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What is a profession?

What is a profession?

The word “profession” means different things to different people. But at its core, it’s meant to be an indicator of trust and expertise.

Traditionally, a “professional” was someone who derived their income from their expertise or specific talents, as opposed to a hobbyist or amateur. This still carries through to fields today, such as sport.

But given today’s fast-changing environment of knowledge and expertise, it’s now generally understood that simply deriving an income from a particular task might make you an “expert” or “good at your job” – but if you’re a “professional”, this has a broader meaning.

There’s a long history of attempts to clarify this meaning, and to define the functions of professions. These attempts typically centralise around some sort of moral or ethical foundation within the practice of a specific and usually established expertise.

This section is designed to give you an insight into some of the historic and academic ways of defining professions, as well as some regulatory perspectives as to how a group can ultimately become a profession.

Key definitions

A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards. This group positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and is recognised by the public as such. A profession is also prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others1.

A professional is a member of a profession. Professionals are governed by codes of ethics, and profess commitment to competence, integrity and morality, altruism, and the promotion of the public good within their expert domain. Professionals are accountable to those served and to society2.

Professionalism comprises the personally held beliefs about one’s own conduct as a professional. It’s often linked to the upholding of the principles, laws, ethics and conventions of a profession as a way of practice.

Professionalisation is the pattern of how a profession develops3,  as well as the process of becoming a profession.



1 Definition from Professions Australia website, accessed 11/06/15

2 Cruess, Sylvia R., Sharon Johnston, and Richard L. Cruess. ""Profession": a working definition for medical educators." Teaching and learning in Medicine16.1 (2004): 74-76.

3 Abbott, A., 1988. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labour, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.