What really is professionalism?

By James Stein Sep 3, 2021
Image by Isabel Sperry
Image by Isabel Sperry

Entering my sophomore year of college, several of my professors have brought up the concept of professionalism. One needs to look, talk and act like a professional, yet there is not a clear definition of what that actually means. A stereotypical view of professionalism entails wearing business attire and shaking people’s hands upon greeting them. This is the perception of professionalism that I have become used to thinking of. 

Going into the healthcare field, this is not exactly a happy match. Medical scrubs are not what I would call business attire and hand shaking with strangers during the COVID-19 pandemic, that is a big no-no right now and a sure fire way to spread diseases. But that view of professionalism is an illusion because professionalism is too variable. Being professional in one line of work, like in a tattoo parlor, is very different from being professional in a high school. To put it plainly, unlike clothing, there is not a one-size-fits-all for being professional. But colleges continue to push the idea of professionalism. At Illinois Wesleyan’s yearly nursing career fair, students are told to dress “professionally”- business casual, in order to make a “good first impression”. While it is important to dress to impress, why is business casual considered the golden standard of professionalism? Business casual is not the dress code for all jobs or all careers, so why should it be when told to dress professionally?. Even in my classes, the challenge of professionalism is presented. Some professors are strict about being called “Professor Blank” or “Doctor Blank”, while others go by their first names only, like “Glenn”.

 Although it is a common occurrence in the “real world” to call associates by their first names instead of full titles with last names, throughout all of my schooling years, I have been told it is disrespectful to address adults by their first names. A huge counterpart of professionalism is mutual respect between yourself and others. Most everyone in college is an adult and obviously there needs to be mutual respect between both students and staff/faculty. Why not have everyone go by either first names or full names, with titles if they are held? 

It can mean one thing in one regard, but something completely different in another. We are taught one view of professionalism throughout our pre-college years, then we are expected to become professional ourselves once in college. At some point during my college years, I hope I will learn what professionalism actually means. For now, I will keep dressing business casual and practicing my hand shake for whenever the pandemic ends.

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