I bought a suit today, two actually. Given the nature of this blog, you can see where this is going. You may now groan at the pun above.
I bought two suits today. They were, essentially, buy one get one free. What poor grad student could turn that down?! I bought them at The Limited. They have a 15% student discount, at least in my town. As a broke grad student, I feel compelled to share discounts with people. Between the sale and the discount I saved around $280. Yes, I know it's because they mark-up their clothes so much to begin with. That's why I'm ok with buying when they're more than 50% off. Really.
These suits were not "trendy" nor would they be considered "creative" suits. For those academics who are not aware that there are different types of suits, creative suits are non-traditional suits for people in creative industries, like graphic design or academia. The suits I bought were traditional, with classic lines. Fairly plain, heck, one is just straight up black. I bought the skirts and the pants that matched the jacket. So, it's really like four suits. Yeah, I'm on the cusp of a shopping problem. Don't spoil my denial.
And why am I prattling on about suits like some groupie at a Wall Street Fashion Week? Because most academics don't own more than one, if any, suit. Suits are for non- and post-academics. People in the real world need suits. They are worn to things like informational interviews in formal business offices and job interviews. You know, job interviews... those 72 hour torture sessions in academia? Yeah...um...apparently in the outside world that sort of thing is considered inhumane and an unnecessary waste of time. Imagine that...a humane hiring process that usually only takes a few hours, two days tops. What a wacky idea.
Anyway, buying suits, fairly traditional suits, was a tangible affirmation of leaving academia for me. Seeing myself in a suit allowed me to envision myself in a life outside academia. I could blend in with real people. No one would know I was once a crazy academic unless and until they looked at my business card and saw the alphabet soup after my name. I could infiltrate the real world. Though an academic refugee, I could learn the ways of real people and assimilate into their culture. I'd be like the reverse-Borg!
A friend who is working toward a career in academic administration went shopping with me. She helped me verify when things fit and looked good and when they were clearly meant for someone else. She pointed out when things might need tailoring. Yeah, tailoring. Apparently in the outside world, they expect you to be able to dress yourself in clothes that fit. And if they don't fit off the rack, there's a whole group of people whose sole job it is to make it fit - and you're expected to employ those people when needed.
And why do I point this out? 1) Most people, grad students and otherwise, are not aware that you can alter your clothing to fit properly and 2) honestly, clothes look better and, by extension, you look better and more polished when they fit right. Demonstrating that you can dress yourself properly is always helpful in interviews, so I'm told.
The third reason I point this out: I have been teased and harassed for wearing what the outside world would call "business casual" to academic conferences. The only differences between my outfits and the outfits of fellow (female) grad students were that mine fit and were not particularly loud. I was harassed for this. Apparently in academia, well-fitting clothes make you stand out as "other." Anyone in academia knows at least one person off the top of their head who is in desperate need of appearing on What Not To Wear. So here's a completely shallow but incredibly important point for leaving academia: dress the part.
Some clothes buying advice from someone who has watched waaay too many fashion shows:
- Buy clothes that fit or get as close as you can and tailor them to fit. Make friends with your tailor/seamstress.
- Make sure your jackets fit correctly. This means different things for men and women and for different body shapes. If you're not sure if something looks right, ask a sales associate. If you don't trust the 16-year-old who comes to help you, ask a more senior sales associate. They should know how a jacket should fit and if it can be altered. Remember, they don't want to deal with a return because you realized you couldn't alter the jacket as needed. Let them help you. It's their job.
- For the ladies (and the gents too depending on one's lifestyle choice): Mini-skirts are not appropriate office apparel, unless your work involves rhythmic grinding to a syncopated beat on a metal pole. Mini-skirts make you look young, or trying to be young, which correlates with "irresponsible" and "incapable" in the rest of the world. They also tend to make straight men think more about screwing you than your other nonbedroom-related capabilities. Don't blame them, that is the purpose of the mini-skirt. It can do its job well. Yes, this applies to skirts that match your now well-tailored jacket. Just avoid the whole perceptual debacle. Wear a skirt closer to knee-length.
Actually, this applies to academics as well.
- Pants need to be the correct length as well. I'm not sure what the right length is for guys but your tailor will know. I imagine it's long enough that I can't tell if your socks match when you stand up.
Ladies (and gents again depending on lifestyle), the right length depends on if you're wearing heels or not. If you're not wearing heels, it's the top of your feet and you shouldn't step on it with your heel. If you are wearing heels on the other hand, they need to be longer. Your hem should come to about the middle of your foot in heels. Wear your heels when you go to the tailor to get pants hemmed. Seriously. Your tailor actually expects this. This is also a useful tip if you're getting skirts hemmed to a certain length. Heels change the orientation of your derriere which alters how the hem sits. Wear your heels so the tailor can get your hem straight.
- Wear something that makes you comfortable. If skirts make you fidget, wear pants. That applies to guys too. Choose accessories that you feel comfortable in. If you're worried you're wearing too many, follow that old adage and take one off before you leave the house. If you're feeling funky or punky, show it your accessories. Just don't go crazy. Crazy people only get hired in crazy professions...like academia. Leave your crazy for after hours and the weekends. That's where the rest of the world hides their crazy.
- Invest in your clothes. It matters. Even if you bought your suit at a second-hand store. Get it tailored to you. People notice what you look like. They notice if you bothered to put yourself together that day or not.
Ta-da! My first bit of advice to others making the post-academic transition. As shallow as it sounds, looking good can improve your mood. It can help you see yourself somewhere else. Perception is a huge part of our lives - how we see ourselves, how others see us. It can affect our moods, our approach to life, and our options. And if you know you look good on your interview, you will have more confidence in yourself and selling your skills. And confidence is one thing all employers notice.