While I feel compelled to address various “weighty” issues in science, after a long year (well really, they’re all the same except for leap-years, but it feels like it)—I think I will opt for the lighter side at this time.
I’ve been in this “business” now since 1989, when I began working as an undergraduate in a biochemistry lab, and I’m proud to say that my attire has changed very little since then. True, I no longer come to work wearing shorts (except occasionally on a weekend), but trading shorts for jeans was not a big sacrifice—especially in the era of chilly air-conditioning. I have also traded my Israeli sandals in for supportive training shoes, mainly because standing for extended periods of time leaves me with mighty sore feet. But overall, remarkably little has changed in my attire (please IGNORE size changes!).
Now, while I don’t have statistics to assemble, this does not seem to be a trend. I noticed a mild change in moving from informal Israel to the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. Being wary of falling into the trap of separating cause and effect (as I highlighted earlier in “Early exposure to skeptical thinking”), I must fairly note that the decreased formal attire could be attributed to either moving from a Ph.D. lab to a postdoctoral lab—or to a more formal culture at NIH or in the US in general.
Nonetheless, the NIH was still fertile ground for an informal person such as myself—as there were no students and most labs were staffed primarily by postdocs, it was perfectly natural for everyone to be on a comfortable first name basis. After all, it would seem silly for everyone to be walking around calling each other “Doctor This” and “Doctor That”. You aren’t going to make an impression on anyone when 95% of the people there are all “doctors”…
The more dramatic increase in formality occurred in accepting my current position at a US medical school. Jeans and running shoes are the exception rather than the rule, and ties are frequently worn by males in the upper echelon. However, my current colleagues did put their faith in me despite ‘under-dressing’ for my original interviews (hopefully I’ve not disappointed them).
Emphasizing my embarrassment with formality and titles is the following anecdote shortly after my arrival in Nebraska 7 years ago. It must have been the first or second day in my new lab, when I was busy unpacking boxes and wondering whether I’m really in the right job. One of the administrators down the hall called out “Dr. Caplan”. I was extremely puzzled, and looked behind me trying to figure out what on earth my pediatrician father from Canada could be doing here in my new lab in Nebraska. Yes, it probably took me a good half-minute to realize what was going on…
On the serious side—and I pose this to all my fellow scientists—is there a case for more formal attire in the lab? Should principal investigators dress more formally than their students and postdocs—does this promote professionalism?
I will argue that true leadership cannot be imposed artificially. Soldiers will follow an officer whose abilities are respected, not because they are forced to call him “sir”. A scientist’s leadership derives from work ethics, an unbiased quest for the truth and impartial skepticism as scientists, knowledge, the ability to deal with crises and to mentor students, postdocs and fellow colleagues, the ability to motivate and stimulate intellectually (and many other factors)—and not by whether he/she is called “Dr.”, or by what he/she wears.