By Sean Carroll | February 12, 2008 8:29 pm

Brad DeLong disentangles the messages that a (male) professor sends by wearing a tie. (Inspired by this sad little diatribe, properly mocked here.)

I have found that wearing a suit and tie is very effective if done occasionally with non-math-oriented students. It tells them that I care because it shows that I have taken sufficient time to prepare and teach the class even though I am a busy person whose schedule requires meetings with:

  • some powerful political figure,
  • some powerful economic figure,
  • some powerful university administrative figure, or
  • some TV interviewer

With math-oriented students, however, a tie tells them that I spend too little time thinking about isomorphisms

Cf. Focus. Professors were once students.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Humanity
  • Eugene

    From the diatribe :
    Are ties that important?

    For men, yes. The tie is important because it’s always been important; its importance makes it important.
    Like math, it’s all about the definitions I suppose.

  • gyokusai

    Right after the introduction, this diatribe spends three whole paragraphs for the purpose of denigrating John Randolph Neal, a defense lawyer from the Scopes Trial. Does that smell fishy? Here’s a bit to chew on and see how much the fishiness goes:

    Edward Larson describes a law professor who, after being fired, represented Scopes in the 1925 monkey trial.

    From what I heard, Neal was somewhat excentric and became even more so with time. But the point is, wasn’t he “fired” from his office as a dean from the U at Tennessee precisely for advocating evolution?

    This article gets more dubious by the minute.


  • Joseph

    Why is it that some otherwise highly intelligent people can’t figure out that arguing over who gets to wear the “really serious” hats is immensely silly?

    In reality, if your students are addressing you as, say, “Chuck” or “Bob” instead of “Herr Doktor Professor”, then it doesn’t really matter if you wear a suit and tie or a wetsuit and surfboard to class every day.

  • Luis

    There is a problem, though, on those occasions where the students outdress you. Last year I taught in Amsterdam, where students (especially female ones) are notoriously fond of dressing up for class. Not really formal clothing, but fancy enough that it would allow them to walk into an upscale posh club. On the first day of class, I went with on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. I could tell they were not taking me seriously enough, so it was slacks and shirts for the rest of the semester.

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  • Benn

    This, of course, is different from places like Fermilab, where the only person wearing a tie is the photocopier repairman.

  • andy.s

    In the software industry, if you wear a suit or tie to work, everybody knows you’ve got an interview for another job.

  • Ian Paul Freeley

    Whenever I saw an astronomer dressed up, I used to ask who’s funeral they were going to.

    I stopped using that joke after someone replied with a name.

  • Paul

    They’ll make me wear a tie to teach in when they wrap it around my cold, dead neck…

  • Lackey

    What’s so wrong with dressing nice? Certainly, one has the freedom to dress however they want, but why make fun of those who do dress nice?

  • Dylan

    Perhaps I’ve just had a different experience because the culture here in australia is a bit different (we live 3 inches from the sun and appropriate concessions have to be made) but it’s been my observation, and backed up in discussion with others, that no one of real importance wears a tie unless they’re on TV.

    If you own the company, why on earth would you wear something so impractical and uncomfortable? Likewise if you have genuine talent or marketable skills. Even the more important sales people (account managers in companies) generally wear casual clothes, I think it’s almost appreciated because it starts to break down barriers before you even open your mouth.

    About the only people I see wearing ties on a regular basis are low-level sales drones (the ones who are trying to sell you luxury items you don’t need) and middle management.

    my 2c..

  • eric gisse

    The most dressed up any of my professors get for class is shirt and slacks. If I saw any of them wearing a tie, I’d wonder what the event is.

    Hm, that makes me realize something – I have never seen a woman wear a tie. You’d think a tie would be something that works /with/ cleavage.

  • Bob Solo

    While we are on the subject of clothing, I’d just like to post a link to one of my favorite physics fashion articles :

    You can also find it by googling “fermilab fashion”.

  • Bob Solo

    Forgot to add : The article is on pg. 13 entitled “The Couture of Particle Physics” (see post above)

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  • Thomas

    You only need a suit+tie if you don’t have anything important to say, and so in order to look compelling you need to look nice saying it.

    I know some people who prefer to be dressed up, but in fields where it’s easy to tell sense from nonsense, being smartly dressed is no substitute for being smart.

  • Lewis Perdue

    This would be why you wore a coat and tie for your Teaching Company lectures?


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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