This weekend I traveled to the Scottish Highlands and hiked Ben Nevis on an unusually sunny Saturday. On a typical weekend I try to think about the upcoming week’s blog post, but this time I had other things on my mind, namely What am I going to pack for the upcoming SETAC meeting? This seems an odd question to spring to mind while hiking the tallest peak in the UK, but it was partially relevant and inspired by the attire of the hikers that I crossed along the trail. While there are some ‘rules’ to hiking clothes, such as sturdy boots, some sun protection, and layers that you can take on and off in case the weather takes a turn, you always end up seeing quite an assortment of outfits on a hike, ranging from the fully equipped hiker with high-end equipment in all matching brands and colors to the person who just looks like they rolled out of bed and hit the trail.
For those of us that work in a wet lab setting or who spend our whole day in an office with other graduate students or researchers, there really aren’t any day-to-day outfit ‘rules’ (except for closed-toe shoes when necessary). As graduate students and early career researchers, we can easily get away with wearing just about whatever we want and as long as it’s comfortable and appropriate for your work environment, there’s little else that needs to be done. That being said, there are times of the year when all of a sudden new rules come into play, and several situations will arise when your most tattered jeans and your most favorite t-shirt just won’t get the job done. One of these important times is presenting at or attending a scientific conference.
Regardless of whether you’re heading to the meeting just to learn some new science and do some networking or whether you’re giving your own platform or poster presentation, scientific conferences are an important fixture in any young scientists’ career. It’s a time for your work to be seen by a bigger audience, to make connections that will last throughout your career, and to leave a good impression on potential future employers and collaborators. Like it or not, your attire will be part of that impression. So given the importance of conferences, what’s the best way to dress for success?
What’s your style?
I’m not going to write this post as a go-to style guide on How to dress yourself for a conference, but instead I’ll focus on the more important question of What’s your style?, since finding the answer to this will set you up for knowing what to pack in that suitcase of yours. Finding your style will take some time, and likely you’ve already gone through some style phases of your own. In high school and college, I didn’t really have a great sense of style, and found myself trying to figure out how I wanted to look by trying to emulate what I saw on other people or what looked nice on a store mannequin. At some point in grad school, and really not even until my post-doc, did I figure what type of clothes I liked and what looked good on me. Since then I haven’t deviated too far away from my go-to outfits, which are generally skinny jeans, fitted graphic t-shirts, and a blazer/sweater combo (since, after all, life in Northern England is generally not adept to being out in just a t-shirt). Finding my own style came down to asking myself what I wanted to convey through my clothes, and the answer was that I wanted a balance of fitted yet casual and simple yet able to be scaled up with a change of shoes or jacket.
I won’t be able to tell you what exactly you should wear at a conference, but will instead I encourage you to think about what message you want to convey through your style in general. If it makes you happy and makes you feel good about yourself, then go for it! Once you figure this out, you can focus on tailoring your conference wear as simply a slightly upgraded version of your regular style.
To be both comfortable and presentable throughout the conference day, think of an outfit that would be appropriate for a long day at work followed by a social event (such as getting a drink or eating out with your friends). Once you have this in mind, take the outfit up a notch in terms of professionalism. Focus on clean and simple outfits that will let you and your work shine. And while I’m all about finding your style and embracing your own sense of you through this blog, I would encourage you to not have your conference style to not be a hoodie and pair of sweatpants. While it’s important to be yourself and to be comfortable, you also want to make a good impression by showing the best side of you possible, so here’s a few tips to help you get there:
These boots were made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do.
If you’ve never been to a conference, here’s the first thing you should know: conferences take a lot out on your feet. You might first think that you’ll just be sitting in presentations all day, but there’s actually quite a bit of time you’ll not be sitting down. Between walking to the conference center from your hotel and back, going between different session rooms (and if it’s a big conference, the rooms can be quite far apart), walking outside to get lunch with colleagues, and finishing off the day with poster socials and other networking events, which will likely keep you on your toes as you mingle and meet new people. As a bit of perspective, your feet will take as much of a beating at a conference as they would a whole day standing around working in a wet lab.
Since your feet are important for walking, standing, and other necessary conference activities, be sure to set yourself up for success by making them (your feet) comfortable. Again the key here is to focus on getting a slight upgrade of what your go-to shoes already are, and then you’re on your way to being conference savvy while lasting the whole day without blisters or sore feet. If your go-to style is a tennis shoe or casual trainer, then a pair of leather-sided trainers can easily be a nice conference shoe option. If you love boots and heels and wear them on a regular basis, then by all means go with them for the meeting—but only if they are a pair of shoes you’d wear if you were standing all day in a non-conference setting. If they’re not, leave them at home. Girls’ shoes are notoriously devious, as we’ve recently been tricked into thinking that ballet flats are a comfortable alternative to dressing in heels for a more professional look. If you have a pair of often-worn, broken-in flats that you wear around work all the time, then by all means bring them to the meeting. If you just bought a brand-new pair that only go with your presentation outfit, you’re better off leaving at home unless you want to spend your presentation day looking for band-aids to cover up your numerous blisters. The worst thing you can do at a conference is put your feet in so much pain that you can’t be yourself or made to feel like you should go home and change instead of taking advantage of all the networking opportunities.
