Suited and booted for the campus return, or is scruffy the new norm?

Academics are not known for their killer dress sense, but it can affect everything from course evaluations to perceived competence, say Sebastian Oliver and Ben Marder

June 25, 2021
Trying too hard? According to research, how academics dress can influence all sorts of important career factors
Source: iStock

Since the start of the pandemic and the ensuing home-working revolution, previous work attire norms have been thrown completely out of the window. Log on to any Zoom or Teams meeting and you will probably notice that most participants (and the presenter) have shifted towards a more casual dress code. Joggers, hoodies and the classic plain white tee are now almost de rigeur for any self-respecting meeting attendee.

This got us and a few colleagues wondering if an academic’s choice of attire has a significant impact on how students perceive them. Our curiosity was fuelled when we discovered that Google’s third autofill suggestion for a search beginning “why do academics…” came up as “…dress so badly”.

We decided to run a few experiments. And we found that academic attire does indeed influence student perceptions of warmth and competence. Furthermore, we found that how you dress impacts significantly on those ever important course evaluations and even on course numbers.

So how should instructors dress when returning to their university’s campus in the near future?

The answer is: it depends. While many might assume that academic staff should “dress to impress” and plump for a very professional look, this would not be our prescription in all cases. According to our participants, there’s a trade-off between warmth and competence depending on the clothes you go for. We found that academic staff who dress more casually (jeans, T-shirt, hoodie) are perceived as significantly warmer by students while also being seen as slightly less competent. On the other hand, those who go for a more formal look (blazer, smart trousers) are seen as more competent yet not as warm.

Based on the results of our full study, which discusses the psychological theory behind how to dress to impress your students, we found that student evaluations of an instructor’s teaching ability, as well as their course enrolment intentions, are directly impacted by how warm or competent an instructor is perceived to be.

When instructors are perceived as warm, students tend to rate their teaching abilities higher and show a higher likelihood of enrolling in their course. Likewise, when an instructor is perceived as highly competent, students tend to show similar attitudes toward positive evaluations and enrolment.

With instructor evaluations and student enrolment being such a critical factor in university rankings and tenure decisions, you might be thinking: “Warmth and competence are clearly both important, so should I dress more casually to be seen as warm or more formally to be seen as more competent?”

While we would suggest “somewhere in the middle”, the answer really depends on how you want to be perceived by your students. Ideally, you want to be seen as both warm and competent in order to gain the benefits of each, so here are a few things you might want to keep in mind before deciding on your back-to-campus attire:

Approachability
If you’re someone who wants to be seen by your students as approachable and score highly for this on course evaluations, we would go for more informal dress. Keep in mind that there are limits to how casually you should dress (we’re not advising that you turn up to your classes in sloppy joggers), but you might consider jeans and a T-shirt.

Career stage
Newer staff are often perceived as less experienced, so students may believe they lack the competence of more senior staff. As a younger, or newer, academic, dressing more formally may help students see you as an educator who has the ability, skill and knowledge to effectively guide their learning experience. The opposite goes for seasoned professors, who radiate competence but can lack warmth, to whom we would suggest dressing down.

Stating your achievements
Of course, attire is just one facet of instilling the right impression and it can be supplemented and/or gamed. Within our study we found that simply by stating your achievements (outstanding work experience, awards or publications) you should be able to dress less formally and gain the perceived warmth that comes with that, without being seen as less competent by students.

Subject norms
Don’t forget that dress norms exist depending on the discipline you teach. For example, students might expect an instructor on a finance course to be dressed more formally than an instructor on a marketing course. Our study shows it is best to broadly stick to the expected norm.

Best of both
More adventurous wardrobe warriors might consider balancing the projection of warmth and competence by mixing things up a little. For example, if you really feel a suit is your style and fits with your subject norms, try accompanying this with a jazzy scarf, a flashy tie, or even – if you dare − a colourful pair of Crocs.

Sebastian Oliver is a PhD researcher and communications officer for the doctoral society; and Ben Marder is senior lecturer in marketing and director of collaborative PhD programmes, both at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

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