Here’s what I would do:
Wear nice shoes: Get a quality pair of brown wingtips, suede wingtips and brogue boots. Florsheim should be within your budget, although you can maybe find stuff on Charles Tyrwhitt when they hit the deep discounts or Allen Edmonds off of eBay. Don’t wear ratty sneakers and gym shoes.
Wear a tie: College kids hate ties — unless it’s a job fair. Lots of affordable options between The Tie Bar and The Knottery. Of course, you can hit up eBay and try to snag some really dope stuff at cut-rate prices. Since you’re in academia, I’d suggest going with textured, seasonal neckwear: wools and tweeds for the cold; madras, linen and chambray for the heat. Silk knits also look good, too.
Wear a jacket: Try to find something slimmer-fitting and youthful and make sure it’s altered by a tailor to fit properly. I’d again go with casual fabrics like chino, linen or chino-linen blends in the warmer months and tweed and flannel in the colder months. L.L.Bean signature has some nice stuff as does Lands’ End (and plenty of sales if you get on their email list). You probably only need one for each season and I’d supplement it with a navy wool blazer with half lining.
Denim: Get a dark selvedge denim pair that fits slim. Maybe get a white pair of 501s and have them tapered in the leg for summer.
Get a good briefcase: I imagine you’ll be carrying a lot of papers or at least a laptop around. Get a nice briefcase in either canvas (more casual) or leather (more professional). Don’t be the dork who wears a backpack — or worse, has a roller backpack.
Get fitted: The most important thing that will distinguish you from most college kids and most professors (heck, most men) will be that you clothing fits properly. As long as that’s good, you should be able to separate yourself from the kids and the old men.
ADDING dieworkwear replied:
Though it depends on the school you’re going to and the program you will be in, I would urge you to reconsider wearing ties as a grad student. Quickest way to look like a douche, IMO. And I’m a grad student that writes about ties.
Dissenting opinion! I just don’t see how wearing a tie as a grad student makes you look like a douche though.