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.
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.
Some of the best professionals combine an educated (this does not mean qualifications or schooling - I'll report on this conversation next!) and ethical response with humanity.
The conclusion we reached was that 'being professional' means characterising, living or taking on the:
- ethics and
- social aims
of the said profession in a way that positively connects other human beings with that endeavour.