how to be a professional

5 March 2019

Fill In The Blank: You Are A Professional [ ____________ ]

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Marketing Professional; photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash…

The market hasn’t been this combative since the Greeks went shopping in downtown Troy. What few jobs arise get swarmed by hungry mobs, throwing elbows, and slinging resumes for a shot at a steady paycheck. Even table-waiting gigs attract over 100 applicants each while requiring multiple interviews, references, and your first born, all for the opportunity to say, “Would you like fries with that?”

Well, despair not, valiant readers: there’s a way to survive this chaos – and even emerge victorious…

Putting the Pro in Progress

The late great Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” And, no, I’m not saying you should be weird. (DIFFERENT, yes, but weird – well, whatever gets you through the day.) The key word here is the last one: “pro.”

To get a good job in this hypercompetitive market, it no longer suffices to say you’re a “responsible hard-working self-driven results-oriented team player with strong communication and leadership skills capable of juggling multiple tasks simultaneously.” That’s kid’s stuff with enough clichés to choke a motivational speaker.

To get noticed in this environment, you need to portray yourself as who you really are: a professional.

Now you might be saying, “Wait, I’m still in school/just graduated, and I’m looking for ANY opportunity. Shouldn’t I just state that on my resume and cover letter?” Sure. And that guy with five years experience and a leaning tower of overdue student loans will thank you profusely for letting him have the job. In this economy, even industry veterans and cash-starved retirees are applying for – and getting – entry-level positions, since tight-fisted employers want people who can do the job NOW, no training required.

That means professionals. And that should mean you.

By professional, I don’t mean a suit. Rather, by definition, a professional is someone who offers their services for pay, even if they’re still a student. Consider football player Reggie Bush, who took a few too many fringe benefits while playing at USC, and was deemed by the NCAA to be a “professional” even then. In fact, the NCAA considers the mere hiring of an agent the act of a professional, even if the player still hasn’t earned a dime.

So hear ye all current and recent college students: if you plan to earn money from what you do, go ahead and classify yourself as a professional now. While certain professions do require certification – lawyer, doctor, sushi chef – unless you’re filing legal briefs or hacking at raw tuna, in most cases you can claim to be a professional. (For the rest of you, get that certification already.) So picture what you want to do for a living, then on your cover letter and resume fill in the blank: “I’m a professional ___________.”

Now for the hard part…

Show, Don’t Just Tell

Of course, it’s not enough to just say, “Hey, I’m a pro, hire me.” You need to prove it with actions, not just words. “But hey, wise guy,” you might be saying. “Didn’t I just tell you I’m still in school? How can I show that I’m a pro?”

Glad you asked. Here are nine recommendations …

1. Make Yourself a Class Act: I read too many resumes in which the education section consists solely of a school name and degree. What happened to the actual work? In your resume, be sure to flaunt the expertise you acquired by listing your relevant classes (particularly the advanced ones) along with major papers or projects. Not only will those course names and paper titles build your credibility, they’ll also get noticed by computerized readers.

2. Get Real and Get Specific: Fill your resume with specific skills and activities related to your profession – none of that “responsible hard-working” blah blah blah. Describe specific projects with specific results, and list the names of executives and companies you worked with. Just keep in mind that the lowest-level skill on your resume, like typing, filing, or answering phones, will overwhelm everything else, so unless you want to perform that task for the rest of your career, it’s better left unsaid.

3. Join Professional Organizations: Every profession has a chapter or association, if not locally than nationally or online. You can find many of these professional chapters on LinkedIn. (And since you’re a professional, you already have one wickedly robust LinkedIn profile, right?)

