How Do I Handle Tattoos/Dyed Hair/Facial Piercings at an Interview?

A friend of mine, who is a vet student, asked my opinion about dyeing her hair and getting a tattoo, particularly as she is interested in an internship and residency.  I told her it would be better to dye her hair during pre-clinical years if she had to and let it be natural once she got to clinics.  If someone interviewed with a face tattoo, I would probably ding that person.  I admit I am part of an older generation, but I think it’s also important to realize and discuss implicit bias.

Everyone has biases.  No matter how open-minded and free-thinking you believe you are, you have biases.  Some of these are conscious biases- I prefer introverted Yankees and Westerners to extroverted Southerners, and I know it.  However, most biases are unconscious- we don’t even know we have them, or maybe we have some vague idea we like or dislike a certain person but can’t say why.

It’s important to realize this when you approach interviews.  Everyone is judging you, all the time.  Not harshly, but this is how humans go through the world- we make observations and analyses.  In an interview setting, the judgment is more obvious- it’s part of the process.  You are there to be judged to determine if you are an acceptable candidate.  So how do you handle physical aspects of your appearance about which you believe some- or many- interviewers may judge you negatively?

We’re only going to consider aspects of your appearance you can control.  Your style of dress, piercings, hair, tattoos, etc.  I divide these aspects into two general camps: one is when this aspect is a core part of your identity and you would not be authentic to yourself if you changed it, the other is if this aspect is just a fashion statement.

If the aspect is a core part of your personality, you need to keep true to yourself.  Keep that facial piercing in.  Don’t cover your rainbow hair color scheme.  Would you want to go somewhere where the people would judge WHO YOU ARE negatively?  Will you ever fit in with these people?  How much would you have to sacrifice yourself to ‘pass’ among these people?  Is it worth the price of admission?  If you’ve decided that the price for you to get that next position is subsuming yourself, that’s fine- it’s your decision.  But it makes me sad.

If the aspect is a fashion statement, just go conservative for the interview.  You don’t need to blare your individuality from the rooftops at every opportunity.  You can adapt to this unusual circumstance while still being true to yourself.  I identify as a goth, but I don’t need to wear all black to an interview.  I do a black or navy suit with a white shirt and somber colored tie.

Why would someone judge you for something superficial and arguably insignificant with regards to your ability to do the job?  Maybe they have beliefs about ‘people like that’ which would get generalized to you.  Maybe they are trying to determine, “Does this person know and understand the social norms of this profession?”  For veterinary medicine, those norms are fairly conservative.  This is the reason I would ding someone with a face tattoo- they do not apparently know the social norms of the profession they wish to join.

If you ‘pass’ during an interview, then later express yourself, how do you think people will perceive you?  Might evaluators think they’ve been tricked? (I’ve heard some faculty members say this very thing when a conservative-appearing interviewee showed up as a new student with many facial piercings and tattoos.)  Will people think you were brave or think you sold out?  How much do you care about what people think and how much do you believe your appearance choices could affect that for good or ill?

This is a personal choice, so there is no right answer.  If all you have ever wanted in life is to get into vet school, but you believe your self-expression of a septum ring and bridge piercing are essential parts of Who You Are, you have a difficult choice ahead of you.  If you “just kinda like” having bubblegum pink dyed hair, just change it for the interview if you’re concerned it will affect you.  Or don’t.  It very well may not affect your chances at all.

Many interviewers won’t think twice about your appearance.  I have also heard a senior administrator say they wouldn’t hire a female faculty member because she wore some (still conservative) ‘odd’ non-suit-like outfit.  Biases are all around us, we can’t avoid them in life, so you just need to make a value judgment that works for you.

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