How to overhaul your wardrobe for grad school

How to overhaul your wardrobe for grad school — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

I've now been on the other side of grad school for over a year, which is kind of hard to believe because I'm still working on journal articles (the second one from my PhD research was finally accepted!). I started blogging when I was in my second year and it's crazy how much has changed with my life—and style—since then.

During my first couple of years of grad school, my style went through a transformation. Thankfully, I don't have much in the way of photos from my first year, but trust me when I say that I wore a lot of old items from college, including many free t-shirts and my outdated pairs of jeans. I hardly recognize myself when I see those photos of me so I'm glad there aren't a whole lot floating around from that period of time. Ha! I don't remember dressing so scrubby in college—I did have some cute dresses—but I definitely didn't care a whole lot about what I wore once I started grad school.

In between my first and second years of grad school, I discovered ModCloth. And I went overboard buying dresses and skirts from ModCloth, as one does when they first discover ModCloth and have a "real" disposable income for the first time. (In my field, for the most part, grad students earn salaries in exchange for their work in research and/or teaching. They're meager, but it's better than taking out loans to get through school.) It was during this time that I discovered the ModCloth Style Gallery, and consequently, style blogs. That lead to me starting my own blog.

I credit style blogs and my own blogging for my style transformation. I went from being a student that wore free t-shirts and low-rise, bootcut jeans with frayed hems that were too long for me to a twee ModCloth addict to what I am now: a somewhat put-together mashup of girly-meets-minimal cool girl (still working on identifying my style!).

All that to say, I put together this relatively brief guide on how to overhaul your wardrobe for grad school so you don't end up like me buying up an entire brand just for the fun of it. I wrote it with grad school in mind, but it could be applied to medical school or really any transition in life (college, first job, new job, etc). I also included a few widgets with some affordable picks to get you started. The goal in all of this is for you to feel more grown up, put together, and confident as you enter this new stage in your life—and do it all on a grad school budget. :)

How to overhaul your wardrobe for grad school

1 / Evaluate your current wardrobe and your (future) lifestyle

  • What items of clothing do you love to wear?
  • What items of clothing do you hate wearing? (Plan to sell or donate these items depending on condition.)
  • Are there any major holes in your wardrobe?
  • What will your new lifestyle look like? Will you need to dress more professionally? (Teacher assistants tended to dress up more than research assistants.)
  • Consider the climate where you live, especially if it is or will be different than what you're used to

2 / Determine potential swaps/upgrades

  • Wear a lot of free t-shirts? Trade those for a set of basic and maybe a couple of graphic tees.
  • Denim collection feeling outdated? Try a new trend or two!
  • Tired of wearing the same old, same old buttoned-up cardigans? Think about other silhouettes such as long, open cardigans or blazers!
  • Don't be afraid to tailor your items (old or new!) to get a perfect fit; you will likely get so much more wear out of an item if it fits how you want it to

3 / Find inspiration and make a wish list

  • Search Pinterest for outfits or clothes you like (hint: search based off of items you own and love or items you plan to buy, i.e. "fall skinny jeans outfit" or "black blazer outfit")
  • Read style blogs of people whose style you resonate with and save your favorite looks for reference (see list of grad school/academia/medical school bloggers at the end of this post)
  • Make notes of items that would "complete" your wardrobe (hint: focus on any wardrobe holes)—be as specific as possible when describing these items

4 / Set a budget and plan your purchases

  • Write down your monthly take-home income and make note of your monthly expenses
  • Set aside less than 10% of your take-home income on all "fun" expenses, including new clothes (Tailor this number to your situation depending on your expenses; I budgeted about 10% of my post-tax income on clothes/shoes/accessories at first and then dropped it.)
  • Don't buy everything at once; focus on a couple of items at a time and buy during big sales (i.e. holiday weekends) and use your student discount or coupons
  • Keep in mind return policies, especially if shopping online
  • Don't forget about secondhand shopping; check out places like Poshmark or Thredup or, if you have time, browse local thrift shops or online

5 / Enjoy your updated wardrobe!

  • Use your Pinterest and blog inspiration for reference when putting together outfits
  • Realize and embrace the fact that your wardrobe will never be truly complete—your style is always changing and evolving
  • Take time at least once or twice a year to cull unwanted items (donate or sell items on Poshmark!) and make a plan for new items
  • If you nerd out over your wardrobe, start tracking what you wear with the Stylebook app
  • Plan and budget for more "investment" pieces like a work bag or great pair of shoes

Academic life and style bloggers:

A Thinking Animal (STEM professor)

Dress Like an Engineer (PhD candidate / research assistant)

Grad School Style (PhD candidate / teaching assistant)

Life Love and Medicine (medical student)

If you're interested in more in-depth guides, I highly recommend purchasing either the Feel Good, Dress Better workbook by Nicole (if you want to focus on dressing intuitively) and/or The Curated Closet by Anushka Rees (for a more analytical look at your closet). If you're feeling overwhelmed when it comes to wish-listing and shopping, Nicole also offers a curated shopping list service.

More posts about grad school: why I went and advice for prospective students, a day in the life of a PhD student, six outfits to wear at an academic conference