Degree In Sight

Whether on a job interview or in a lab meeting, how you look and act can matter as much as your ideas

Many of the people you meet in grad school will have a great influence over your future. Instructors. Fellow students, some of whom may become colleagues. Supervisors. Committee members. Potential employers. In interactions with these and other people, the impressions you make can have a real impact on your academic and professional success.

"You don't get a second chance to make a first impression," says James Uleman, PhD, a psychology professor at New York University and researcher on impression management. "In spite of the congeniality of many professional gatherings, judgments are being made and impressions formed all the time."

Substantial research has affirmed the importance of first impressions while exploring a variety of factors that contribute to their formation. For example, a 2009 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that factors ranging from clothing style to posture play a role in how impressions are formed. Another study, in the April 2011 issue of Social Influence, found that a limp handshake can make you appear overly passive. Having a handle on the kinds of impressions you make can go a long way toward advancing your career, says Uleman.

"The impression you create may affect future job opportunities, collaborations or other important matters," he says.

How can you strengthen your chances of making a solid impression when it counts? Here are six strategies.

1. Know your audience.

When going to an internship interview, a job talk or a networking event, first Google the people you'll be meeting to identify their research and other interests, says Alexander Todorov, PhD, a psychology and public affairs professor at Princeton University. Then, think of a few informed questions to ask them to open a conversation or handle a lull. "Make a cheat sheet to remind you of the work of each person who interviews you," says Rosanna Guadagno, PhD, a University of Alabama psychology professor. "Keep it in your bag or briefcase and refresh your memory on restroom breaks." Not only will this make you better equipped to anticipate questions, but the effort will show that you care enough about the opportunity to prepare.

2. Exude confidence.

It's natural to feel intimidated if you're talking to a famous scientist at a conference or explaining your study to a roomful of seasoned researchers, but don't let your anxiety show. Take deep breaths and remember that you know more about your research than anyone else, says India Johnson, a social psychology grad student at Ohio State University. "It's easy to feel overwhelmed while others are being critical of your research," she says. "However, keep in mind that you are the expert, and let your passion and confidence take the lead."

One sign of confidence is simply modulating your voice. If you speak slowly and calmly, you will appear more confident than would otherwise be the case. The same goes for making eye contact instead of constantly looking down at notes.

3. Field questions gracefully.

Whether at a job interview or an informal meeting, you'll be judged by the way you handle questions, especially the tough ones. So don't get defensive. "Questions are a sign of interest in your work, not an attack of it," says Guadagno.

If, at a presentation, someone asks you a question you don't know the answer to, it's OK to admit that. "Try to turn it into an idea for new research or put it off as something to discuss after the presentation," Guadagno says. Or try a move used with great skill by politicians: Answer a different but related question instead. Chances are, your interrogator won't view it as a dodge, and the conversation will move forward.

4. Prepare and practice.

Being unprepared is a serious shortfall, says James Tyler, PhD, a psychology professor at Purdue University who has conducted research on how impressions are made. "Say for example you are responsible for summarizing a research article at weekly lab meetings. If you seem to have done little advance preparation to carry out this charge, it may suggest a host of negative attributes." Certainly, you never want to appear poorly organized or worse yet, lazy.

For presentations at conferences or other talks in front of a group, practicing your delivery is always a smart move. "You should practice in front of others," Johnson says. "Going through several rounds of edits and practicing the talk so it is polished is a must."

5. Be a good listener.

People love to talk about themselves, so you may find that you can sail through an interview by simply asking insightful questions about others. "The key to a great interview — and to getting people to like you in general — is to show that you think they are important," says Christine Whelan, PhD, sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies impression management. "Show employers interest in their company as well as what you can do for them, and you'll go a long way toward making yourself their top choice for the job."

To do that, pay attention when others speak. Make eye contact, nod and don't interrupt or finish others' sentences. "Changing the topic constantly or seeming uninterested in research can be very annoying," says Uleman. And keep in mind that conversation is a two-way street, Uleman advises. In any discussion, be sure to give the other person plenty of opportunities to respond.

6. Dress neatly.

In most professional and academic meetings and interviews, aim for conservative, understated clothes. No short skirts or cleavage for women, and no jeans with holes or thrift-store attire for anyone. "Tailor your clothes to the type of job you are hoping to do," Whelan says. While it never hurts to wear a suit, it's often unnecessary for an academic job interview. "Neat, professional attire will always win out," she says.

Women may also want to consider wearing some makeup: An October 2011 study in PLoS ONE found that people judged women with makeup as more likable, competent and trustworthy than those with bare faces — though wearing too much makeup undermined those impressions. Another unfortunate fact: Research by Guadagno and Robert Cialdini in the journal Sex Roles (2007) suggests dressing professionally is particularly critical for women, says Guadagno.

"Women need to think more about their hairstyle and clothing and what it says about them," she says. "However, I encourage all students to select attire that is comfortable to them but also conveys professionalism."

Mark Rowh is a writer in Dublin, Va.

Further Reading

  • Bernieri, F. J., & Petty, K. N. (2011). The influence of handshakes on first impression accuracy. Social Influence, 6, 78–87. doi:10.1080/15534510.2011.566706

  • Etcoff, N. L., Stock, S., Haley, L. E., Vickery, S. A., & House, D. M. (2011). Cosmetics as a feature of the extended human phenotype: Modulation of the perception of biologically important facial signals. PLoS ONE, 6(10), e25656. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025656

  • Guadagno, R. E., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Gender differences in impression management in organizations: A qualitative review. Sex Roles, 56, 483–494. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9187-3

  • Naumann, L. P., Vazire, S., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2009). Personality judgments based on physical appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1661–1671. doi:10.1177/0146167209346309

  • Raki, T., Steffens, M. C., & Mummendey, A. (2011). When it matters how you pronounce it: The influence of regional accents on job interview outcome. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 868–883. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02051.x

  • Uleman, J. S., Saribay, S. A., & Gonzalez, C. M. (2008). Spontaneous inferences, implicit impressions, and implicit theories. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 329–360. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093707