Pants, skirts, or something in between?
Unless your conference is quite literally on a tropical beach, our official Science with Style recommendation is to avoid shorts at a conference. Even if they are ‘nice shorts’ or the weather is rather hot, shorts are still nearly impossible to help you convey a professional look. Otherwise, stick to the mantra of aiming for a slightly style upgraded version of yourself. If you’re a denim jeans kind of person, then don’t feel the need to stray too far from your go-to bottoms by buying a pair of dress pants that you’ll never wear again. If you go for denim jeans, make sure to avoid trendy washes or that damaged/cut-out look and instead go with a straightforward and simple cut and color, and darker colors can even give the illusion of dress pants if you want to look a bit more formal.
Girls again have a few more options for warmer weather such as skirts and dresses. If you enjoy wearing skirts and dresses and generally go for something more loose or casual fit at work, then at the conference aim for a slightly more fitted cut. Don’t feel like you need to put on a dress or skirt for a conference if you normally don’t wear them, and don’t choose an outfit solely on the fact that it’s dressy. Go for a conference outfit that you like and one that helps you feel like yourself. If you go over the top on dressing up, you’ll be more likely to stand out due to not being comfortable rather than for having great research results.
Topping things off
Bring shirts to a conference that are clean and simple, and as with denim try to avoid anything overly trendy in terms of washes or wording, and don’t go for any tops that weirdly cut or showing skin that doesn’t need to be shown in a professional setting. For me, the thing I like about wearing t-shirts is that they are easy to finish off with an H&M blazer or sweater, which helps tone down the casual feel of the outfit. While I have a large range of graphic design shirts, for conferences I stick to simpler ones that are focused more on good design without much text—messages should be kept to your presentations instead!
If you’re looking for a dressier alternative, button-up shirts are an easy way to have more of a formal look for a presentation or meeting a future employer. Spend the time to find a dress shirt that works for you instead of grabbing the first one off the shelf, and look for one that has a good cut for your body type as well as being made of a breathable material. The last think you want to do is to get all dressed up for a talk in some fabric that’s not cut right or starts making you sweat when you’re standing at the front of a full room giving your talk.
Another fact about conferences for those that haven’t attended one yet: regardless of what country, outdoor temperature, or time of the year that the meeting is in, most if not all conference centers are seemingly designed to only be a few degrees warmer than your walk-in fridge in the lab. You’ll need to keep warm even if it’s hot outside, so layers such as blazers or cardigans are an easy way to dress up an outfit while also keeping you from freezing during the platform sessions. All you need are a couple of top layers that look good with both more casual or more formal conference outfits and you’ll easily be set for a week-long conference.
Accessories for success(-ories)
- Bag it up. You’ll most likely get a free conference back when you pick up your registration materials. At first glance it seems perfect: just what you need for carrying around your laptop, abstract book, and free pens from the exhibition booths all week long! The only problem with this is that this same bag will also be given to the 500+ other conference attendees, which can make it easy for your stuff to get switched around for someone else’s. Save some room in your suitcase to bring one of your favorite backpacks or shoulder bags instead. That way you can carry your conference necessities (and swag) around all week in a bag that you know is comfortable, and you can also find your stuff more easily in a pile of other delegate bags when you’re leaving a busy session room.
- Keep up with the times. Your conference week will be driven by scheduled talks, meetings, and social events. Keeping good time is essential, and is also an easy opportunity to upgrade your style for a conference. I’ve yet to find a nice watch that I like and still rely on my phone for the time, but if you are looking for the opportunity to wear your graduation gift from your grandparents, there’s no better time.
- Kiss and make-up? As with the rest of your outfit, aim for just a slight upgrade of your current style. Don’t feel like you need to be fancy, and for girls you also don’t feel like you need to wear make-up if you usually don’t.
I hope this post offers some useful insights into packing your backs for your next (or even first!) big scientific conference. Just as with hiking, there’s no right or wrong way to do your style, but there are a few suggestions that will keep your feet from getting stubbed on rocks, or rather blistered in the case of long conference days. As for me, I should start packing my own conference bag here soon, now that my favorite blazer is clean and I have my A-team t-shirts assembled and ready for the final selection. If only perfecting my platform presentation was as easy as packing for the meeting!