“What do I wear to an academic conference?” was the subject line of an email I frantically sent in 2014 to four academic acquaintances who all happened to be women after being told by my almost-advisors to register for my first academic conference. With three years and ten academic conferences/meetings under my belt, I now have a stable collection of simple things I can pack for a 3-5 day academic event without breaking a sweat, but in the beginning I had no idea what women wore to these things, and, even after asking, I didn’t know know how to translate a senior academic woman’s apparel choices to what a new grad student that no one knows should be wearing. Between then and now, I relentlessly observed what other men and women were wearing1 and used this to calibrate my style and choices for academic events.
Generally, these recommendations are tuned for the computer science, specifically computer architecture and architecture-adjacent (PL, systems, and graphics hardware for me) communities, so your mileage may vary. Also, depending on your personal style you may tune these recommendations to be more or less formal. Some people are very relaxed and don’t take this kind of topic very seriously, while others wear a business jacket or full suit each day (which I’m certain they don’t do at home). My choices are a middle-ground that works for me, a set of comfortable, easy to wear and wash clothes that look professional without being stuffy. I’m generally a pretty eclectic and adventurous dresser, but my conference wardrobe is more muted.
My Conference Capsule
- A light, casual jacket – I alternate between a lightweight cargo jacket and a drapey trench-style layer for this purpose. You may want this for a conference that takes place in the summer or a hot location, where nights are cooler but you don’t want a heavy or formal item.
- Sweatshirt-material blazer – Conferences are COLD. Hotels are cold, and hotel conference rooms meant to hold 100-500-however big your conference is are going to be cold as well. So a nice jacket to wear inside is pretty much required. At the same time, most men are going to be wearing t-shirts and hoodies or maybe a button-down or polo and a hoodie. You could mirror this style, but if you aren’t a big hoodie-wearer (I’m not), a sweatshirt-material blazer is a great middle-ground. Mine looks nice but not like I’m on a job interview.
- 2-4 nice casual tops – You can rotate these, and they can be t-shirts or nicer blouses but I usually keep it nice-casual (nothing dressy or formal, if a lawyer could wear it to a client meeting I feel like I’ve gone too far). I am usually so cold I wear a jacket for most of the conference anyway, so if I have prepared well in the jacket department I don’t worry about this too much. Right now, I usually bring a striped t-shirt, a short-sleeved button-down, and then 1-2 other tees/tops (these tend to have fun prints because most of my tops have fun prints.).
- Casual trousers or joggers – I do not usually wear jeans, because I hate wearing them on planes and jeans are usually heavy so I don’t want to take up room in my backpack/duffel/suitcase with them. It is usually way too cold in a conference venue for me to feel comfortable wearing a skirt or dress. But jeans are a great casual thing that can make you feel comfortable in a room full of dudes, should you so choose. I have fun with pants, so I will usually wear a wide-leg trouser pant for travel and pack a pair of nice joggers or trouser pants. These are great because they look nice, but are really easy to wash, dress up or down depending on which jacket and shirt you put on, and often have an elastic waist which is very comfy!!2
- Sneakers or comfortable flats – I one time bought a great pair of slip-on oxfords that were going to be GREAT conference shoes, except they kept slipping off my left foot and gave me a miserable blister that left my limping around Portland. Would not recommend. Conference activities range from sitting around all day to standing all day networking with senior people and your community, and you don’t want to be hampered by shoes that hurt! I like fun sneakers, and this is another way to dress up or down your outfit depending on how casual everyone else in your community is. I have since broken in my slip-on oxfords and I like to pack those sometimes as well.
What do you wear when you give a talk?
I have only given two talks at academic events. Both times, I wore my lightweight jacket, a gray silk short-sleeved button down, navy joggers, and cool sneakers or oxfords.
Some women like to wear a nicer button-down tucked into black pants or a skirt, and maybe a black blazer as well, but I am always worried this makes me look like a waiter. This more-formal approach is favored by those who want to be perceived more professionally, which is likely important when you are giving a big talk – I have not crossed this bridge yet. As a graduate student, I focus more on being comfortable, especially because I see some men giving talks at these conferences in T-shirts and ripped jeans so if I want to wear cool sneakers while giving my talks I’m going to go right ahead.
Is there anything else I should prepare for?
Academic conferences can be exhausting! Staying hydrated and moisturized, especially in highly air-conditioned hotels and airplanes, is so useful in not feeling dehydrated. I also like to pack a big bag of almonds because travelling makes you hungry at odd times, and if a handful of almonds work for Obama they can work for me too.
You may also find yourself at a conference hotel with nice fitness and swimming amenities. I used to think I’d be too busy to worry about this, but Jean Yang’s detailed post on the topic was very motivating, and I always regret not bringing a swimsuit to enjoy the sometimes-very-luxurious hotel pool anyway. So, now I pack a workout outfit and lightweight exercise sneakers, exercise swimsuit and goggles, and rubber therapy balls3 to roll out sore back or IT band issues from the constant sitting one does flying or at conference.
I also keep my travel-toiletries in a bag prepared in advance - there is a bit of upfront cost for preparing travel-sized moisturizers, makeup, etc. and keeping it aside (this can be mitigated by helping yourself to hotel shampoos and conditioners, but I digress), but it really pays for itself in being able to grab your 2 jackets, 3 tops, exercise gear, and pre-packed toiletry bag and be ready to go in no time.
As a member of an under-represented group who also cares about personal style, choosing what to wear to academic events is not just a frivolous girly shopping-topic but can have very real impacts on perception and professional progress. If you are in an under-represented group and would like any advice or feedback on what you are thinking about wearing to an academic or tech conference, feel free to email me or @ me on twitter.
idk, I do this anyway with everyone all the time, but I did take specific note for my specific task ↩
I did not realize until this moment that being comfortable was such a critical requirement for my conference gear, but, well, here we are. ↩
I already had these at home because my yoga studio uses them in classes and they are amazing, but you can also use a lacrosse or tennis ball. ↩