perceptions of professional

I was inspired during a Twitter conversation a couple of weeks ago to consider concepts and perceptions of professionalism. The opinions offered online and the research literature on professionalism, professional trust, and professional development, are vast and sprawling, and each profession has its own definitions and competencies that make up what it means to be professional. You can imagine that professionalism in Paediatric Physiotherapists is defined in a different way to professionalism in Chartered Accountants or professionalism in Theatre Stage Managers. I’ve not done a comparative analysis of all this, because lists of similar and different ‘in theory’ skills and competencies aren’t too useful in shaping how we help others develop professionalism. I’m more interested in examples of how this plays out in practice.

How does a profession recognise ‘one of it’s own’ — this is particularly pertinent in my work to help researchers change careers and get out ‘beyond the academy’. Recognising someone who fits with you or your work, could be based in a number of things: they look like me*, they act like me, they speak the same professional language, we share the same values and goals…etc. In short, we can relate to each other, we identify with each other. This makes us feel safe and is a foundation of trust. So is professionalism equal to identifying with / relating to the other people in the profession? 

Perhaps that’s not the whole story, there needs to be a reciprocal identification and acceptance. In a role like mine (Researcher Developer, considered to be part of Higher Ed ‘professional’ services) which spans boundaries between groups of professions with different goals, uniforms and values, how do we resolve this conflict for ourselves and get the work done, bringing along with us the people we need to. Green and Little spoke about the ability of academic development professionals like me to interpret and speak different cultural languages, positioning us in HE professional services, as existing ‘on the margins’ of the different cultures and describing us as having hybrid academic identities. My work involves working with groups of academics, doctoral students and research associates, and I understand and align with them, speaking their language, helping them achieve their goals and by extension, mine. My work is all about leading others through a development process that’s intrinsically uncertain, and it’s better for everyone if we trust each other. So perhaps being professional is in demonstrating that we are credible and trustworthy?

Speaking of trustworthiness, I belong to a currently unregulated profession – coaching and mentoring. You can set yourself up as a coach after delivering a huge amount of reflective-practitioner hours underpinned by in-depth study of the theory, or, you can do a one-day course on the GROW model and set your self up anyway. It’s up to the people in this profession to role model ethical professional practice, and uphold the standards we aspire to. So maybe having more than a superficial knowledge of an area of expertise, and through that demonstrating integrity, are part of professionalism?

My motivation for this post, provided by Twitter, involved me engaging in an online conversation with someone who I identified to be ‘like me’, in that we do a similar job and our work areas overlap, we speak the same language and share the same goals. I identified with that professional by their role, and as such, set my own expectations about the type of discussion we’d have. Not so. I entered unwittingly into some online ‘I’m better than you’ gameplay and was disappointed because of the expectations I had for this interaction. I thought we were alike, my correspondent wanted to point out how we differed. So I considered that professionalism could also be about clearly setting, and delivering on expectations. 

A different conversation on professionalism with another researcher development colleague in another university, had us both considering the amount of time we feel let down by people who ‘no show’ at events they’re expected at, and send no apologies — we felt it was unprofessional to either not bother turning up, OR to mismanage your diary and not keep appointments, OR to allow other people to override your prior commitments and not challenge this. So here we can add taking responsibility for communicating our intentions, to the list of professionalism attributes.

And finally I indulge myself by mentioning this classic email trope: “Dear Kay, I can’t make the workshop today, please can I have the slides.” To which I always want to say “no, you can’t”. It demonstrates a misunderstanding in how workshop learning works, and for that you can certainly be forgiven. But when I get this type of email what I read is “Dear Kay, your presence will add nothing of value to my learning, please just tell me the right answer.” You may well argue that I should put my ego away, and yes I will do, but I’d also like to add ‘recognising and valuing others’ contributions’ to my growing professionalism list.

So at the end of this, I conclude nothing, I am remaining professionally open minded, and your feedback and additions to this blossoming list are welcome.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 16.36.43*A footnote on the topic of ‘looking the part’. Yes you will be expected to dress up smart for an interview no-one disputes that, and don’t go to meet the VC in your pyjamas. But abiding by the social norms of clothing is not equal to being professional and I do think it’s time to retire some of the old routines about judging people by how they dress, particularly as they are often based in discriminatory privileges. Here is an example of a colleague in a Slytherin jacket totally nailing it.


  1. Thank you, Kay. I think this is a really interesting post. There is clearly huge variation in how people interpret professionalism, and I think sometimes people fail to critically evaluate their own yardsticks for it. Dress is a classic example – you write about it in your footnote, but I think it represents a general problem where people want to recruit/listen to/interact with people who look or behave like them. Professionalism is often associated with a particular dress conformity. However, individuals often perform better at their jobs when they are comfortable in themselves and is thus linked with what they choose to wear – or with image more generally. What about the growing people with visible tattoos and piercings? Are they just going to be *seen* as unprofessional because of the completely legitimate choices they’ve made about how they want to look? Also, black women who let their hair grow naturally? There is no reason to believe people who make such choices about their image are any less competent at their jobs or any less professional. I argue that we have to be seriously careful when using the word ‘professional’ with respect to image- it’s too often an excuse for people to maintain in-groups and raise barriers to equality.


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