What Does It Mean to Be a Professional?

By | January 18, 2021

   When most of us think of professionals, we tend to associate them with success. Whether we visualize them wearing suits or distinctive uniforms, most would agree that they enjoy a respectable income, well-developed skills, and some degree of prestige. But where do you draw the line between a knowledgeable amateur and a true professional? As it turns out, the answer isn’t always so clear.

What Is Professionalism?

   For example, it’s widely believed that being a professional means having some type of certification or degree. It’s hard to argue with that idea because after all, they’re recognized by at least one official body as having attained a high degree of proficiency in their chosen field. But what about those who learn a skill on their own and start their own businesses without having earned a degree?

   This brings us to another type of professional, which includes those who are just as skilled in their fields, but may have acquired their knowledge some other way. Bill Gates is one such person who comes to mind. He dropped out of college, but went on to create one of the world’s largest companies and put his products in almost every home. He might not have a degree, but would anyone argue that he’s not a professional? I suspect not. Interestingly enough, he employs thousands of individuals who had to get their own degrees to work for him.

   Degrees and certifications are little more than fancy pieces of paper, but they can help open doors for you. They exist to impress potential employers, and even customers, if they see those diplomas and certificates hanging on the walls of an office. They can make all the difference when you’re trying to break into a new and exciting field.

Professionalism and Employment

   Employers will typically choose someone they feel has either the experience they’re looking for or the education to prove that they know what they’re doing. If it’s experience they want, they may hire an applicant without a degree and encourage him to get one, as a condition of employment. But if they’re looking for an entry-level employee they can mold a certain way, that degree might be the most important determining factor. In this case, the applicant understands all the important concepts, even if he lacks real-world experience.

   However, when you’re working for yourself – as long as you don’t have to be licensed in that field for legal reasons, you can still make it your profession. You would then be a professional in at least that sense of the word. This is especially true if you keep it up for years and learn more about the industry than someone fresh out of college. At some point, you might even be looked up to as an authority in the field, especially if you take the time to author a book on the subject, write some articles, create a website, or share your knowledge in videos.

   Another thing to consider is how someone carries themselves. In this sense, professionalism is a reflection of the level of integrity one demonstrates on the job. A professional is expected to carry themselves in such a way that the quality of their work and the satisfaction of their customers is more important than financial gain. This implies that virtually anyone can perform as a professional, regardless of how far up the ladder they are and whether they’re certified or not.

A More Comprehensive Meaning

   Dictionaries typically define professionalism in terms of conduct or qualities that characterize someone who works in a particular profession. A profession is considered to be an occupation that requires specialized knowledge. When you look at it that way, the implication is that professionalism itself consists of several traits and characteristics that describe different facets of a working person’s life. Some of these would include expertise, competency, integrity, accountability, self-control, confidence, and a polished appearance.

   At this point, we seem to have arrived at a clearer definition of professionalism than what we started with. When you think of professionalism in this way, it demonstrates how important it is to develop both your character AND your skills to as high a degree as possible. Although knowing what you’re doing makes you a professional to some extent, you may lack professionalism in another sense of the word, such as if you’re unable to control your emotions under pressure.

   On the other hand, you may be very much a professional in terms of your attitude, yet lack sufficient expertise in your field, because you’re relatively new at it. In that situation, you carry yourself as a professional and the job is your profession, but you’re not quite the professional that someone with 20 years more experience would be. You would have to develop your skills beyond the point of mere proficiency to be considered a professional in that sense.

Becoming More Professional

   With all this in mind, it seems like the best way to become more professional is to focus on improving in all of these areas. If you’re new in your field, you can still call it your profession and no one’s going to argue that point. But obviously, you’ll be taken more seriously when you attain those certifications, even if you’re planning on working for yourself. This way, if it ever comes up, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you’ve invested time in acquiring specialized knowledge and probably do know what you’re talking about.

   You should strive to accumulate as much experience as you possibly can to help you attain above-average competency and be honest about everything you do. If you can be trusted to put the customer’s needs first and do quality work, then you can call yourself a professional. This is especially true if you’re willing to be held accountable for your mistakes, despite the fact that we all make them. If you can do all that under pressure and show up looking sharp, rather than sloppy or unkempt, most would agree that you embody all of the characteristics of a consummate professional.

   My point in writing this is to demonstrate that instead of obsessing over whether you have the right to call yourself a professional, it would be better to set that aside and focus on becoming the best version of your working self. In my opinion, that’s what separates a true professional from the rest. The person who most embodies the qualities discussed above is the one who has truly earned this distinction. Remember that professionalism is less about your ego and more about the quality of both your character and the work you produce.

14 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be a Professional?

