What should I wear to my dissertation or thesis defense?

Around early April, this question is basically hanging in the air in our grad office (okay, maybe I put it there). I’ve watched so many grad students come and go, write frantically, and, for 15-30 minutes, pace the hallway while their committee decides if they have passed their defense. And during that time, I’ve seen a whole lot of defense outfits. So, what to wear?

Here are my two biggest tips for defense outfits:

  • This is a chance to be seen as a colleague with your professors, so dress like your professors. If your department wears suits, wear a suit. If you department is business casual, go business casual! Now, you might run into the problem here that some of your committee members just do not give any cares sartorially (if you live in an outdoorsy town, like I did, people could be in hiking shorts). In this case, I suggest dressing one level above whatever the department norm is. If everyone is in shorts, a full suit won’t be necessary, but a button up shirt and dress pants can be a nice touch.
  • The defense is long and stressful: don’t wear clothes that will make it worse. If you have to stand and give a presentation, don’t pick shoes that hurt. If you will be seated, consider if certain items will make you have to sit very carefully (I’m a tall person so I have to watch it with pencil skirts). If you get sweaty when nervous, maybe don’t layer a wool sweater under your blazer. The best clothes are the clothes you don’t have to think about.

Ok, aside from that, let’s consider some ways I’ve seen people add their personal style to the defense outfit.

Get funky: The first school of thought here seems to be to go all out–somewhere between business formal and a festive party, there are the grad students in my department who have opted for the power suit.

Lilac suit: I had a friend defend her MA thesis in a seersucker suit and it was goals. And she passed. So, if you wear a powersuit you will pass (#logicalfallacies). If you want a fun statement suit I find that ASOS has the best selection of affordable options.

Checkered suit: Nothing screams “I’m about to be an academic!” more than this. Here’s a checkered blazer you could wear again and again.

Keep it lowkey: The second choice, it seems, is to dress like it’s any other day. I get the psychology of this. It’s best to remain (or appear) calm. Showing up in a suit can feel overly conspicuous. In that case, may I suggest a smart statement piece, like a cool blazer or shoes?

Pink blazer: This is the most millenial item ever, and would look great over a sheath dress or paired with white jeans.

Leopard flats: The exclamation point at the end of any neutral outfit–would be fun with a black dress or dress up a pair of jeans.

Checkered blazer: So peak academic–I have a plaid blazer that I’ve worn since my phd and still wear to teach! I would pair this with a white t-shirt, black jeans, and black flats for a defense.

Bright flats: I tried these on in store last week and can attest they are pretty comfy. They’re fun in a super-saturated color and could add a modern look to any neutral outfit.

Be an outfit minimalist: The last school of thought can belong in any of these categories, and that’s the I-want-all-the-focus-on-my-ideas (and my ideas alone) group. I have been thinking a lot about how to dress for my defense and I think this is where I’m at currently. But wanting all the focus on my dissertation ideas isn’t the same as not caring how I dress–I know, I know, “it shouldn’t matter how you look!” but it does. Even if the faculty in the room aren’t there to judge my outfit, I need my outfit to look good, and feel definitively unfussy, so I can do my job. So with that, here are my current picks for looking like a “casual boss” during my defense. Not quite business. Not quite jeans. Just me, ready to graduate.

Tahari Jumpsuit: This one is on its way to me right now after a friend suggested that I try a power jumpsuit. Instagram try-on forthcoming.

Tahari Sheath: This is a real bargain at $30. Nordstrom Rack is a great place to look for good deals on business dresses!

Trench dress: This dress is an investment at $110, but it’s linen, which would make it perfect for starting a new job in the summer!

Utility sheath dress: I like a utility dress because it has a bit of a casual vibe but also provides good coverage for moving around comfortably.

Which would you pick? Do you have a go-to power outfit combo I should try? Please share! And if you want more dressing in academia posts, here are my winter conference outfits, my month of professor outfits, and my top work clothing suggestions. Oh, and here’s what I actually ended up wearing to my dissertation defense.

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5 thoughts on “What should I wear to my dissertation or thesis defense?”

  1. It’s such a nerve wracking experience, I think I’d choose something that would make me feel secure and comfortable while still looking professional enough. For me, I’d probably want to wear something with sleeves, something understated.. so I’d choose the utility sheath dress.


    1. Understated is a good strategy, I think! I know. I’m nervous, but also don’t know how to feel. I’ve been told I’ll be fine. But it’s easier to believe that when it’s over!


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