Professional development refers to the continuous process of improving upon your professional knowledge and skills throughout your career.
It can include any activities that might improve your productivity and ability to do your job, or soft skills like leadership and communication in the workplace.
Professional development activities can include both formal learning (e.g. gaining certifications) and informal learning (e.g. reading industry books).
Professional development is seen as important because we need to continuously adapt to the evolving demands of our jobs, particularly in the context of new research or technologies.
Definition of Professional Development
Professional development encompasses a wide range of activities designed to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge, and effectiveness in their chosen profession.
The concept is succinctly defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as:
“…actions that (1) improve an individual’s knowledge, skills, and/or competencies, (2) are acquired by such individuals – teachers, principals or other education personnel – to support better professional practice, and (3) are expected to have an impact on positive educational outcomes.” (OECD, 2019).
We generally engage in professional development in order to adapt to technological advancements, achieve career progression, and enhance our job performance.
Professional Development Examples
- Leadership Training Course: This refers to engaging in activities that enhance your ability to manage, guide, motivate, and support your team. Leadership training typically involves training in positive communication skills, inclusivity, and mentorship. A leadership training course might be useful for someone in management roles or those aspiring to move into such positions.
- Project Management Training: One example of this is getting your Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. These sorts of certifications help people to learn to manage large and complex projects – with multiple people along the workflow – from inception to completion. Skills that you could develop in this sort of training include planning abilities, risk management skills, quality control (especially important as you scale the project), and team coordination.
- Certification Courses: Certifications are often embraced by workplaces because there’s a recognized accreditation at the end of the PD. It will involve a structured learning program, potentially offered by a local university or community college, that results in an additional formal qualification that will be useful for your job role. Certifications are especially valuable in highly-regulated fields and unionized fields, where your additional certifications may also be tied to pay rises.
- Advanced Degree Pursuit: Perhaps the most ambitious version of professional development is to go back to college (perhaps online or at night school) in order to get an advanced degree such as a Masters or PhD. This may also a research-based component where you can engage in action research that seeks to break new ground on research directly related to your job role, making you a world expert in your topic.
- Mentorship Programs: Seeking out mentorship can be one of the best ways to advance in your skills and abilities. A mentorship program allows for learning from experienced and senior professionals within your career area. It can provide you with the tacit knowledge and skills that are hard to obtain from a formal course. Additionally, mentors can provide valuable wisdom, guidance (often helping you to avoid mistakes they made), and networking possibilities.
- Conferences and Seminars: Conferences can be very expensive, but they’re also often the spaces where you learn the tips, insights, and tricks of the most cutting-edge people in your field, that can dramatically improve your skills and abilities. In my experience, it’s the conversations in the hallways that are most valuable about conferences more than anything else. Moreover, you could put your hand up to present at these events, which opens up even more networking opportunities.
- Workshops: Workshops provide hands-on learning experiences and are more focused on practical skills than conferences and webinars. The benefit of a workshop is often that it has a very clear goal or skillset that’s being worked on, and they often facilitate active learning opportunities (where you ‘learn through doing’).
- Webinars: Webinars are online seminars that have become increasingly popular since the move to online work and learning. Their great benefit is anyone can access this PD no matter where they are in the world. This makes them great for people who work in rural and remote areas. Attending webinars can showcase a proactive approach to learning and staying updated with industry trends.
- Professional Networking: Networking involves intentionally reaching out to other professionals in the field to start sharing ideas and knowledge. I’ve been surprised in my time at the number of colleagues in other institutions who reach out via email to me and simply ask to chat, hoping that it would lead to collaborations, partnerships, and mutually beneficial opportunities. The more you do this, the more doors will open for you in the future.
- Mastermind Groups: Mastermind groups are usually small, trusting groups of professionals who want to share ideas and brainstorm on a regular basis in non-judgemental spaces. It involves meeting with like-minded professionals to discuss challenges, successes, and strategies. They offer a collaborative environment for problem-solving and creative thinking.
- Reading Industry Publications: Keeping up with the latest news, trends, and research in your field can be extremely beneficial. This is a simple, low-risk PD idea, that you can implement right away – get a subscription to an industry magazine (it’s a good one if you need last-minute evidence that you’re interested in PD before your performance review!).
- Shadowing: Shadowing involves observing another professional in your field in order to obtain new insights into how to go about your job. It can be surprising the amount of small tips and tricks you can obtain by simply following someone through a process that you do regularly, to see how they have different shortcuts and methods that you hadn’t thought about.
