Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #9 (Your Professional Image and Its Cultivation - Part 2)

So, whatever you are going to do with your seminary degree, there’s one thing that is certain no matter what direction you are headed – you will be a professional and it is in your best interest early on to cultivate a professional “image.” We chatted about this in my last post. We're continuing that discussion in this post with Tip #2 - Dressing for Success.

TIP #2 – Dress for Success

This is the most predictable tip in the book, eh? Yep, it is. Do you know why? Because it’s conventional wisdom that has helped many a person cultivate their personal brand and professionalism. And it works.

Now, I sense the times are changing on this one. I see lots of students that are wearing nicer clothes these days on campus, and it’s clear that they take care of themselves. But still, if you observe what many students are wearing on campuses, you will notice a trend towards sportswear – t-shirts, shorts, and sweatpants. And these articles of clothing are great – really great even – if you’re working out at the gym.

But in the classrooms of the seminary, you need to put in a little more effort. Now, it might be nice if you were judged on just your body of work and the brilliance of your scholarship. But folks do receive an impression from us based on our appearance. They notice what we wear. So dress for success.

In the military, we called it “appropriate civilian attire.” For men and women, it was usually slacks (or a skirt for the ladies), a collared shirt, shoes that were neat and polished, a belt, and hair that was combed (and a face that was shaved for the men – but hey, that was the military).

Now, in terms of seminary, I think one should dress in terms of what is appropriate for your department, particularly the faculty members teaching your classes. In my seminary, most professors taught classes in “business casual” – slacks or skirts, button down collars, polo shirts or long-sleeved shirts, in neutral colors. Pretty conservative stuff. Several routinely lectured in jackets, one professor always had a tie on as well.

When I was in class, it was usually always the same clothes for me: khaki slacks, polished shoes, button down collars on either a short- or long-sleeved dress shirt, and a neutral colored sweater vest. I wore this kind of outfit all the time. Most days, I even had a sport coat in the back of my truck, though I rarely wore it on campus. Nonetheless, I was ready to if the occasion called for it.

The advantages of dressing well – or at least better than undergrads in t-shirts and shorts – are well known. There is the confidence boost from looking like you are a professional. There’s also the chance that you will be taken more seriously by those who care about appearances, which are most other people, themselves professionals, who dress the part and keep up appearances in their own worlds. And depending on what you want to do with your seminary degree, it’s important to dress for the job you want to do.

I preach, do counseling, and make hospital visits in the routine prosecution of my ministry “job.” In each of these roles, which represent but a fraction of my total responsibilities in the ministry, people expect a professional – someone who speaks (and looks) like he knows what he is doing. So, I don’t go to work in t-shirts and shorts. Truth be told, most days, I go to work in the same things that I went to class in – business casual. Only these days, I tend to wear ties more often – especially on Sunday. It all depends on your context.

Now, in addition to my pastoral work, I want to be an academic, and I need to dress appropriate for the academic world. When I went to my first SBL/AAR conference in Atlanta (a major conference for biblical and religious studies), I wore a sport coat, slacks, and dress shirt each day. And I noticed those around me work jackets and ties, blouses and blazers – and they looked great. The second year I went, I wore a jacket and tie every day. Why? Because that’s what most of the other attendees were wearing, and I wanted to fit in with the crowd.

As I came to understand fashion more deeply, I realized that most of the male professors, presenters, and graduate students I was encountering at the conferences (sorry ladies, I was paying attention to the fellas so I could learn) were wearing “Ivy Trad” or “American Trad” – a traditional style of men’s dress common on college campuses in the Northeastern United States in the first half of the twentieth century. This style is probably best represented today by the looks and offerings of J. Press and Brooks Brothers. Now, that’s not to say that you have to buy your clothes from J. Press or Brooks Brothers, and drop money you don’t have while in seminary (though you can get affordable clearance items for both companies). But you should consider taking a little time to browse their websites and take a look at their men and women’s clothing. You’ll get the point. Their clothing pieces are traditional, timeless, and professional. Just like you want your professional image to be. I’ll probably get mail on this one, but appearances matter. Dress professionally and conservatively.

If this dress and appearance information has stymied you, or if you would like more resources to help you think about dressing professionally, consider doing an Internet search on men and women’s professional dress. You’ll turn up lots of information on the Web about how to dress professionally. If you want to take it a step further, and use the graduate school years to put together some timeless pieces of clothing in your wardrobe, let me recommend the following books:

For men:
  • Ishizu, S., T. Kurosu, H. Hasegawa, T. Hayashida. Take Ivy. Brooklyn, NY: Powerhouse Books, 2010. 
  • Roetzel, Bernhard. Gentlemen: A Timeless Fashion. Nueue Stalling, Oldenburg: H.F.Ullmann Publishing Gmbh, 1999.
For women and men:
  • Banks, Jeffrey, and de La Chapelle, Doria. Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style. New York: Rizzoli, 2011.
For women:
  • Tuite, Rebecca. Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Preppy Look. New York: Rizzoli, 2014.
Note, I’m advocating for a certain style of dress that I think will enhance your professional appearance: traditional and conservative. This is a personal (and subjective) opinion of my own and you might disagree. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Egads! If I wear this kind of stuff I’ll come off like some stuffy East coast WASP!” Okay, I hear you. Just remember that fashion is a many-splendored thing – with lots of styles from which to choose. Whatever you decide to do, as long as you are dressier than t-shirts and shorts or sweatpants, you are taking a step in the right direction.