Of all my job market advice, the admonition *Do Not Carry a Backpack* is among the most well known. Readers meeting me for the first time often proudly display their newly acquired briefcases, and those who email often tell me stories of benighted graduate school peers STILL lugging backpacks around their conferences.
I stand by this advice–in the sense that it is meaningful to sartorially mark your transition from the grad student identity to the job seeker/professional identity. While the bag you carry will not, in and of itself, determine the job you get (it really won’t!), it plays an important role in delivering an image of professionalism (or lack thereof) to interviewers, and also, I think, in solidifying your own inner sense of professional identity. With the important caveat that there are a few fields, such as Astronomy, where sleek and chic briefcases — or fancy backpacks of the kind I introduce here — are absolutely not the norm. If you are in such a field, feel free to disregard this advice. However, PLEASE confirm with several trusted senior mentors that your sense of the field is correct.
Sometimes people balk at the idea that any element of appearance should play a role in the search. Your appearance does communicate many messages about you; believing it doesn’t is denial. What role exactly it plays, however, is subtle. I go into more detail about this unpredictable and unquantifiable role in the post, Data Point, Data Point, Data Point.
However, I want to update my advice. My partner Kellee Weinhold, who is also our amazing Unstuck productivity coach, suffers from fibromyalgia. After two extended speaking tours in the UK and Europe the past two summers, it has become unmistakably clear that she should no longer carry a briefcase because it causes her too much back and shoulder pain.
As a result, I went on the market to find a good, professional-looking backpack option.
And lo, I found many!
It turns out, the world of backpacks includes many really sophisticated options that still accomplish the goal of marking a transition from the ratty Jansport of grad school. So, in this post, I want to share with you the brands I discovered (my links are to my favorite women’s items, but you can search the sites for options, including men’s bags, messenger bags, etc.).
Be aware: most of these are not cheap! But a good bag should last you for many years, and is one of the most important investments you’ll make in work-related gear. And some of them can be found on Zappos and other sites, where you may be able to use discount codes, Ebates, and so on. All of the ones I list here reflect my personal taste – highly streamlined, in black or gray. But there are color and print options for many of them.
First off, my absolute favorite:
Booq Bags, especially the Cobra Squeeze. This is one cool backpack. And award-winning too!
Next, some Honorable Mentions:
Knomo Bags; I especially like the Reykjavik
Rains (Motto: Defying Danish Weather Since 2012). They make one “backpack”; here it is:
Next, the price outliers:
Everlane (the most economical brand on the list – the Nylon Square below is $58)
Tumi (the least economical brand on the list – the Carbon Fiber Southington below is $1100, but oh my god, look at it! [and there are “cheaper” options in the $500-700 range…!])
And last, slightly less streamlined but still sharp:
And of course, the cult-favorite San Francisco-based Timbuk2, which are totally customizable. You can get a Froot Loops print. Should you? That’s a separate question.
So, to conclude if physical issues or your mode of transportation require you to use a backpack, you can still make the same stylistic transition as your briefcase-carrying peers!
If you’re curious, I carry a lightweight soft-sided Victorinox Charisma Work Tote as my briefcase. As my “personal item” on the flight, it’s almost infinitely stuffable so I can fill it with a blanket, snacks, drink, and magazines and book, as well as laptop, kindle, wallet, and toiletries… but it’s lightweight so it doesn’t kill my shoulder! Upon arrival I take out all the travel gear and it transforms into a respectable briefcase/laptop bag.
However, in my small carry-on suitcase, I always pack this
compact yet roomy, feather-weight nylon backpack daybag, as an easy-to-carry purse for sightseeing, restaurants, shopping, and zipping around town.
It’s light, folds up to almost nothing, never wrinkles, doesn’t show dirt, is easy to clean, is waterproof, has outside pockets, holds lots of stuff, has the ease of a backpack for when you have to grab a subway strap, and still looks stylish and put-together in an urban environment. (Note it’s not big enough to hold most laptops).
Bonus: it has the security feature of the main zipper opening on the inside (ie, next to the body). And it’s incredibly sturdy, which is good, because I’m hard on my travel gear.
Similar-looking models are here and here. These are all Korean-style-inspired (although I think manufactured in China), as Korea seems to be the home of chic small backpacks. Amazon will show you countless other options. I tried many before settling on this one, and I love it with all my heart!
Feel free to share your briefcase and backpack recommendations below!