Context Learning about professional roles in clinical settings is confounded by the gap between espoused theory and the professional practice of the workplace. Workplace learning is grounded in that which is afforded to learners and individuals' engagement with those affordances. The meaning students make of the real-world performance of professional roles and how this relates to formal professionalism frameworks remain unclear. Construal of experience is individual. Professional roles are enacted in the eye of the beholder. In their reflections, student subjectivities, intentionalities and engagement with workplace affordances are revealed. Our research question was: How do students' perspectives of professional roles in practice, revealed through written reflections, relate to the formal professionalism curriculum? Methods Year 3 students (n = 108) wrote reflections during hospital and community placements. Thematic content analysis was performed. A priori categories based on the CanMEDS Physician Roles Framework were used to map content. Results A total of 107 students consented to the use of their reflections (n = 315). The CanMEDS roles of Communicator, Professional and Scholar predominated. Students were seen applying prior knowledge to new situations and reflecting on them. For some, the confirmation of previous learning was the outcome; for others, the mismatch between practice and the formal curriculum led to the questioning of both. The roles of Manager, Collaborator and Health Advocate were less frequently reflected upon. Differences between the affordances of hospital and community placements were seen. Means to address findings are discussed with reference to Billett's duality of workplace learning. Conclusions Reflective narratives reveal how students construe professional roles in practice. Mapping the content of reflections to a competency framework confirmed the mismatch between the formal and enacted curricula. Billett's duality of workplace learning provides a useful lens through which to identify means to address this, through the structural aspects of access and guidance, and through the promotion of individual engagement and reflection.