What should an academic look like?


Since embarking on an academic career a  few years ago, I have found myself constantly struggling with the issue of my appearance at work – trying to strike a balance between being myself, and appearing suitably professional and authoritative. I know that this is an issue for others too and so thought I would reflect on the issue… So what should an academic look like?

Recently I was reminded by Dr @Nadine_Muller of a conversation we had last year about academics with tattoos – facial piercings etc, and what should you wear both for an academic interview and whilst working as a university lecturer. Others (@memories_child@clioclothed@tinyhippo1979) joined the conversation on twitter and suggested that this was something that they also struggled with.

There seems to be a perception that tattoos, piercings etc are not appropriate. I don’t think that this is an explicit requirement, more a general feeling from those of us who are pierced or painted, and silent dissaproval from some of our peers. This is perhaps down to a long held perception as to what an academic looks like based upon tradition, and probably says more about the insecurity of us as individuals that of the institutions that we work for. I am not aware of any academic institutions setting out specific dress code requirements (although of a lot of other organisations do). Whatever the reason, it seems that many academics feel the need to hide their art in order to get the job, or be taken seriously by students and peers once in a job.

In my case I do not have any tattoos  I have a nose piercing and two relatively small ear stretchers (10mm). Until relatively recently, I also had very long dreadlocks. To date I have only had one issue – I was asked whilst having some promotional photographs taken for a university business facing publication, to remove my nose ring. I refused  and the photo that was published was of the other side of my face.

Lately the issue for me has become more about what to wear. I am a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy and I guess kind of scruffy most of the time. I do not feel comfortable in a suit and can’t stand wearing a tie or a pair of stiff shoes. I tend to compromise when I am teaching by wearing an informal shirt over the jeans – but even then I generally feel underdressed. A quick look around at my colleagues reinforces these feelings. Some (male and female) spend their days in a full suit. Others seem to be able to pull of the smart jeans, shirt and shoes look. Some even sport the sports jacket with patches on the elbows cliche.

To be honest I look like a student…

This has its benefits and drawbacks. On the positive, students seem to identify with me a little more and I am told that makes me more approachable. From a negative perspective sometimes colleagues do not recognise me as a member of the academic staff and give me a quizical ‘why are you in this meeting?’ look. Sometimes students enter the lecture theatre and say ‘alright mate – has the lecturer not turned up yet…”. I also often have my experience questioned – although I am almost 38 years old – but look 10 years younger (apparently) and have had a long and varied career both in academia and industry. Thankfully all of these issues disappear once I start talking – but first impressions and all that…

Of course all of this is not ideal. The way that an individual looks should bear no relationship with their ability to do the job, and any suggestion that there is a standard ‘academic’ look is ridiculous. We should, of course, celebrate the diversity of mind and body within all society in general, and the academy should be no different. However I fear that many academics will continue to feel the need to cover up, dress up and ‘conform’ to the perceived image of a university academic.

As always I would love to hear what others think, so please use the comments to let me know if this is an issue for you…