Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

STEM, But Make It Hot Pink: How Standing Out Can Boost Your Networking

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCLA chapter.

Picking out what to wear to your next professional event? Before you decide on your go-to all-black outfit, maybe give a pop of color or pattern a chance.

As an undergraduate researcher, I have had the chance to attend various research events over the last couple of months, ranging from week-long conferences with thousands of attendees to one-day talks with 20 people. I’m an extrovert who loves dressing up in pastels and vibrant hues (they make me feel so confident!), and many people have pointed out that I stand out. The first time I had this conversation, I remember insecurity washing over me — it is a scary thought, realizing that people are perceiving you, from your subtle mannerisms to every single detail in your outfit. However, with time, I’ve come to embrace the idea that while standing out puts you under greater scrutiny, it also enables you to make a greater impact with every move. For most career paths, including academia, networking plays a central role in attracting opportunities, personally and professionally, and the key to networking well is grabbing attention, retaining interest, and leaving a memorable impression. And from experience, I’ve observed that standing out in a hot pink coat in a crowded room of scientists might be the easiest hack you need to level up your people skills.

For first impressions, an outfit is one of the most important things that people observe about each other. The general protocol for professional events is blending in and wearing what everyone wears (usually neutrals); no one wants to be judged negatively for looking ‘out of place.’ For this reason, I stuck to minimalist all-black or black-and-white outfits for most of my professional experiences, despite my personal style being much more vivid and feminine. This past year, I reflected a lot on my identity and self-expression as a scientist and decided to try and bring in my most authentic self to professional events. As a queer woman of color in a cis, white, male-dominated field, it’s hard not to feel confined to expectations on what is considered “smart”, “serious”, or “professional”. There are studies on how talking/dressing a certain way in STEM fields might make you more successful, as people in positions of power have historically enabled the success of minorities if they seemed “unthreatening” and “didn’t stand out”. So, being assertive with your sense of style serves a dual purpose — it grabs attention and starts a dialogue even before you talk to someone. It’s a statement that you’re here and you’re unafraid to take up space. It is also a good filter for people who determine your capabilities based on shallow impressions.

An interesting outfit is also a great icebreaker and can serve as an initial conversation topic at events of any scale. Many of my conversations with other women in the field started with expressing support for outfit choices, such as a bow in the hair during a poster presentation or a colorful stack of sparkly bracelets worn by a colloquium speaker. At the week-long enormous American Astronomical Society Meeting earlier this January, I remember being grateful that I chose to wear a hot pink coat to the conference every day. Having a signature article of clothing makes you more memorable — people remembered their conversations with me from Day 1 even on Day 5, stopping me to say “hi” as I was walking among the crowd because they had a visual cue to attach to their memory of our conversation. Similarly, on a smaller everyday scale, I realized that professors in my department noted my attendance at the weekly colloquia because of my colorful outfits, and this later helped me find research opportunities when I initiated conversation as they perceived me with greater familiarity. From a mentorship standpoint, dressing in my “more fashionable” outfits at outreach events often helps me connect with students, making me appear approachable and relatable. And for young minorities interested in the field, it allows me to reshape the mainstream picture of what a scientist looks like — you can wear a purple mini-skirt and pink eyeshadow and still talk all things stellar astrophysics.

The choice to stand out doesn’t have to be limited to clothing; I have also extended this to my posters at conferences, matching them to my outfits on presentation day, with purple or rainbow backgrounds. It allows your work to stand out from the ocean of neutral posters, grabs attention, and generates interest in your research. The best thing about leveraging this hack is that it could be as involved as you want it to be — it could be something subtler on you, such as your makeup, shoes, nails, or bag, or it could be a consistent theme in your presentations and overall outfits. You just need one visual element that leaves a lasting impression and also elevates your confidence. Hopefully, by now, I’ve convinced you to bolden up your next professional outfit with a bit of flair — it might just be the key to unlocking greater opportunities and connections in your professional journey.

Swathya is a third-year Astrophysics major at UCLA, from New Delhi, India. A poet at her core, she spends a lot of time picking apart the intricacies of modern life to reconstruct the bigger picture as a way to find her place within the enigmatic universe. When she is not surrounded by a galaxy of words—academic and creative—she loves surrounding herself with people she can go on little adventures with to find the best caffeine and sugary treats in town.