- Conducting Research: Spending time to conduct research on open databases like Google Scholar can lead to a deeper understanding of topics in your field, reveal flaws on your own practices, and open your eyes to differing approaches.
- Learning New Software: With the constant development of new technologies, and especially with the rapid rise of AI tech, employees need time to sit down and work with (dare I say, play with) new software that could be implemented into our workflows to improve quality or speed up processes.
- Joining Professional Organizations: Professional organizations – ideally ones that are ‘official’ and recognized as the peak bodies – can provide you with access to resources, networking events, and advancement opportunities that are exclusive to members.
- Public Speaking and Presentation Skills Training: Sometimes, putting your hand up to participate in a public speaking event or to give a presentation may help you to achieve professional development. In these contexts, you’ll want to select something to research or focus on, then develop the depth of knowledge that you’ll be able to present interesting facts, data, and insights to others. This can also help to position you as a thought leader.
- Volunteering in Your Field: Volunteering opportunities can give you new experiences and new insights that help you develop soft skills like empathy, while developing a deeper understanding of other people’s lived experiences. For example, a CEO who volunteers to help low-level staff in need can suddenly get insights into the day-to-day struggles his staff experience.
- Cross-Training: Working in a different department or roles within your organization can broaden your understanding and give you new skills, while also benefitting the organization because cross-collaboration often leads to better understanding and eventually smoother interactions during cross-departmental projects.
- Internships: If you are early in your career or changing fields, internships can provide valuable on-the-job training. I often encourage my students to participate in internships because this gives them a huge leg-up when going for new jobs – not only can you develop practical skills, but you can demonstrate your initiative beyond other students who don’t bother to do internships during college.
- Cultural Competency Training: This is becoming increasingly important in global businesses and diverse work environments. In fact, most large workplaces now mandate this sort of training, which many of us will know by another name – diversity and inclusion training.
- Career Coaching: Getting a career coach was something that was really useful for me. Mine was specifically a business coach, who helped me through not only the regular bottlenecks in business, but also the mindset issues faced in my role as a business owner.
- Podcasts: I had to include this one because I do this every single day, and it’s my own informal PD that has kept me abreast of the latest trends in my industry. I go for a 45-minute walk, put on a podcast, and listen to what the movers and shakers are doing in the industry. Case studies, insights, and tips-and-tricks work to inspire me and keep me motivated, all while I’m getting some exercise!
Professional Development Goals Examples
In your workplace self-performance review, you’ll often be required to state what your goals are for professional development. Here are some “I will…” statements that you can use for inspiration:
- “I will obtain a project management professional (PMP) certification to improve project execution skills.”
- “I will attend a leadership development seminar to enhance team management capabilities.”
- “I will enroll in a public speaking course to boost presentation and communication skills.”
- “I will complete a master’s degree in my specialized field to deepen my professional expertise.”
- “I will participate in a mentorship program to learn from industry veterans and develop my professional network.”
- “I will attend at least three industry conferences or seminars this year to stay updated with the latest trends and innovations.”
- “I will enroll in a workshop on the latest software relevant to my profession to increase my efficiency at work.”
- “I will join a professional organization related to my field to access additional resources and networking opportunities.”
- “I will participate in a mastermind group to improve my problem-solving skills and gain different perspectives on industry challenges.”
- “I will learn a new language to enhance my communication skills in our increasingly global business environment.”
What is the Importance of Professional Development?
Professional Development plays a pivotal role in both personal career growth and the overall success of an organization.
First and foremost for you, the employee, professional development will help you to be more productive, become more of an expert in the field, and therefore hopefully command a higher wage and better job positions long-term.
But, for your employer, it is also the engine that drives the evolution of industries by keeping the workforce updated, innovative, and effective.
One of the primary benefits of professional development is the enhancement of skills and knowledge that leads to improved job performance and improved employee retention. For example, Lorman argues that employee retention improves 30%-50% when an organization has successful professional learning programs.
Moreover, professional development opportunities can boost employee satisfaction and retention.
According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report, 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development (LinkedIn, 2018).
Professional development is therefore a win-win for individuals and organizations alike. It empowers employees to reach their full potential while simultaneously enhancing the productivity and profitability of the organization.
The above ideas for professional development and learning can hopefully give you an insight into ways you can develop your professional skills, freshen up your skills on your resume, and put you in a great position for a raise or internal promotion. Ideally, select PD opportunities that will give you some tangible workforce skills that you can apply immediately, and, a recognized accreditation that you can carry with you for the rest of your career.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]