What do I wear to a conference?

OPINION: Dr Ann Luzeckyj, Lecturer in Higher Education

Have you ever wondered how ‘iron laws’ are derived? Have you felt like reading an article that provides a light-hearted but sound perspective on research? Have you ever wondered what to pack when attending a conference because you have not been to one before? Or have you been to many conferences but never been able to make sense of the dress codes? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I recommend this short article on research about conference dress codes which led to the establishment of three iron laws. Professor Alistair McCulloch, whose research interests include postgraduate research and supervision, undertook the work.

Following a discussion regarding the scant literature about academic conferences and details regarding how various scientific ‘laws’ have come into being, McCulloch uses what he describes as a ‘well-established scientific method’ (McCulloch, 2018, p. 51), participant observation, to discuss his approach to data collection and analysis. He then states and discusses his first two laws associated with dress codes at academic conferences and the relationship between them before identifying the limitations of the study, providing concluding remarks and offering a dedication to conference organisers everywhere. The most salient of his concluding comments forms a third law, which relates to the running of a conference. Having recently been involved in organising a large international conference, after running a number of smaller ones earlier in my career, I would very much like this to be true:

No matter how many catastrophes the organisers think have occurred during the course of a conference, as long as the conference venue does not explode or self-combust, the delegates will assume that everything happened as it was planned. (McCulloch, 2018, p. 53)

The semi tongue-in-cheek piece provides a refreshing insight into research thinking and processes. However, it does miss an important point related to what McCulloch (2018, p. 51) describes as ‘the propensity of social scientists to google their own names on a regular basis’. His claim is this process is linked to ‘a desire for recognition, and a search for disciplinary as well as spiritual immortality’ (ibid). However, I suggest it is more likely to be aligned with a need to meet institutionally bound metrics. Despite this criticism, I recommend the paper to anyone attending or organising a conference in the future and challenge you to consider undertaking similarly rigorous research or to develop and propagate your own iron laws.


McCulloch, A. (2018). Dress codes and the academic conference: McCulloch’s iron laws of conferences. Australian Universities’ Review, 60(1), 50-53.

Contributed by Dr Ann Luzeckyj
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

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