  1. RoDarrick

    This is definitely a worthy post to read on. Professionalism exceeds beyond the certification gotten from being a  degree holder or the mere academic qualifications. It is a product of someone who has become an expertise in an area of specification and can boldly work on some technical issues associated with whatever area or scope of such job. Self development is integral to being a professional and always putting the interest of the audience first while striving to keep them happy and solving their problems is the real definition of being a professional. Thanks

  2. Scott Hinkle


         I just wanted to stop and say, this is a great post!  You’ve nailed it on the head.  Back in 1984, my father bought me my first computer.  It was an Apple Macintosh.  I was immediately mesmerized by the device and spent day in and day out on that thing.

    12 years later, my first real job (not at a video store or fast food joint) was with an Internet Service Provider.  I landed that job, not because I had a degree or certification but because I had Mac experience which was rare and there was a demand.  I remember one of the questions asked of me during the interview was “What does SMTP stand for?”.  At the time I didn’t know but I knew it had to do with email and that was my reply.  I had a skill in demand but needed to learn more at the same time.

    Fast forward to today and I have certifications from Microsoft, Juniper Networks, Google and so on.  Still no degree but saught after for my skillset.

    All that said, when we look to hire others, we’re looking for those that have a degree, because it shows dedication and followthrough as well as basic general knowledge, or someone in the process of obtaining their degree.  It definitely is a way to get your foot in the door, especially when there are so many others that have their degree and it may be the determining factor as to which pile your resume gets placed in.

    Professional to me means one who is well-versed and experienced in a particular field.  Levels of professionalism come over time.

    Thanks again.  This was a great read.


    1. Mark Abbott Post author

      You have a very interesting background, Scott! I certainly wish I’d learned more about computers growing up, so it wouldn’t have been such as struggle these past couple decades. I like what you said about how professionalism grows over time. I’ve always found that to be true for those who are actively seeking it. Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Tracy

    Being a professional is definitely worthy of being backed with academic certifications to attst to competence in the knowledge of a field. Though there’s need for slelf development and to always make provisions to be of help to customers in need above what one believes in but then, certification is integral too. I believe for one to be a professional in an area of life, one needs to combine cerfication, experience and achievements together. One cannot be without the others. Though newly certified individuals might want to address themselves as professionals too but there’s need for the expediency before an individual can pass to be a professional in any area of occupation.

    1. Mark Abbott Post author

      Absolutely! That should be the ideal that we all aim for. Otherwise, something will always seem to be lacking in one area or another. Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Matt

    Hi Mark, 

    Thanks for this article for a clear thought that we all need to master and focus on something called “working self”! I related some points for many points in this article since it’s the 10th working year after university, and it’s a good time to review myself in the last decade. 

    I see myself isn’t very good at controlling emotions at work, and I am still learning to be better. For the best work performance and output, I am still learning to be the best backup of my managers. Anyway, thank you so much to give a chance to review my working self by this simple but profound post!

    1. Mark Abbott Post author

      I can certainly relate, my friend. I grew up fairly angry and had great difficulty controlling that for many years. I’m not going to say I’m perfect at it yet, but I know I’ve come a long way. I think as long as we have a solid target to shoot for, as in a clearly-envisioned better version of ourselves, we will eventually get there. Thanks for stopping by!


  5. Paul

    Dear Mark,

    Thanks for shedding light on the actual understanding of a professional.

    Indeed, I know many successful people without a degree and many who have their master’s degrees but without any job. Continuous learning and keeping us up to date in our field is the key to success.

    I am in the field of blogging and affiliate marketing. My coach used to say, by continuous learning, from an AUTHOR we can become an AUTHORITY. Developing our character and skills is the key to success.

    I got helpful insights from your article.

    We are our own biggest project!

    1. Mark Abbott Post author

      “From an author we can become an authority” is a great way to remember it! It certainly is true that we are our own biggest project. Nothing we could ever come up with on our own would ever compare to the grand magnificence of life, itself. Thanks for stopping by!


  6. Anthony Hu

    Thank you for your post. The article is informative on discussing the concept of professionalism.

    I agree with you that it is not important to have degree or title to designate someone as professional, instead of people’s quality, skill, and more important, capacity to solve people problem. Any professionals must have the skills to help other people, how and where he/she achieve the skills may not critical, in some cases, there is no degree or certificate attached to it.

    Therefore, it is not important to obsess over whether you have the right to call yourself a professional or not it. The important is you have the best personal quality, skill, work ethics, and service you provide. With these, people will call you professional.

  7. My Daily Pointers

    I am so glad that you pointed out that being a professional is not just having a degree or diploma on the wall.  I have known many people who have gone to school for many years and yet would never fall into the category of “professional”.  You must also be trustworthy, and honorable, knowledgeable and skilled in your field.  You must carry yourself with dignity and pride in your work.

    Excelling in your field is not easy and it requires tremendous hard work.


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