Day 194: Professionalism

Today’s inane image of the day:

We got to know every nook and cranny of the skull during Neuroscience [this has absolutely nothing to do the entry below, but I thought it was a cool image].

“I really appreciated your demeanor and eye contact,” said my Standardized Patient during the feedback period of our encounter. She continued, “but you were too professional.” I reflexively furrowed my eyebrows as I nodded in response. She made a few more comments, but I was distracted by her observation – how could I have been too professional?

The first time I was exposed to this concept was not a memorable one. However, the term pervaded throughout my engineering education [there was not much emphasis on it while I was in the liberal arts], especially during my involvement in the Society of Women Engineers, where our most popular events were designed around this particular subject. During my three years, an image of professionalism formed in my mind as a respectful, well-prepared, conservatively-dressed individual.

But is professionalism only skin-deep?

My preconceived notions of the concept upon entering medical school seemed to imply that it was a superficial thing. In my mind, “professionalism” always translated into a first-encounter-type-situation. Immediately upon meeting an individual, we naturally generate an idea of a person from posture, attire and introduction. Much of the time, slouching, wrinkled dress shirts and a weak handshake translate into an unfit candidate for most professional positions. Unsurprisingly, many recruiters and interviewers take these characteristics into account in their evaluation of candidates for jobs or an acceptance offer to medical school. Although I still believe that a large component of professionalism are superficial features, I have quickly learned that many regard the term to mean much more.

The dictionary installed in my laptop claims that professionalism is “the competence or skill expected of a professional.” It follows that the expected competence and skills of each professional can differ across industries; the expectations of engineers are not exactly the same as those of physicians. The most concrete example of this are the prerequisites for particular professions – engineers are minimally expected to have taken an entire Calculus sequence along with programming and engineering-specific courses, while premedical students are expected to have a broad range of knowledge with some focus on biology and the sciences. These expectations make sense.

But when a college student transitions into the “real world” [I’m going to call medical school the “real world” for this discussion] and attempts to specialize in a career path, the burden of expectations rises significantly. Turning the focus to medicine, there is a presumption that you will be self-motivated, study everything to gain knowledge and understanding of the human body, learn to communicate with a wide variety of individuals, and essentially devote yourself to the practice of healing. There are many, many, many more expectations, but those were the main ones that came to mind when I was writing this.

Considering all of this, what did my Standardized Patient [SP] mean when she claimed that I was too professional? Prior to answering this, it’s important to recognize that every individual has a different image of a professional in their mind. In this case, my SP was referring to my demeanor; her picture of a medical professional included someone warm and receptive, which I hadn’t effectively conveyed during our session. It makes sense retrospectively because I tend to fall back into the engineering professional role during interviewing sessions – I start with a strong handshake and maintain a serious demeanor throughout. Initially, I was somewhat distraught over the comment, but after some time it became clear that she forced me to see my own habits so that I could work on improving them.

In the end, I do not have a definition of professionalism for you but hope that you will at least consider what it means and what expectations your current role holds.

[As always, comments are welcome!]