27 and a PhD

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If you dress nicely …. and other gems

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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This week has reminded me that there are things, besides being smart and doing awesomesauce science, that appear to matter more, in order for people to take you and your job seriously. First, I saw a former classmate who’s migrated to the clinical side of things and is doing some sort of special clinical postdoc and wears a robe and everything at the beginning of the week. Said classmate (let’s call her Suzy) looked great and very different from her days in grad school, you know, no ragged jeans, Old Navy basic tee, running shoes and a ponytail with a pencil hanging around. Suzy finished around the same time I did and then decided to do a clinical postdoc (didn’t even know these existed) and has been here since then. Apparently she sees patients because her work is related to epidemiology, so she wears a lab coat, has her name embroidered on her coat and gets to wear cute dresses, nice jewelery, make up and lots of Tory Burch flats. I’m happy for her and in a way I sort of envy how she gets to meet patients and dresses like a resident of internal medicine. On the other hand, I do pretty awesome research in structural biology and get to come to work in casual wear, unless I’m presenting or have to meet a high up in the organization (almost never happens).

Suzy greeted me warmly on Monday or Tuesday … can’t remember, and asked why I was back in school. She remember I was doing a postdoc in Canada and we hadn’t seen each other since that time. I summarized what I’d been doing since graduation and mentioned that I’d been head hunted to be a lab manager. She congratulated me and then decided to give me the up and down look. I admit it, I was dressed even more casually than ever (jeans, a teenage looking hoodie and pink sunglasses). Then she questioned why the casual look … as if to say, ‘girl! you’re a lab manager now, get your act together.’ I was so surprised that all I could muster was a ‘great to see you Suzy, we’ll catch up later’ … and quickly walked away to have lunch.

Since that day, her comment has been in my head, on repeat, every few seconds. I remember her being so well put, and me looking so frumpy, and I realize that yes, I am a lab manager … so what? Don’t I get to dress to work in whatever way I see fit to do my job? If my job allowed me to wear a cute dress and flats, by God I would wear those … but I’m in a lab with machines working every day, churning data at all hours and said machines break down. I have to get on my knees and look at stuff. Measure stuff, clean stuff, oil and grease stuff. I have to polish things and dust off others. I have to clean the lab at certain times and in certain ways, so as to not upset the equipment (or risk my life doing it … well, not that serious, but you catch my drift). I don’t see patients. I live in a basement, in a lab, shut off from everyone. I see the light of day when I get out to have lunch and that’s it. Windows covered, doors closed. That’s how I conduct my science.

I’d mentioned before that I do feel bad for dressing like a soccer mom, but at the same time, I feel like I can because I need to get on top of things, crawl on all 4 behind machines, use water, alcohol and nitrogen to work … and I don’t want my nice clothes ruined, or worse … to put my life at risk because I’m afraid of staining something or because I’m wearing something that is not safe.

I do believe that nice clothes help you feel better,  look put together. And trust me, I do clean up nicely. Then I look at my PIs, who wear clothes just as casual as mine … and no one is questioning their science or talent! Not a single person (well, at least that I know of). Is it because I’m a woman (though I do have a female overlord, and she dresses casual too)? Is it because I’m hispanic? Or is it just another way of showing your superiority and that of your discipline? I dress like a peon, you work with patients, thus it’s OK to question my commitment to science based on how I look?

I do have a closet full of nice clothes. Clothes I mean to wear someday, yet when I think of the day ahead and who I have to work with or what samples I’ll face that day and whether or not I need to pH something or make 3 gallons worth of a buffer, I just shrug it off, dust off my jeans and put them on. I don’t mean to say that you can’t dress nice for the lab. I admire people who look put together and get to wear cute AND functional clothes … but in my case, I prefer not to risk them. I do wear a lab coat, don’t get me wrong … but I’ve been known to get stains even when wearing a lab coat … and I hate stains, let me tell ya.

What made me sit down and devote a whole entry to the subject of dressing for work …. what really pushed my buttons was this .. a PI saying to her students that if you dress nice, you won’t be taken seriously. Seriously? I mean, that’s the other extreme of my situation. And I especially dislike said comment because it implies that you have to look like a mad scientist, with you pocket protector and big ass calculator and crazy hair to be taken seriously. What I consider even worse is that a female PI is telling that to her female students! Seriously!! With how fucked up this world is and you have do drill into your minions that if they dress nice they won’t be taken seriously? In Dr. Isis’s wise words … it makes my ass twitch.

Just as bad is when you have to dress in a particular manner because you work with say … human tissue and good God you have to protect yourself from getting infected with whatever … and when you mention you’re done with your work session and your scrubs are covered in yuck, you get assholes saying that that’s not very sexy sexy (check this). Do you mean to tell me that ladies should stay out of the clinic/lab/field because when they need to wear work clothes to ensure safety in their jobs, that wearing less than anything showing skin, or pretty or sexy, those work clothes make them look less than a hot piece of ass? Seriosly?? I’m just throwing my hands up in the air.

I think we all need to reevaluate our priorities and realize that in order to move forward, we just can’t keep judging people based on the way they look, whether they dress nicely because their job requires it or because they can, or whether they need to wear less than “sexay” attire to get down and dirty and do their stinkin’ job, whether that involved removing and replacing pump oil, or collecting lung samples for their research. Please be mindful that comments about what you wear (or not) should have no bearing in your capacity to produce science. We shouldn’t look down at people based on their clothing choice (unless said choice involves offensive messages), whether it’s well put together or “frumpy” … especially when you don’t know the kind of science and effort they have to put it, or the kinds of situations they face every day to get to do their research. So back it off … it’s not nice.

