Teaching Students the Importance of Professional Relationship Development

By Craig Martin, PharmD, MBA

Most of us have been there. Someone mentions the word “networking” and it immediately conjures images of that smarmy, business card-collecting name-dropper from somewhere in our past. Chances are you are thinking of someone like this right now, and I am certain the thoughts are not pleasant. Students have the same reaction. Every one of them can list at least a handful of fellow students they consider over-the-top apple-polishers who are shaking hands and smiling while plotting their next self-promoting campaign to net more social media admirers.

All jokes aside, “networking”, or professional relationship development, is crucial to one’s career success. None of the opportunities I have been afforded in my career came without the benefit of relationships. I suspect your experience is similar. None of us is an island, and as we tell our students constantly, “Pharmacy is a very small world.” This has never been truer than it is today (just browse Twitter).

Teaching the Art of Professional Relationship Development

The question, then, is how to best prepare our students for this world in which they are expected to not only become high-level patient care experts, but to build a network of relationships for the mutual benefit of themselves and others. The task seems daunting. I submit to you that we, as pharmacy educators, have a responsibility not only to ensure that our graduates know the enzyme that metabolizes warfarin, but also have the tools to become the agents of compassion and change we all want them to be.

To focus our time with students exclusively on the so-called “hard sciences” would be to shortchange their educational experience. Certainly, the attainment of knowledge is essential to their success, but then again, so are meaningful relationships upon which they can lean when they need help, and through which they can reciprocate when asked. The Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education recognizes the importance of a well-rounded education and has incorporated “Personal and Professional Development” into the latest accrediting standards for colleges of pharmacy.1 Our job is to take a broad approach to these standards, and explicitly include relationship development in our curricula.  For this to work, it must be intentional.

Tools Worth Checking Out

I have used several methods, in different venues, for teaching students the importance of professional relationship cultivation. I have addressed student organizations, taught professional relationship development in Leadership elective courses, and had thoughtful one-on-one conversations with students interested in learning more. I even hosted a student on a “networking shadowing” experience at a state pharmacy organization meeting. Here are some great resources that I recommend:

  • TED Talk by Adam Grant 

    • The major topics addressed in Grant’s book Give and Take are discussed in this talk.2
    • The “Taker” approaches relationships solely from the standpoint of personal gain. If you have nothing obvious to offer, you are forgotten (or worse).
    • The “Giver” thinks of others first, tipping the scale away from self. If they gain from the relationship too, it’s a bonus.
    • The “Matcher” describes most of us. Reciprocity is the rule here, and the Matcher will treat others with past experiences in mind.
  • Never Eat Alone”, a book on building your network the right way, by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz3

    • If you need nuts and bolts advice on how to build a network of healthy connections, this is your book.
    • Some may find Ferrazzi’s approach overly prescriptive, but all will gain from the insights.
  • Harvard Business Review articles like Learn to Love Networking by Tiziana Casciaro and colleagues4

    • Raise your hand if you are an introvert.
    • Now take five minutes to read this article and learn how to not hate networking.

Despite the plethora of aids at our disposal, I have found that one tool has been more effective than any other: an honest, transparent, and vulnerable testimonial about my own journey in professional relationship development. I start each such conversation with the open admission that I am an introvert. I see a ballroom set up for “networking” and I have to fight the urge to turn and run. Sometimes the urge wins, but it wins less often than it did in the past. Many students can relate with this anxiety. I tell them about the times I have embarrassed myself by forgetting someone’s name or realizing I was having a conversation with a colleague with food in the corner of my mouth. When I present it this way, I invite the student to embark on a development journey with me, instead of trying to portray the image that I have already reached the destination on my own.

If you have ideas or best practices for helping students in this area, I would love to hear them. Feel free to reach out. Maybe we can have lunch. (As an introvert, just typing that sentence caused a small wave of anxiety, but we have to challenge ourselves each day, right?)

Mary H.H. Ensom
David Burgess
Jeff Cain


  1. Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. (2016). Accreditation Standards and Key Elements for the Professional Program in Pharmacy Leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy Degree. (Standard 4). Retrieved from https://www.acpe-accredit.org/pdf/Standards2016FINAL.pdf.
  2. Grant A. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. London, England: Penguin Publishing; 2013.
  3. Ferrazzi K and Raz T. Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. New York: Crown Publishing; 2014.
  4. Casciaro T, Gino F, and Kouchaki M. Learn to Love Networking. Harvard Business Review. 2016 (May); 104-7.

Craig Martin

Craig Martin is an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include leadership and infectious diseases. In his free time, Craig enjoys CrossFit and University of Kentucky sports.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

1 Comment

  1. Great blog, Craig! I always thought LinkedIn is quite useless. I really enjoyed reading this, as a fellow introvert and somewhat disagreeable giver.


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