What is a professional? (Definition, standards and types)

Updated 12 May 2023

Professionals are usually highly qualified individuals who have undergone a significant period of education and training. There are various diverse career paths you can enter as a professional and you can make a significant living in many of them. Understanding what a professional is and the types of professional careers available can be helpful when determining the best career path for you. In this article, we discuss the standards professionals adhere to and how professionals can act at work to help them succeed.

What is a professional?

The answer to 'what is a professional?' is an individual who earns money by performing a specialised task or activity. Professionals typically undertake significant education and training to build professional skills. A professional requires competence and extensive industry knowledge. They typically obtain and hone their skills through a series of professional examinations, adherence to codes of conduct and the ability to maintain standards of ethics.

There's a range of criteria that helps determine whether different jobs are professional or nonprofessional. Professional jobs typically require a college standard of education and extensive professional training. The difference between professional and nonprofessional jobs can also relate to how they pay. Professionals usually benefit from an annual salary rather than hourly wages.

Types of professionals

There are a variety of different professional careers that you may be able to pursue. The different categories and groups of professionals can involve a wide set of skills. Different types of professionals include:

  • primary and secondary school teachers

  • medical doctors

  • dentists

  • accountants

  • solicitors

  • barristers

  • engineers

  • architects

  • writers

  • artists

  • fashion designers

  • pharmacists

  • editors

  • medical scientists

  • registered nurses

  • registered midwives

  • technicians

  • labourers

  • financiers

  • psychologists

  • dieticians

  • research analysts

  • electricians

  • mechanics

  • business consultants

  • computer scientists

  • computer programmers

Standards of professionals

As a professional, you may adhere to a range of standards to uphold the group of professionals you're a member of. These standards include ethics, practices and other behaviours. Typically, the industry's governing professional body set standards for professionals in their given fields. This professional body represents the interests of the group. Examples of common standards that governing bodies are likely to expect of you as a professional include:

  • Accountability: You're responsible for your own actions and for upholding the values of your professional body.

  • Autonomy: Professionals often have a degree of autonomy, meaning you can choose the type of work you take on or the clients you meet.

  • Confidentiality: As a professional, you may deal with sensitive information during your time working for clients, so it's important to have a discreet manner and keep this information private.

  • Honesty: Professionals may deal with different clients in various scenarios and maintain an honest relationship.

  • Integrity: Professionals are generally expected to maintain integrity. This is the ability to uphold strong moral principles.

  • Lawfulness: Professionals also maintain a lawful lifestyle and participate in activities within this boundary. This is to uphold the safety and protection of yourself and others.

  • Impartiality: Professionals are impartial when performing work-related tasks.

Differences between professionals and amateurs

Professionals differ from amateurs because professionals can typically prove a high level of competency by undertaking education and training. Amateurs may perform tasks or activities as an interest or a hobby, sometimes intending to turn them into a career. Also, amateurs may not always receive wages or substantial compensation for their work in areas such as art or writing, performing or photography. Consider your area of interest and whether you have the educational background, skill set and experience to earn wages when pursuing a role.

How to act professionally at work

Professionals uphold various standards and ethics. As a professional, you may work with a variety of team members and maintain these standards at all times in the workplace. This can mean you take certain actions or act specifically to succeed in your day-to-day activities at work. Here are some key considerations for acting professionally at work:

1. Keep up with industry standards

Professionals adhere to general guidelines at work, like being respectful to colleagues and clients, being punctual and acting politely. You can adjust how you work based on the location you're in and the industry standards that relate to your position. Certain professional jobs may require different standards from others.

Another way you can determine if you're behaving professionally at work is to mimic the actions and interactions of other professionals around you. You may pick up on actions or behaviours from these professionals that can help you succeed. You may also benefit from observing professionals when they're interacting with clients. If clients are leaving the interactions satisfied, this can help you determine the acceptable behaviour these professionals adhere to.

Read more: What is networking in business? (With impo Is Networking In Business? (With Importance and Benefits)

2. Wear professional attire

To maintain your standards as a professional, it can help to take pride in the clothes you wear at work. Clients and colleagues may notice and pay attention to the clothes you wear and your appearance while you're performing the duties that relate to your role. Create and build a professional wardrobe that mimics the standards of your industry. Professional attire can also be useful if you're meeting with new clients, as it can help you make a strong first impression.

Read more: Business casual attire in the workplace

3. Monitor your performance at work

Monitoring your progress and performance over time is another way to help maintain professionalism. The standards and ethics of professionals require you to perform your role to a high standard. Your employer and place of work may influence your day-to-day performance as a professional. For most professions, it's increasingly important to monitor professional performance over time to achieve success in the workplace.

Read more: What is corporate culture and why is it important?

4. Work to a high standard

An employer may rely on a professional to work to a high standard. Part of being a professional is having the ability to plan your work and having the foresight to execute successfully a particular set of tasks within your role. You may risk your reputation and performance at work if you let your standards fall. This can also impact the morale of other team members that you work with. Some ways you can maintain a high standard of work include:

  • being aware of others' personal boundaries

  • maintaining a calm attitude and taking a moment to compose yourself when tensions arise

  • being punctual, both when reporting to work every day and when arriving at meetings or joining calls

  • respecting the time of others

  • checking your work for any errors before submitting to avoid creating further work for others

When you work to maintain a positive reputation among your colleagues and clients, you may find that others truly appreciate the work you do as a professional. When your employer knows they can count on your work being of a high standard, it can help you progress professionally. It can also be useful for retaining clients and gaining more business in the future.

5. Be responsible for your behaviour

As a professional, you may have a degree of autonomy over your work, given the high level of education and training you receive. This requires you to be responsible and take accountability for the work you perform. While you may work to a high standard, it's also important to speak to your employer or manager if you make a mistake. This ensures the relevant people can help rectify the mistakes as quickly as possible with minimal damage. This also shows that you have respect for the role and can take accountability for your decisions.

6. Adapt to new environments

As you execute your professional role, you can move to a different location or choose to work for a different employer. While you may work in the same job and performing the same functions, it's important to be aware of the potential change in company culture and values. You may work on a new team that requires you to build strong relationships with your coworkers. It may be helpful to assess fully whether your behaviour is suitable for the new environment you're working in.

As a professional, you have a duty to ensure your behaviour aligns with the expectations of your role, regardless of the setting you're working in. So the ability to adapt to new situations and environments is important. Adapting your professional behaviour to align with the values and culture of a new company, while maintaining high standards of work, is a sign of a true professional.

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