days later, the hiring committee chairman seemed confused that I didn't want to accept their offer. As I remember it, I just kept saying, "No, thank you." Period. I certainly couldn't tell them that they scared me.

  33. But anything else I'd wear would make me colossally unhappy.

    Q: What would you think if a personally wonderful 35 year old guy showed up to a conference interview dressed like that? Or do I have to drink the sartorial Kool-Aid?

    Eh, we all think we're personally wonderful, so I'll completely disregard that. Does wearing a shirt and tie and something other than jeans make you so colossally unhappy that you'd rather forsake a job than drink the proverbial Kool-Aid? If so, go for it. Otherwise, just suck it up and wear professional attire during the interviews. It's not a matter of what's right or wrong but whether you want the jobs for which you are interviewing. If so, suck it up and wear business attire, and try not to be such a baby about it. The whole "I'm too personally wonderful to dress up for an interview like all your less-wonderful candidates who drink your Kool-Aid" attitude won't sit well with the interviewers. Let's put things in perspective here and perhaps save phrases like "collossally unhappy" for real woes - being poor or overworked or broken-hearted or having to endure root canal that is not only painful but horribly expensive, etc. If every moment of your life is so wonderful that wearing stuffy business attire for a few hours makes you colossally unhappy, then you are considerably luckier than most.

  34. Terry P,


    We could all apply to be in a big pool of "acceptable" and then when jobs come up, we win a lottery. One year later, if it doesn't work out, you pick again.

    No applications, no letters, no flights, no meetings, no haggling, no politics. Sure, it would never work. But I can dream, can't I?

  35. As a washed out adjunct, of course I like Terry's idea, too. I can only win.

    There could be some last hoop to jump through to show that you aren't just a PhD, but a potential colleague. I don't know how that could be vetted, but it probably could be. Maybe each degree-granting institution gets some quota per year of people they can add to the pool and the pool is "peer reviewed" in some way. Then job openings are filled by lottery from that central data bank. Works for me!

    Of course overall quality would go down, since nobody would need to brilliant. Some would be brilliant anyway, because they're simply very passionate and smart. But there would be less brilliance overall and a few more "weasels" wiggling in. In some fields, that would be a great loss. In others, I am not sure it would make all that much of a difference. A lot of brilliance in the humanities unfolds over a long career and builds on, doesn't just lead into, particular conditions.

    Someone who is brilliant at 30 is of course more likely to be brilliant at 60. But some of those who get sidetracked at 30 because they weren't quite brilliant yet would be brilliant at 60 if they had landed the job anyway, at 30, despite being sub-brilliant, because they're good enough and under the stable conditions of that job have the time and resources to flourish.

    In a field like, say, Shakespeare studies or Italian history, would it really make that much of a difference? I'll risk saying that I don't think so.

    Despite it's failings, I think the system as is pretty much works. But the effect of Terry's grotesquely random shortcut would be unequal and some fields would putter on as before. I recall one rejection letter from a prof who said he is constantly turning down loads of candidates who are far more qualified than he was when he landed his current job.

  36. Get a pet snake. Bring it for show and tell. Also, make "brownies" and tell them that's how you reward students for behaving. You have a "brownie" day and bring some Bob Marley...

    The ones who "hate it here" might just hire you for the opportunity to be an "enhancement smoker".

    Or they may call the police...


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