On what terms does a professional get to identify as one? This is the question Kay Guccione turns inside-out on Stylish Academic this week. 

Kay 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 among Paediatric Physiotherapists is defined in a different way to professionalism among Chartered Accountants or  Theatre Stage Managers. I’ve not done a comparative analysis of all this, as 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, and 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 parts 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’d 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 gameplay and was disappointed because of the expectations I had set myself for this interaction. 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’d felt let down by people who were ‘no show’ at events they were expected at, and would send no apologies. We felt it was unprofessional to either not bother turning up, OR to mismanage your diary and not keep appointments; likewise, to allow other people to override your prior commitments and not challenge this. So here we can add taking responsibility for keeping people informed 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.


Kay Guccione [@kayguccione] designs mentoring and coaching programmes for the University of Sheffield’s early career researchers — a job she invented, elbowed her way into, and one she loves doing. After an anxious (and looooooong) PhD, and some post-doctoral research in molecular biology, Kay had a heart-to-heart with herself and decided to admit she just wasn’t interested in a science career. She moved roles to one that combined policy, lobbying, and the chance to research how PhD students learn and develop as professionals.

Kay has recently completed a Masters degree in mentoring and coaching, and puts this to good work in developing large teams of mentors and coaches in Sheffield and through consultancy projects. She also likes to swim, bike, and run as fast as she can, and can sniff out a karaoke several miles away.