About Holly Helterhoff: Holly Helterhoff is the Senior Lecturer in Technical and Professional Communication, as well as the Director for the Center of Teaching and Learning, at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. She has also taught at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and Baker College in Flint. Before transitioning to higher education, Ms. Helterhoff was a project manager in automotive marketing.
Ms. Helterhoff earned her Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication from Lawrence Technological University in 2005. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Holly Helterhoff] How does an anthropologist become a technical communicator? I grew up in a law enforcement family in Northern Virginia, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. My eye was on law school, but I realized that was not the right path for me, so I entered corporate America in a marketing position.
My family had moved to Michigan by this point, so I became involved in the automotive industry. As a project manager for a relatively high-profile event, I was fascinated by the role of the creatives on our team. To advance in that area (or any area in marketing, really), I knew I would need an advanced degree. I felt constrained in pursuing new opportunities without a graduate degree, and I also wanted to polish my writing skills for corporate audiences. Because the Detroit Metro area has unpredictable economic tides, I wanted the peace of mind of being able to specialize without becoming limited by the constraints of one industry.
In graduate school at Lawrence Tech, I had the opportunity to team-teach a course as part of my practicum. Much to my astonishment, I fell in love with teaching, and have been working in higher education ever since. Following stints at the College for Creative Studies and Baker College, I was hired as a full-time instructor at Lawrence Tech.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication (MSTPC) program at Lawrence Technological University?
[Holly Helterhoff] Knowing that I needed another degree to advance, I was hesitant about becoming another MBA — that is a fine degree, but a common one where I am. Focusing on my love of writing, I started looking at communication programs, and ultimately chose Lawrence Technological University (LTU), where I earned a Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication (MSTPC).
Aspects of LTU’s program that stood out to me included an interesting faculty working in multiple aspects of technical communication, on-ground instruction, a university atmosphere, and connections with graduate students from varied backgrounds. LTU’s program opened my eyes to being able to explore multiple avenues of interest.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is LTU’s program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Holly Helterhoff] The core skills of tailoring communication – oral, written, and visual – to specific audiences is timeless. Each class reinforced these concepts through practical application and problem-solving. Over time, specific platforms or technological applications will change, but understanding the audience and adapting to it is critical.
LTU’s program encouraged me to explore multiple avenues of interest – the program was open-ended enough that I decided where I wanted to focus. I looked at corporate, social, and academic issues through a sharper lens.
As an undergraduate, my courses did not emphasize oral communication, and that was holding me back; graduate school helped me build the skills that allow me to speak with authority and clarity in any professional setting.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your thesis? What was your primary research inquiry, and how did you decide upon it? Could you describe the process you undertook to research your topic and form your final conclusions? What advice do you have for students in terms of completing their thesis (i.e. determining a research topic of appropriate scope, conducting thorough research and analysis, and crafting a strong presentation, etc.)?
[Holly Helterhoff] Throughout graduate school, I usually chose topics related to bridging communication gaps between different workplace cultures. I remain fascinated by this. For my practicum, I wanted to explore a different facet of communication, examining meme transmission among internet cultures. By this time, I was teaching a computer software skills course to undergraduates, and I was amazed by the different cultural norms they were experiencing on the internet, which was so different from my own, which was different from many of my peers – yet shared patterns existed.
I worked directly with my practicum advisor to narrow my topic. I crafted a thesis and built a literature review for the paper. I conducted research and identified and interviewed several participants in a community, collected data samples of posts, etc. I analyzed this data and created a full paper with a critical rationale for my research.
Since that time, I have supervised many graduate practica. Successful students are driven by their topics, have some practical experience in their topics, and work very hard to read as much about their topics as possible. Most students take two semesters to complete one of our practica, and much of that time needs to be spent in reading and researching.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from LTU’s Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Holly Helterhoff] I came to Lawrence Tech to become a better writer, but I realized that with solid instruction and coaching, I could also become a capable public speaker. Cultivating this skill has become critical in advancing my professional career. I teach, so speaking effectively is critical, but any professional needs to sell ideas in a conference room, a web meeting, or face-to-face. Higher education is no exception. I tailor my messages to audiences that range from students from varied backgrounds, faculty, administrators, the non-profit community, and corporate stakeholders.
Connecting the dots of written, oral, and visual communication has become even more important as communication is conducted with expanded technology. Presentations, web interfaces, mobile apps, etc., are inescapable portals to all areas of life, each representing unique audiences and technical communication challenges. A solid grounding in the concepts underlying effective communication assures that this degree will not become dated.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting the MSTPC program at Lawrence Technological University? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at LTU or another university?
[Holly Helterhoff] My single biggest piece of advice is to read, read, read, and read some more. We are in an information age, and developing the criticality of analyzing a good source, and finding other qualified sources, before creating your own strong work, can only be built on a foundation of reading excellent work.
I would also suggest that any potential graduate student be open to new challenges. I never would have considered teaching as an option before graduate school. Other graduates have gone on to launch businesses, write books, and create opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have realized. Graduate school is the time to build the skills that allow students to take chances while minimizing risk. Jump in!
Thank you, Ms. Helterhoff, for your excellent insights on Lawrence Technological University’s Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication program!