Body art and gratuitous displays


Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science.

Dear Alice,

[A]s you move on in your career, body decorations and piercings become a distraction and may indicate, to some, immaturity or vanity.

[A]s you move on in your career, body decorations and piercings become a distraction and may indicate, to some, immaturity or vanity.

I went to a graduate school where no one seemed to mind that I have tattoos and face and body piercings. Now, for my postdoc, I am at a more conservative place. Am I crazy to think that no one here can see beyond my body decorations?

—B.D. Covert, Berkeley, California

Dear B.D.,

You are not crazy, but you are naïve. Times are changing, and body decorations are more common and more widely accepted than they were a few decades ago. But acceptance is still far from universal.

As you apparently found in graduate school, there are places where a rebellious spirit, expressed in how you present yourself, is accepted or even celebrated. However, as you move on in your career, body decorations and piercings become a distraction and may indicate, to some, immaturity or vanity. Unconventional displays in clothing or behavior belie the seriousness of your commitment to your career. Have you ever seen a practicing male physician with long hair and a beard? A university president with a mohawk?

You are of course free to express yourself however you wish, as long as it doesn’t violate the law or university policy, compromise your safety in the lab, or offend your colleagues’ sensibilities. My advice, though, is to keep your cool, but keep it under wraps. Remove the nose ring and hide your other decorations under a long-sleeved black turtleneck and jeans. You can continue to reveal it all in the company of friends, away from your workplace. Once you’ve attained a tenured position, you can express yourself however you wish. But don’t jeopardize your career at this early stage with gratuitous self-expression.

—Alice

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