I guess my first reaction to this question was that it was too trivial for serious discussion. Whenever I read the results of some survey or another, especially those asking very obvious questions, I wish I could get paid to find out whether men shave because they grow facial hair or something else really obvious, such as conducting a survey to find out that nine out of ten people who own dogs buy dog food. I would put answering this question in that category, but in this case I am not being paid to answer the question.
Since licensure and certification are not necessary to "practice genealogy" the definition of a genealogist is whatever anyone wants to make of it. Literally. So, in effect, anyone who does anything vaguely related to the idea of finding family members for pay, could be classified as a professional genealogist. I might add that they only have to do this once in their entire life because how do you stop being a genealogist? Even if and when I finally retire completely from my law practice, I will still be an attorney. I will still be an attorney even if I end up in a care center. Likewise, by definition, I became a genealogist on the day I first began looking for my family members and will remain one until my last dying breath.
So, anytime during the course of my endless genealogy career that I accepted even one penny for my research, that made me a bona fide professional. In fact, my two grandsons I hired this summer to help with my genealogy should put "professional genealogist" on their resumes. If you haven't guessed by now, I am sure you are getting my point: I don't think the designation professional genealogist means much at all. The reason is simple. There is no consistent definition of either a genealogist or a family historian. You are essentially a genealogist when you decide to apply that label to yourself and I might add, it is not necessary to actually do anything to get the label. Either label.
But the professional genealogists would have you believe that to become one, you have to do something. Why is that? It helps when you try to convince people to pay you for your services that you can explain to them seemingly valid reasons for forking over some cash. As an attorney, I can say you need me because the Bar Association and Supreme Court of Arizona say you do. I can also say that what I do as an attorney is really, really complicated and you, a simple non-lawyer, would never understand what I do, so you should pay me a whole lot of money to do things for you. Unfortunately, the same arguments don't work as well or at all with genealogists. No one says I have to pay a professional genealogist anything and isn't what they do fun and easy anyway? Can't everyone do their own family history online instantly? In fact, genealogy is so fun, you should be paying the genealogy libraries for the opportunity of doing genealogy. Umm. That idea creates a problem, I am already paying for the opportunity of doing genealogy. I pay Ancestry.com and I buy programs and I go to conferences and I pay for computers and such. Why am I doing this myself instead of paying someone who went to school for umpteen years to do it for me?
I guess I am sort-of a reverse professional genealogist. Rather than getting paid to do genealogy, I pay for the privilege of doing it myself. There is something here that really is starting to make very little sense. I take my clothes to the cleaners because I don't want to do it myself. I hire someone to do my outside lawn work because I don't want to do it myself. I hire someone to clean my swimming pool because I don't want to do it myself. In fact, I pay people to fix my car and all sorts of other things. But all those things look a lot like work. But, guess what? I could do them all myself and save the money. But then I would have to stop paying for the privilege of doing genealogy and claiming that I was a reverse professional genealogist.
Are we now sure we understand what a professional genealogist is? or isn't? or whatever? I suppose I could go on to genealogy as a hobby or genealogy as an amateur or genealogy as a passion or genealogy as an interest or genealogy as...
It is time to stop. I am not getting paid to write anymore. But I guess I would define a professional genealogist as someone who thinks they should be paid to do something the rest of us will pay to do. They are hoping that we will pay them instead of paying to do it ourselves.