Business Casual or Business Casualty? Wardrobe Malfunctions in the STEM Job and Internship Search

I have a love/hate relationship with giving job seekers advice on their wardrobes. On one hand, I give advice for a living and – like most people – am pretty well enamored with my own opinions. On the other hand, I recognize that personal dress and appearance is just that: personal. It can be a deeply-held reflection of one’s own values and sense of style, and – just as I always encourage writers to find their own voices in their cover letters – I want students’ own expressions of self to be clear in the way they dress.

I write on this topic because we’ve just exited the height of the spring career fair season, and I’ve seen all manner of dress on students at professional events. With likely rounds of interviews coming up and the next Career Fair on the horizon, I think it’s appropriate to revisit this topic.

First, know that the way you dress as a job/internship seeker is not necessarily the way you’ll dress on the job. This is especially true in engineering and other STEM disciplines as you’ll rarely see a software developer banging out code in full suit and tie or a civil engineer traversing a muddy construction site in designer pumps. While it’s not the standard work attire for these fields, it is fully appropriate for a career fair. Let’s look at some common job/internship search situations and reflect on attire for each:

Career Fairs

Professional Attire is expected at career fairs. This means that if you have a suit, wear it. The most versatile suits are two pieces in a dark colors that are solid or may have a subtle pattern.

Now, that said, don’t stress out and run up a credit card bill to buy a new suit if you don’t have one. For men, a jacket and tie with crisp dress pants can serve; for women, a jacket or sweater paired with appropriate top/pants/skirt/dress may work as well.

For some, even these pieces are not yet in their wardrobe. While they should be on your shopping list soon, both men and women can also potentially get away with dark non-denim pants and a dressy top. For men, the shirt should be collared, pressed, and paired with a tie; for women, a collared blouse or collared shirt can work, as can a weather-appropriate sweater.

No jeans, no t-shirts, no hoodies, no sweats, no shorts. It pains me to even type this out, but I see it at every single career fair. Mark Zuckerberg might wear jeans and hoodies every day but HE OWNS THE COMPANY. You don’t. Also, showing up at a professional event in unprofessional attire really and truly demeans not only yourself, but every UConn student in attendance who put in actual thought and effort in their dress. Just don’t do it.

Interviews

See above!

Information Sessions, Employer-led Workshops, Alumni Panels, and Networking Events

This is the time for the dreaded business casual attire, which has a verrrry wide range. On the dressier end of the spectrum for men is the suit, minus tie…with similar looks for women. Business casual has historically included khakis or other cotton pants, with polo shirts or similar. In some settings, dark dressy jeans may be acceptable, but only if paired with a collared shirt/blouse and a jacket or blazer. Again, untidy or torn jeans, shorts, and any type of workout wear is unacceptable. Generally, dress shoes are not necessary, but you probably shouldn’t wear your Chucks, either. Loafers, boots, bucs, chukkas, or boat shoes might be best. Women can get away with dressy sandals, but I can’t suggest them for men. Really. I mean it. Keep those dawgs under wraps. Please.

On the Job

Don’t ask me, ask your new boss. It’s that easy. Once you’re accepted an offer, simply ask how folks usually dress at work. When it doubt, kick it up a notch for the first few days – then adjust your attire as seems appropriate. Most engineers dress fairly casually for work, but shorts and sweats are still not appropriate for a professional workplace, however casual it might be. Engineers in the field or on the shop floor may even have to wear steel-toe boots or similar. Just confirm with your new boss before spending any of your hard-earned money.

Finally…

Don’t go broke. Buy a few reliable pieces for your professional wardrobe, and then mix things up with scarves, ties, or shirts. Don’t be afraid to borrow from friends or even pick up an item or two from a thrift shop – sometimes you can land amazing bargains!

I always keep a few books on hand in my office on this topic, such as Work It! from Visual Therapy, Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body from the “What Not to Wear” folks, and Icons of Men’s Style by Josh Sims. You can also search our website for “attire” for more tips.

Can’t wait to see how professional you look!

By John Bau
John Bau Career Consultant, School of Engineering John Bau