a 19th century etching of a farmer consulting with his doctor, vicar and lawyer
a profession is an occupation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. the term is a truncation of the term "liberal profession", which is, in turn, an anglicization of the french term "profession libérale". originally borrowed by english users in the 19th century, it has been re-borrowed by international users from the late 20th, though the (upper-middle) class overtones of the term do not seem to survive retranslation: "liberal professions" are, according to the european union's directive on recognition of professional qualifications (2005/36/ec), "those practiced on the basis of relevant professional qualifications in a personal, responsible and professionally independent capacity by those providing intellectual and conceptual services in the interest of the client and the public".
it has been said that a profession is not a trade and not an industry.
medieval and early modern tradition recognized only three professions: divinity, medicine, and law – the so-called "learned professions".
major milestones which may mark an occupation being identified as a profession include:
- an occupation becomes a full-time occupation
- the establishment of a training school
- the establishment of a university school
- the establishment of a local association
- the establishment of a national association of professional ethics
- the establishment of state licensing laws
applying these milestones to the historical sequence of development in the united states shows surveying achieving professional status first (note that george washington, thomas jefferson, and abraham lincoln all worked as land surveyors before entering politics ), followed by medicine, actuarial science, law, dentistry, civil engineering, logistics, architecture and accounting.
with the rise of technology and occupational specialization in the 19th century, other bodies began to claim professional status: mechanical engineering, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, psychology, nursing, teaching, librarianship, optometry and social work, each of which could claim, using these milestones, to have become professions by 1900.
just as some professions rise in status and power through various stages, others may decline.
disciplines formalized more recently, such as architecture, now have equally long periods of study associated with them.
although professions may enjoy relatively high status and public prestige, not all professionals earn high salaries, and even within specific professions there exist significant inequalities of compensation; in law, for example, a corporate/insurance defense lawyer working on a billable-hour basis may earn several times what a prosecutor or public defender earns.