When we are ordinary “workers” in what may be considered mundane types of work, we don’t think it’s the same thing as being a “professional.” We’re responsible only for the hours we are required to put in. We are not responsible for anyone else’s performance. Our goal is to get paid for the time we put in on the job and to do the minimum of what is expected – basically no more and no less. Our focus is on our own little job, and it’s someone else’s responsibility to worry about other things.

Most of us think that we really and truly become a “professional” in our line of work only when we have achieved the following:

1. The right academic degree, certificate, or other formal training and education that entitles us to put little letters after our name.
2. We know everything about our line of work – inside and out. We can answer any question about our field that anyone asks under any circumstances.
3. Others (including those we work with) will recognize our professionalism and treat us with the rightful status and respect that is due us.
4. Our word is the final say in any discussion.
5. Anything that is not within our areas of expertise is not something we are responsible for or even need to know about.
6. We’re not working just because of the money we earn, but we stand for a higher calling (although we won’t work if we don’t get paid what we think we’re worth).

Well, let’s take a look at the real world (and these things are true whether or not you are a “professional”):

A. First of all, life isn’t always fair.
B. Your responsibilities require you to know more and do more and to spend more time than what is in your job description.
C. You don’t get paid enough for all of these things.
D. You don’t get enough recognition for doing all of these things. (If you don’t believe this, just ask anyone who teaches.)
E. Nobody is going to treat you with the respect you feel you deserve.

So, if all this is true, then what does it mean to be a professional in any kind of work, and how do we know when we’re a professional?

Usually we identify a person as a professional when they have the appropriate training, degrees, licenses, or other occupationally-recognized learning experiences (such as apprenticeships) in a formally identified “profession” or “occupation.” For a list and description professions and jobs, the reader is urged to peruse the most comprehensive encyclopedia of occupations in our society, the Occupational Outlook Handbook prepared by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Beyond these formal requirements for being in an occupation, I believe that being a professional is a kind of role we take in our society. It is an attitude towards our work. Not everyone may be recognized by others as a “professional,” but any of us can approach our work with the attitude and mindset of a professional. But what does this really mean?

1. When you are performing as a professional and at a professional level, you have to think like a professional at every moment.
2. You have to know what the tools of your trade, the procedures, the standards of excellence, and all of the other details of doing the job.
3. You must strive for the highest level of excellence you can. Often, “good enough” isn’t good enough.
4. You have to know how your work fits in to the grand scheme of things. How does your job relate to the other jobs in the organization?
5. What is the impact of your job on the organization as a whole? How does your work impact the organization’s bottom-line achievement of its goals and resolution of its problems.
6. Do you safeguard the reputation not only of yourself and your work, but also that of the entire organization and the people you work with.
7. Take every opportunity to learn new skills and to appreciate the skills, experience, and insights of your co-workers.
8. If you are asked by a manager or co-worker, or if you see an appropriate opportunity to share some aspect your knowledge and experience to your co-workers, this is actually taking a role as a kind of internal consultant. This is always one of your ancillary responsibilities as a professional.

Most important of all, understand that being a professional is a function of behaving like a professional – not being treated like a professional by others. In fact, the most important time to behave like a professional is precisely when you are not being treated like one. That’s when it counts.

By Sander I. Marcus, Ph.D., CPRW
Career Development Consultant, Illinois Tech Career Services
3241 S. Federal (Hermann Hall), Suite 113, Chicago, IL 60616
312-567-3358, marcus@iit.edu

What Does It Mean to Be a “Professional”?