Being professional: Stop calling yourself a professional. Most likely you aren’t, and as for being educated...
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Stop calling yourself a professional. Most likely you aren’t, and as for being educated…


On being professional in the workplace

During a conversation last week with a group of my research students at Oxford last week they mentioned the p-word. The concept of ‘being professional’ often crops up with students as they think about their future work. ‘So what does being professional mean’? I asked.

“people often assume that being professional means being formal”


One of the first realisations we had was that people often assume that being professional means being formal. This idea was soon debunked as people who are officious and formal for the sake of it often do not portray the sense of professionalism rather officialdom. Indeed we could all cite examples of relaxed, friendly people who are human and professional.

professional and no suits

The discussion then moved on to the idea that professional does not mean part-time. The distinction being with professional sports people as opposed to part-time or amateurs. Whilst it is often the case that professionals do what they do on a full time basis, this is not always so and doing something full time or not being classed as an amateur is not sufficient to be classed as a professional. Indeed there are many many instances of full time ‘professionals’ not acting in a professional manner. So just because you are in a profession like being a doctor or teacher for example does not necessarily mean you are going to be ‘professional’.


By the same logic then qualifications and expertise are no indicator of being professional either. You can have all the qualifications in the world and still act unprofessionally.

“qualifications and expertise are no indicator of being professional either”

We then realised that ‘being professional’ and ‘being a professional’ are two very different things. The latter does not lead to the former.

So where does this leave us. What does being professional mean? A discussion about politicians found us considering the idea that ethics is an important concept in this. That putting the ideals of the endeavour before your own self interest was a trait of a professional. This means that whatever you are engaged in there will be a set of guiding principles and ethics which denote professional practice and the ideal of being a professional. Further we realised that most professional jobs are considered to be professions as they are there for the good of society at large. That there is an ideal of an educated and altruistic aim sitting behind the idea of a profession.

Professionals combine an educated (this does not mean qualifications, schooling or university – see below) and ethical response with humanity.


The conclusion we reached was that ‘being professional’ means characterising, living or taking on the:

– ideals,
– ethics and
– social aims

of the said profession in a way that positively connects other human beings with that endeavour. In a professional ‘serves’.

What this person said to me was ‘I don’t have time to stay up-to-date with all this research stuff. I’m too busy’.


I have highlighted the word educated above and just want to look at what this means as it is vital to the idea of a ‘professional’.

As mentioned in that article, educated does not necessarily mean having been to school, college or university. There are many people who have been through these forms of formal ‘education’ who I would not describe as being ‘educated’.


To be brief when we think of an educated person compared to a trained or indoctrinated person we usually think of the following attributes:

  • The ability to think and act independently,
  • The ability to critically think, which means;
    • being able to work out the strengths and weaknesses in their own and others’ arguments
    • weigh up evidence based on the best available understanding
    • construct valid arguments based on the best evidence
  • Being autonomous, which means being able to learn and unlearn things themselves, which means being able to find the best thinking, research and evidence to inform their decisions and actions. This means staying up-to-date in their area of professionalism.
  • Having a broad interest in the world across many, many topics. This natural inquisitiveness brings about new connections and thinking. This means not being narrow or only focussed on one or two things.
  • Being able to communicate, agree and disagree without resorting to violence, even verbal violence i.e. power plays. It is the desire for the argument based on evidence to win, not raw power or status.
  • Being able to understand when we are at the limits of our knowledge and then doing something to further that, to learn.


A professional very much stays up-to-date as part and parcel of being a professional and not just in their subject area but displays a broad interest in many subjects. How else can they/you as a professional make the best decisions (not just repeat old decisions many times) in new situations without staying up-to-date, interested and engaged?

The whole idea of CPD in many industries is an attempt to force this. A true professional doesn’t need a structured system imposed from elsewhere to stay up-to-date and continue their learning. As a professional they do it because they are interested and engaged.

This gives the professional a wider range of degrees of freedom or latitude.

What do you think?

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David Wilkinson