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16 Comments

  1. This is a complicated issue for me. I like fashion, but most of the time I am lazy. I am starting a teaching postdoc, and I am going to have to make a conscious effort to dress up because I look very young for my age, and I don’t want students thinking I am their literal peer. Some grad students/postdocs I know dress very sloppily, but I don’t judge. It seems to be the way academia is trending, but sometimes I think people should put in more effort for interviews, talks, special meetings, etc. If you are going to get dirty all day that is one thing, but people really do judge EVERYONE by the way they dress, so you have to keep that in mind whether you like it or not. Then, on the flip side, you also have to remember most of the time people are just caring about themselves and likely aren’t paying much attention to what you are wearing 🙂

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Indeed. I think that there are places and situations where it is necessary to dress, not to impress, but to help convey the image that you’re an authority figure and not a buddy buddy. I guess my issue with both comments was what was implied by them. The way Suzy looked at me and then proceeded to comment was to say: ‘well, you’re too casual, you don’t look like a lab manager.’

      Thanks for your comment and all the best in your new position!

  2. katiedid says:

    Preach it! I agree 100%. I dress casually. Occasionally, if I’ll just be sitting at my desk all day, I wear something nice. But it’s science and I’m a poor graduate student who cannot afford to replace nice clothes I get something on them.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Same here. I tend to wear nicer looking things in the winter, because my lab is very cold and it feels good to have layers and dressier tops. But in the summer is hot and I’m usually the first one to diagnose troubles over, under and around big ass machines. Oh well. Thanks for your kind words 🙂

  3. bigfeet5grl says:

    I feel you! I just finished a interview for an industry position and all I can wonder about first is whether I put on too much/little make up, jewelry, etc. and whether I ironed well enough to pass for a normally dressed person. At some point, I should worry about the science and my actual qualifications! I’ve had PIs that stash emergency suits in their offices, and others who unapologetically wear their Hawaiian shirts and birks everywhere–but the latter tend to not have clinical obligations. Wardrobe considerations are quite aggravating…

    • Dr. 27 says:

      I know! When I came for my interview, even though people knew me and remembered me, I still wanted to dress nice and create a positive impression. But for my job, I prefer to be casual and not worry about throwing away a damaged pair of jeans or simple t-shirt because it got caught up or stained somewhere.

  4. BananaFurby says:

    As if women in science (or anywhere) don’t have it difficult enough already, we have to deal with these outfit-issues as well…! I have the same issue as Shae. I look young and I’m short too so people often mistake me for being a teenager or a bachelor student. So I spend some time trying to dress less “student like” and in a way that makes me feel nice and pretty. Then I arrive at the lab and feel overdressed :-/

    • Dr. 27 says:

      😦 I’m so sorry. It’s truly amazing (but in a sad way) how we focus so much in dressing so that other people won’t judge us … and it seems as though they always do anyway … grrrr

  5. Like Shae, clothes are complicated for me too. I like dressing nicely, but my style is still very similar to college students. I also look really young for my age (I’m 25, but still have to show ID for R rated movies). On top of that, my department is very casual and multiple people comment when I wear something other than jeans and a t-shirt. What to wear when TAing is always a challenge.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Ugh. So annoying. I had a grad student ask recently what year I was in. Perhaps I looked extra frumpy (or disgruntled) that day. I don’t know. It’s just so unfair. I think that it’s acceptable to say something like “hey, that shirt looks nice, or said colour is very flattering. Period.’ But what I can’t stand is the ‘it’s too sexy’ or ‘it’s too casual.’ Screw you (not you, obviously) for not taking into account what it takes to do my job safely every day.

      Thanks for visiting 🙂

  6. katejeffery says:

    This is a complicated issue that I have agonised over for years. The fact is, we *do* judge others based on how they look, and they judge us, like it or not. That’s what clothing is all about. My theory is that women are so interested in fashion because they are more attuned to the social signification of clothes.

    I don’t honestly think you can avoid being judged on what you wear. You can either go along with the game or ignore it, but it won’t go away. I guess you have to decide whether you care what people think of how you’re dressed. if you do, then there’s a code – one that varies by discipline, and also varies by gender.

    It’s just what comes of being a social primate species with a visually communicated dominance hierarchy, sorry!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks for your perspective Kate! It is true we’re visual creatures and the way we carry ourselves and how we dress communicate certain things about us. I guess my beef is with the attitude that some people take. Like my classmate Suzy, she could’ve kept her question to herself, we’re not close .. so why go ahead and blurt out, the ‘oh, really, you’re a lab manager? but you dress so casual.”

      I hope to avoid her from now on, I think our meeting was just by chance, she’s in the hospital and I work a bit far from where she is … and hopefully I can also get rid of a couple of tees and replace them with something that requires a bit of ironing 🙂

  7. katychuang says:

    Fear not, casual chic is in! http://willcodeforclothes.com/how-zuckerberg-unleashed-sartorial-freedom/

    On a more serious note, clinic settings usually have pretty strict dress codes and stratified work roles (i.e. there are support folks for all the heavy duty lifting). So she must have overlooked the fact that you dress for functionality rather than presentation. Even then, nobody should be judging a book by its cover. Sorry you had to go through that.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Exactly!!! Perhaps this “friend” thought I’d be seeing patients and such, but that’s not the case. I’m almost always crawling on all fours to get stuff from the floor, I do nitrogen fill ups, and have to work with oil and water on a constant basis. And there’s only so much protection a lab coat will give you.

      • katychuang says:

        Wow! You get a mini workout doing all that. I can only imagine how much more toned my gluteus maximus would be with more movement compared to siting for the whole day. A lab coat would definitely get in the way of getting your work done.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Truth! At least once a day I have a reason to sweat and if not, I’m buried collecting data. I don’t know what their problem is, for now I’m just ignoring them. Unless my bosses tell me otherwise, jeans and tees it is.

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