4. Write On: I know, I said actions, not just words, but “write” is my favorite verb when it comes to flaunting expertise. So start a free blog at WordPress or Medium and use it to express your views and theories on events and trends in your chosen profession. Don’t just report the news – expound upon it. If you can’t think of a topic, review relevant books and articles by other professionals in your field – i.e., your peers – which will also keep your knowledge updated and your critical skills sharp. Don’t worry about getting readers; they’ll come over time. Until then, those blog posts will prove what you know and attract search engines. They’ll also give you something to tweet about and share in your LinkedIn status updates.

5. Do It with a Nonprofit: Don’t have much real experience in your chosen profession? You could apply for an exploitative internship, which might be just as difficult to land as a real job. Here’s a better option: as long as you’re willing to work for free, offer to help a small nonprofit that needs professional assistance. Just remember to do what YOU want to do professionally, not interning or administrative tasks. You’ll gain experience with a credible organization that makes you look like a saint, you won’t feel like an indentured servant for not getting paid, and you’ll have an opportunity to mingle with the VIP’s on the board of directors.

6. Speak Up: For all the hype about networking opportunities at conferences and panels, the best results usually go to the speakers. So don’t just attend these events, offer to speak at them by contacting the organizers well in advance. Can’t find one you can speak at? Then organize a panel or conference with other ambitious professionals. Organizing the event alone will require application of your professional skills and stand out as an accomplishment on your resume. And you might even make money selling tickets or sponsorships.

7. Pull a Nike: Why wait for an opportunity to strut your stuff when you can just do it? Internet-based tools have made launching a business easier and less expensive, and home-based businesses are now widely accepted by customers. If starting an entire business seems too Herculean a challenge, then consider staging a short-term project, like an art show, concert, play, even a movie. L.A. is filled with creative people looking for professionals to handle the business side. How about running a Kickstarter campaign on their behalf? You’ll learn from doing even if it’s a failure (indeed, failing is incredibly educational). For prospective employers, your venture says much more about your initiative than the words “I’m a self-starter.”

8. Teach: If you have an advanced degree, look for opportunities to guest lecture, teach a seminar, or lead an entire course at a community college, extension program, or in a corporation. As I discovered, teaching provides immense credibility as you seek out clients and customers. It also provides networking opportunities. I once taught an introductory social media seminar, and three days later was meeting with one of the attendees about a possible venture.

9. Propose a Position: By the time a job ad hits the Internet, the company might already have a prospective hire in mind, and is just looking for additional applicants to satisfy Equal Opportunity Employment laws, or to increase their negotiating leverage with their potential hire. A true professional doesn’t wait for those ads to pop up:

  • Do your research and networking to find a company that could use your expertise. Start-ups or companies who just landed funding are great targets.
  • Identify the highest-level manager (usually a VP) in the department you want to work in.
  • Send a letter (not email, but actual dead-wood material) to that manager proposing a position for you, describing how it would benefit the company, and explaining why you’re uniquely qualified to fulfill it.
  • Propose starting out as a short-term consultant first.
  • Don’t bother contacting HR – they don’t create positions; their job is to find reasons to reject people.
  • Odds are, you might be ignored, so try multiple companies. There’s a good chance you’ll be kept on file and called up when they get their cards in order.

Your unsolicited proposal shows initiative and confidence, and it stands out far more than if you’re just 1 of 1000 applicants for an advertised position.

So there you have it: 9 ways to go all-pro. If you can enact at least 4 of these tactics, you’ll move ahead of most people who call themselves professionals. If you do 5 or more, you could find yourself in a position to hire other professionals. This being America, you still might have to face elbow-throwing and resume-slinging, but ideally not for positions involving french fries.

Related Article: [intlink id=”1436″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Self Marketing 101: Ten Tips For Creating A Killer Resume[/intlink]

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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Mark Armstrong
5 years ago

Outstanding in every way, and written with your usual wit and verve. If I had to pick a fave, it would be #2: get specific. We’ve all done (I hope!) projects we’re particularly proud of, which saw limited circulation. Yes: put those to work for you by listing them and showing how they demonstrate your professional competence. Excellent post, Freddy, well done!


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