How to "Master" Dressing Well on a Budget: Part 1

The graduate student's guide to building a career appropriate wardrobe on a small stipend.

Nanda Dyssou

August 24, 2016

How to "Master" Dressing Well on a Budget: Part 1

Congratulations! You are in grad school; you have made it to the big leagues! As a graduate student you are working closer with the faculty and are treated as their right hand person when it comes to your duties as a research assistant, teaching assistant, grader, reader, or any other title the university has bestowed upon you.

However, you might be surprised to find that you still have to prove yourself and you are in competition with the other grad students in your cohort for fellowships, grants, and other perks. Making a good impression and establishing yourself as a young professional is crucial. Like it or not, the way you present yourself on the outside has an effect on how your competence and professionalism are judged.

Starting your graduate school studies is a busy and exciting time. You have more tasks on your list than you can realistically tick off and all of them seem urgent. If the last thing on your mind is your outfit, it’s completely understandable but keep in mind that your professors, colleagues, students, and prospective employers will most likely judge by their first impression of you.

Much of that is based on how you dress as a graduate student. It is generally better to be thought of as the student who “overdresses” than the one who under-dresses.

How do you decide what is appropriate to wear in grad school?

This depends on the university you are attending, the particular program you are in, and the occasion you wear the outfit to. Business casual is usually appropriate for most programs. Law school or business school dress codes tend to be more dressy, while some lab-intensive degrees mean that you will be wearing a lab coat over whatever you put on so it matters less. TA duties require more conservative outfits than daily class attendance, and study sessions are one of the least dressy occasions you will have.

It is best to play it safe in the first week or two, see what other grad students are wearing, and adjust accordingly. Also look at the professors in your department and take clues from them. If they all wear casual, artsy, or businesslike outfits, you should follow their lead accordingly. Try not to look too casual compared to the junior faculty in your department. Your goal is to look like someone who could make a smooth transition from being a grad student to being an adjunct or an assistant professor.

What is not appropriate to wear?

Pajamas, concert t-shirts, neon shorts might be okay for undergrads but as a grad student you have to abide by a stricter code of dressing. Anything that could be sleepwear, athletic wear, or club wear should be avoided. Clothing that reveals more than you would want to reveal at a job interview or anything that would make you look unfit for an adult job should be avoided. It is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to necklines and hemlines, and to avoid cartoon t-shirts and flip flops, too. Dousing yourself in perfume or cologne and donning tons of clinking jewelry is also a bad idea.

Practical considerations
Think about what occasions you will need clothing for. The most likely ones include classes, teaching duties, and presentations. You will also have to think of interviews, conferences, study sessions, and leisure activities with your cohort. The number of outfits you need will depend on the number of classes and other school-related obligations you have per week. Your willingness to do laundry more often and to wear the same things over and over could help reduce this number but in general it is best to have multiple safety outfits.

Keep your accessories simple. Jewelry, scarf, and other dangling kick-knacks can be an affordable way to spice up an outfit but if you go overboard and you can be heard approaching from down the hall, some might consider your look unprofessional.

Your shoes should be comfortable – unless you know for a fact that you won’t have to walk or stand much in them. If you have to walk long distances on campus and also teach or give presentations, perhaps a change of shoes is not a bad idea. That way you can walk in comfort and look sharp too.

Always have a cardigan or sweater with you, in case the classroom is cold. Layering and carrying a backpack or duffle bag are important too when going from outdoors to indoors without a place to store your belongings.

Simplicity applies to hair and makeup too. While these are a great way to express your personality, unless your program is decidedly liberal, such as a bigger city art program, it is better to try your more fierce looks on the weekend and your days off.

How do you afford a new wardrobe on a grad student’s budget?

You do not need a whole new wardrobe. Take a look at what you already have and decide how much of it can be used in your new role as a grad student, then slowly fill in the gaps. Build your wardrobe one item at a time.

Always buy on sale. Most brands have a seasonal or at least semi-annual big sale and if you sign up for their mailing list they will let you know beforehand. Back to school sales, end of summer sales, and sales around any holiday are a good time to revamp your wardrobe on a budget. Buy your basics then.

Use your student discount. By all means, get the student ID your school offers. Most stores give a 5-25% discount to students, including American Eagle, Ann Taylor, ASOS, Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, J. Crew, The Limited, Topshop, and Urban Outfitters.

Buying at charity shops will save you a lot of money and help your community. Stores like Goodwill or the Salvation Army have some treasures that are worth diving through the piles for. People often donate their barely used clothing items that you can buy for less than 10 percent of their original price. Sometimes items with a certain color tag will be discounted and you can get dress shirts at half price, on another day you might find ties at 40% off. As a bonus, in some states Goodwill offers a student discount.

Try websites for buying, trading and selling used clothes. Companies like Tradesy, ThredUp, and Poshmark help connect fashion aficionados, as well as people on a budget, and let them find gently used clothing at affordable prices. Website browsing is easy and return policies are customer friendly. Give them a try but beware, they can be addictive.

Clothing swaps are a hot trend. Few things are more fun than getting together with friends, bringing your no longer wanted clothing items, putting them in a pile, and digging through each other’s clothes. Swaps are very easy to host and manage. Why not throw one for your friends and shop their wardrobe for free?

If you know what you are looking for and keep your eyes open, you can easily build your grad school wardrobe on a budget.

In part two of this article we will put the above rules into practice and look at specific clothing items you will need, as well as ways to buy them on a budget. We will also address the ladies and gentlemen separately. Stay tuned!

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