Informal Science

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.

My kids could not resist poking fun by having me "caricatured" with a tie (poor likeness, by the way...)

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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17 Responses to Informal Science

  1. ricardipus says:

    Hm. I am not a professor or faculty/staff scientist, but I definitely dress to suit the occasion. Days with meetings (company reps, visiting scientists, employee interviews) I tend to do the dress-shirt-and-slacks thing, and since I am (notionally, anyway) in a position of responsibility near the top of a rather large group, I generally don’t wear jeans and a T-shirt in combination. Except on Fridays, sometimes.

    Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with jeans and a T-shirt (and believe me, there are plenty of profs around here that dress like that daily). But somehow the middle-management virus has infected me and it feels better to be slightly more dressed up than when I was, say, a postdoc.

    My father, who is a now-retired physics professor, wore a tie every day he was lecturing I believe. But that’s going back to a much older ethic – and of course he was born and grew up in England, which might have something to do with it.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I spent my childhood in Canada–things may differ today, but I have a sneaking feeling that Canadians are a tad more formal than their southern neighbors. Perhaps, as you noted in a personal example, it has to do with the British heritage.

  2. There was a related post recently on Female Science Professor’s blog discussing the need (or otherwise) to wear suits at interview – you clearly answered this point above from your own point of view. Nevertheless I entirely agree with @ricardipus that you should dress to suit the occasion. If you have visitors and know their dress code it helps. I remember once turning up at a US industrial lab in formal attire, only to find it was dress-down Friday and I looked rather silly.

    I think dress is even more of a minefield for women, and I had a post in gestation on this very subject myself. I wouldn’t like readers to think Occam’s Typewriter was only about sartorial elegance, though, so I’ll put it on a back burner for a while!

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Thank you for the comment–and sorry if I inadvertently “scooped” your planned post. In my defense, no spy satellites were employed…
      It looks like I am outnumbered so far–but by a British empire coalition!

      Perhaps I should qualify my comments a little: I do NOT recommend to scientists going for interviews to be informal as I was–in fact I may have actually missed several opportunities because of this (and I was not entirely informal, as I did not show up in torn T-shirt/jeans, but rather without a suit tie). In fact, my advise to scientists seeking a job (at least in the US) would actually be to go dressed more formally, as I think it would not detract from an employer’s perspective.

      I was commenting more on the “idealistic” side–and from someone who has managed to find a job and maintain it (at least until now), despite my professed informality. But this is NOT advise that I suggest for scientists seeking employment.

      Thank you for helping me to clarify!

  3. ricardipus says:

    Thinking about this more, I remember that as a postdoc I looked forward to “not dressing like a student anymore”. Whether or not I was successful is a piece of history that is, fortunately, largely undocumented.

    On the flip side, I knew someone who had been a scientist, then went to law school. She would complain bitterly on occasion about how she had to dress up every day, and how she missed not having to wear a suit/skirt/nylons/whatever while at work.

  4. cromercrox says:

    There is no occasional so formal that Crocs cannot be worn.

  5. Austin says:

    I once went for a job interview at the Wellcome Trust wearing my only good suit and a pair of boots (though I think they were Timberland rather than DMs). A guy I knew on the interview panel later told me that the boots had “raised some eyebrows”, though I did get asked back for a 2nd interview. In the meantime, though, I had decided I couldn’t see myself as a scientific administrator.

    I used to dress up for certain work occasions – notably medical student vivas and final (degree-awarding) exams meetings when the external examiners were present and I was Exams Officer (aka “Chief Keeper of the Spreadsheets”). However, I only ever used to dress up for PhD vivas if I was the external examiner. And apart from those examples, I haven’t ever worn a formal shirt and tie, or suit, to work. I do all my lecturing in my standard work attire of boots, combat trousers and baggy jumper.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      May I interject that combat trousers and boots might be particularly useful if the lecture doesn’t go over well…

      • Austin says:

        Good point, Steve.

        I do usually check the fire exist in the lecture theatre in case I have to make a rapid departure. And my father has occasionally offered to teach me the “combat crawl” (drop to floor, wriggle on knees & elbows to nearest escape route avoiding missiles. e.g. rotten fruit, eggs, paint bombs) that he was taught as a British army conscript junior officer in the early 50s.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    My desk is right outside my boss’s office, where his secretary used to sit. Even though I’ve been there for over three years now, some people apparently still think I’m the secretary and keep asking me to make appointments with him etc.

    In this context, I prefer to dress down. I find that dressing in the kind of business casual clothes I’d got used to in my previous (industry) job makes people treat me more like a secretary, whereas dressing as a smartened-up version of my postdoc self (nice jeans/cords, nice leather shoes/boots, nice tops/cardis/sweaters) makes people treat me more like a scientist.

    I quite liked dressing up for work in my first few weeks in industry, but I have to say it’s nice to be back in academia, where I actually have a choice in the matter!

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Cath@VWXYNot? and Austin,

    Your story about being tagged as a ‘secretary’ makes my hair stand on end. As a graduate student, my desk was also just outside my (female) boss’ door (so genders reversed here). I would have to make serious attempts to check my temper when I found myself continually in the functional role of secretary/personal assistant (“Where is she”, “When will she be back”, “Tell her this and that…”). In that case, “dressing down” didn’t help–I was already at the bottom. Next step would be a bathing suit or pajamas.

    Another advantage of “dressing down” related to student teaching. I was sent to evaluate a colleague who was teaching 130 medical students. Dressed as I was, I was well camouflaged to fit in with the students at the back of the class without anyone noticing me. Although it was clear that I wasn’t another student (most don’t have gray hair!), I was virtually ignored like a bug on the wall. Great for hearing a real-time perspective of the students’ impressions of my colleague.

  8. ricardipus says:

    Argh. I also have sat in the “where the secretary should be” desk, not here but in a previous position. It was irritating in the extreme, for a variety of reasons.

  9. Frank says:

    Ages and ages ago I decided to go for a more formal style – tie and jacket (though I only ever wore the jacket on the way to and from work). I wanted to look reassuringly professional, and thought that’s what people expected of a librarian. I developed quite a repertoire of ties and enjoyed varying them from day to day.

    But 18 months ago I rebelled and decided the time had come to abandon the tie and go open-necked. My rationale for the change was to try and reduce the distance between myself and the library users (OK, to make myself look less old!). I think it failed.

    One of our senior scientists is only ever seen in shorts, never long trousers. On one famous occasion he gave evidence before the House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology, in his habitual attire of shorts.

  10. rpg says:

    What, no jacket?

  11. Steve Caplan says:

    Ties are great in the lab, dangling over bunsen burners, dipping into buffers and acids, contaminating the laminar flow hood. Perhaps in the library they might be useful as bookmarks…

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