Doctoral students must write to stay relevant, education professor says

William Rothwell Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

As the author of 142 books, William Rothwell doesn’t need any help when he writes. But, he said, using students and alumni to assist him is the right thing to do in order to boost their curriculum vitae and advance their careers.

Rothwell, professor of education (workforce education and development, or WFED) in Penn State’s College of Education, said it’s important to stay relevant while writing and that researching and writing a book can be a learning project.

“You have to conduct research; you have to read the journals; you have to collect and analyze information; you have to keep up with the conferences; you have to be aware of the current research in your field of practice,” Rothwell said. “Then the goal is trying to extend that to current students and alumni. These days if you don’t run, you don’t keep up. Our field changes quickly, like all fields do, so it’s necessary to keep up.”

Rothwell estimates he’s helped at least 100 people – doctoral students or alumni – write books or chapters in books. “First, we have to get the book idea clear in our minds. Then I share with them examples of book proposals that I have written in the past,” Rothwell said. “And I try not to do all the writing, either. Teaching them how to write a book proposal is very valuable information because they can use that later in their career. They don't need me to teach them after that; if you go through it one time you know how to do it.”

Rothwell noted that a major source of satisfaction he gets is from what his students have accomplished in their careers. “Where did they go? What did they achieve? That's my major source of accomplishment,” he said.

Workforce educators teach students of all ages the skills necessary to succeed in technical fields and other areas that require definitive knowledge. Many students seeking a degree in workforce education and development have extensive career experience. That’s why Rothwell stresses the importance of students and/or employees maintaining fresh skills and on-the-job knowledge.

“And I've learned that one way to keep your skills up to date is to pursue researching and publishing, because you're forced to get up to date on whatever it is you're writing about,” Rothwell added. “And if you have co-authors, or co-editors, they are forced to get their skills up to date. You end up doing additional research to give the book a competitive advantage to put something in print that no one else has put in print, because it is newly created information. And that's what we try to do with all research is come up with something new, but also something of value to practitioners and professors.”

Rothwell said WFED has four different kinds of students. The first is those looking to become college professors. “Publishing is very important for people who would like an academic career,” he said. 

Another group, Rothwell explained, is business practitioners who want to run a change program and help the organization change or want to run a training and development or talent development program in a business or a government agency.

“A third group of people — and this is the group that's been growing — want to be consultants,” he said. “They want to hang out a sign in front of their house and become a consultant, like a small business owner, and offer professional services. Our field lends itself very well to that. So many of our students want to be consultants when they get their doctorates.

“And the fourth group of people want to be outreach, or continuing education people, working at a university or a community college, to help the school serve the needs of local employers, the long-term needs — not degree-related, but training-related,” he said.

Publishing is vital to each of those groups, according to Rothwell. “If the student wants to be a professor, anything they publish is good, whether it’s an article or a book or a book chapter or editing a book … anything like that shows up on their vitae,” he said. 

“If they want to be a business practitioner and work in a company, or in a government agency, publishing a book is a way to promote themselves … to advertise what they can do. It also shows that they can write, which we can't take for granted anymore. “Everyone wins when we write a book and publish it.”

The bulk of Rothwell’s book topics are around organization development and change and some are about employee learning and development. A small sampling of his work includes "Human performance improvement: Building practitioner competence”; "Creating engaged employees: It’s worth the investment”; and "Working longer: New strategies for managing, training, and retaining older employees.”

Rothwell also is known internationally for his work in succession planning. “Introducing succession planning is a change effort. We have to change the corporate culture of the organization to make it easier to allow people to allow a succession program to work,” he said. “It's really an organization development effort, but it's a type of change effort. The topics are all related.”

Rothwell and his team also have a soon-to-be-published book about diversity, equity and inclusion. “The book is nearly finished,” Rothwell said. “What’s different about this book is that the change we are writing about involves as many people as possible in organizational settings. It is not coerced change or change imposed from the top on unwilling people.”

“We construct a program of change that is in line with what people really want to do, not necessarily what management wants them to do, but what people want to do,” he noted. He labeled it a bottom-up strategy, as opposed to a top-down strategy. They survey people and ask them what they believe their problems are, what they think their solutions are, how they believe they can implement the solutions and how they would measure success.

“And we build the change program based on the people's view, not management’s view,” he said. “Management is part of the people. We get their viewpoint as we collect information from the people. It's pure democracy in action. We're using that approach to research and write a book on diversity, about how a diversity program can come from the workers rather than coming from management action, and management forcing a change that won't be accepted. The problem with management forcing change is that people resist the change; they won't accept it. Imposed change too often leads to actively disengaged workers who resign.”

Whether it’s authoring a book or landing a desired job, Rothwell and his WFED colleagues attempt to define the meaning of success early in their relationship with a doctoral candidate.

“We always ask a new doctoral student (at their beginning) ‘what is your career goal?’ What if we gave you a Ph.D., what would you do with it? They have to put that in writing,” he explained.

“Many of our students might be 35 years old and already have a pretty good idea of what they want to do next in their career. They already have a base of experience. If they started the program and said they want to be a professor, do they have the qualifications at the end of the program and do they get a job as a professor?”

Getting the job that students declared they wanted is the program’s definition of success, Rothwell said. “In today's day and age, that's important. It isn't good enough to say people finished the program and got their degree. We have to worry that they actually got a meaningful job,” he said.

“What good does it do you to have a Ph.D. and be unemployable? That's an embarrassment to Penn State if that person comes out of our program. We don't want people to be the most highly educated person in the unemployment line. That doesn't help anybody.”

Last Updated October 04, 2021