Something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I finish up my degree and enter the *real world* in a couple of months is the idea of professionalism. I’m fortunate enough to have some incredible research jobs right now, and I am finally exploring things I love. That said, as I’m thinking more and more about how to get a job after I graduate, I’ve found myself worrying about how to be “professional”. Then I realized something. I truly believe that professionalism is a myth.
Now, before you get all riled up and have your rebuttals all planned and typed into an email to send me, hear me out. Anyone I’ve ever worked for or worked with can attest to the fact that I am a really hard worker. I try to take initiative and push myself farther than my employer would expect. When I got my first job working in a café/bakery at 16, my dad told me “if they ask you to sweep the floors, make those floors the cleanest they’ve ever seen.” Basically, I’ve picked up a great work ethic from my business executive father and my academic mother. I am super organized, beat pretty much any deadline, and am known to hand in assignments early (sorry those of you who pull all-nighters, it’s just how I work). Needless to say, I think that these are important qualities to be working towards when it comes to entering the professional world.
That said, I don’t think that professionalism and being a good employee are synonymous. Of course, be respectful. Ask questions. Respect boundaries. Do you job well. Work hard, challenge yourself, and do your best. For me personally, though, I’ve often shied away from “professional”, thinking I would never be able to attain it. I doubted myself because I didn’t know what this big, scary word meant.
When I started my most recent research job (which I absolutely love), I started coming out of my shell a little more in my work environment. This isn’t a 9-to-5 job, and I make my own schedule for it so long as I get my work done. My boss and I do have weekly meetings, but in the meantime I was worried that I wasn’t being “professional” enough. Then, I got an email of feedback on my research in which he used a smiley face. It calmed me down quite a bit. I made a joke in my response. Next time we met up we ended up laughing about how some moment in our research reminded me of some weird card game I used to play growing up. Me allowing myself to let my guard down has improved the quality of work I produce, because I’m not afraid to say “hey can you look this over for me and see if I’m on the right track”.
For my honours thesis, I emailed a woman who works in organ donation to set up a time to meet. Her response was “Can’t wait J”. I’ve spent hours crafting emails where the response was “sounds good – Sent from my iPhone”. I’m now believe that none of this is unprofessional; it’s just different people’s way of expressing themselves and showing that they care. I realized that I was so worried about being “professional” that I wasn’t being myself. I wasn’t being the person my boss had hired!
I realized that I had been letting my desire to be professional stop me from making those personal connections with those I work with.
Basically, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that “professionalism” and being a good employee/employer are not the same. I am a better employee when I am not trying too hard to be “professional”. I built up this definition of what “professional” meant and let it censor my ideas, my creativity, and my enthusiasm for my jobs. From now on, I’m going to work hard, be respectful, but most of all be myself. In my mind “professional” didn’t mean sending a smiley face in a work email, talking about that silly thing that happened to me last week, making a joke about a stage direction in the play I’m researching, or letting my personality shine through. Striving for professionalism the way I understood it was, actually, making me a worse employee. I encourage you to think about your own definition of professionalism and how it may be impacting how you do your job. At the end of the day, don’t change yourself to fit into this ideal that you have in your mind. The world needs your ideas too much.