How important are appearances, really?

Like every other grad student in history (I imagine), I have mixed feelings about my advisor. There are lots of things about him that I respect, and there are many ways in which he’s been an immense help to me, but there are an equal number of ways in which his existence makes my life hard. He’s a stubborn, blunt guy with a very loud bark, and sometimes that works for you, sometimes it works against you. But one thing I have always admired about my advisor is the fact that he’s never told me I had to look or act a certain way to be taken seriously as a scientist.

When I first joined this lab as an undergrad, I had pink hair and two facial piercings. Of that, all that is left today is my lip stud, but it was my own choice to get rid of the pink hair and the eyebrow ring. I think about my lip ring about as often as I think about my earlobe, because by now it is just another part of me. I forget that I have it, even when I’m looking right at it. And every so often someone will behave oddly around me, and it isn’t until (much) afterwards when I realize, oh, they were probably reacting to my piercing. It isn’t often that it happens, but often enough for me to wonder what the hell is wrong with people. People have enough trouble taking young women seriously as a scientist to begin with, and if you throw non-traditional facial adornment into the mix, who knows what they think.

But, my advisor took me as I was, and when it came time to attend conferences and present research, he never asked me to take out my piercings to change my hair color. He told me that the work can and should stand for itself. It makes me wonder… the idea behind scientific communication is that it shouldn’t matter who does the research as long as it makes a sound argument backed up by good data and factual analysis. However, scientists are human beings, and often the knowledge of who does what piece of research can change our opinion of that research. If some old dude passes by me standing in front of my poster at a conference, he’s going to make a snap judgment about my work based on the fact that I’m female and my appearance. He may or may not realize that he’s doing it, but he does. I always wonder what people’s motivations are when they approach me. Are they actually interested in my work, or do they just want to find out if I know what I’m talking about?

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4 Responses to How important are appearances, really?

  1. John S. Wilkins says:

    I worked in a medical research institute for ten years, and I saw a slew of young postgrads with similar appearance. It never mattered inside the institute (because everyone knew the work being done was good independently). I can’t say how that goes at conferences, though. Nevertheless, when I first saw NCIS, I thought that someone knew actual postgrads in designing Abbie Scuitto…

  2. That’s funny to me that you mention her because I almost attached a photo of her with this post! I think she’s the first person that most people’s minds go to, anyway.

  3. John S. Wilkins says:

    Incidentally I am an old dude, but working in academe I find that I do not make the sorts of snap judgements you mention (I hope). I guess if you are experienced enough with smart sassy younger folk, male and female, you tend to ignore the trappings, and just dismiss the entire younger generation as young whippersnappers.

  4. By no means is it just old dudes who make those kinds of judgments (I only said that because they make up the majority of the population at most scientific conferences). Everyone does it, I think, it’s part of human nature. You size people up immediately upon sight whether you realize you’re doing it or not, but the specific things that you react to will be different for each person.

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