About Emma MacKenzie: Emma MacKenzie currently works as a personal and professional development coach for woman, as well as a freelance writer, editor, and web designer. She has held a wide range of positions in her professional career, including Communications Manager for both the Montana Teachers’ Retirement System and Big Hole Watershed Committee, an environmental non-profit organization. In addition to these roles, Ms. MacKenzie was employed as an adjunct instructor at Montana Tech for over three years.
Ms. MacKenzie holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the State University of New York at Geneseo. In 2011, she graduated from the Master of Science in Technical Communication program at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Emma MacKenzie] I graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 1980 with my BA in Psychology and spent two years as a crisis counselor. After realizing that I felt much too young to be counseling women twice my age with more extensive life experience, I re-evaluated my career path, explored a few different options, and moved to Cambridge, MA to work as a project manager in a start-up software company in the early 1980s. After taking time to focus on raising my daughter in the late-80s, I returned to the workforce in a variety of administrative positions in the legal, non-profit, and higher education fields. During and after my master’s in Technical Communication program, I worked as the Communications Manager for an environmental non-profit organization and a state government agency.
I identify myself as a Scanner (Refuse to Choose, Barbara Sher) and delight in exploring and engaging in different professions, communities, and projects. In addition to my more conventional employment in technical support, project management, and communication management, I have also worked as an adjunct college professor, cheesemaker, farmers market manager, and meditation instructor. Currently, I work as a freelance technical writer, editor, and web designer, as well as a coach for women in mid- and later-life.
[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 Communication program at Montana Tech?
[Emma MacKenzie] In 2007, shortly before I turned 50, I decided to pursue a lifelong dream and moved across the country to the Northern Rocky Mountains of Montana. While exploring the local arts community, I befriended a number of professors and discovered the Technical Communication program (MSTC) at Montana Tech. It brought together the diverse skill sets that I had learned in my various jobs such as writing, editing, document design, multimedia, grant writing, and professional presentation in a way that I found interesting and offered the opportunity to expand those skills that I enjoyed most. I prefer to work and learn in more intimate environments and the MSTC program at Montana Tech had a small cohort, which gave me the opportunity to know my fellow students better and develop personal and professional friendships.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is Montana Tech’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?
[Emma MacKenzie] At the time, the MSTC program was 100% on campus (I graduated in 2011), although there were a few faculty members who taught primarily through Blackboard with occasional class meetings. Now the program has expanded to include an online component. The program was broad-based with a focus on learning, not just the skills of a good communicator (editing, document design, technical writing, multimedia production), but the theory behind those skills (rhetoric, ethics, intercultural communication).
Because of the intimate setting and the diverse interests of the faculty, students have the opportunity to explore their own areas of focus. For example, I was particularly interested in environmental communication and my thesis advisor had that as his personal specialty.
I was a non-traditional student, returning to academia 27 years after receiving my bachelor’s degree, so I had to re-learn academic skills and strategies, almost from scratch. I found that my life experience both personally and professionally gave me a strong foundation for delving much more deeply into my classes and the information available. I was a little resistant to some of the rituals of academia (obscure jargon rather than plain speaking for one) but, as a student of communication theory, it also gave me more insight into the ways that people express themselves to include and exclude others.
[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.)?
[Emma MacKenzie] Although the MSTC program at Montana Tech is designed as a two-year program, I took an additional year. I spent my first year working on a project rather than a thesis, an interactive training program for lab students in the chemistry department. As a project manager in my professional life, I had become entirely comfortable with completing new and challenging projects. After taking the graduate Ethics Pro-Seminar, I realized that I wanted to take this singular opportunity to write a thesis which was completely outside my comfort zone.
My thesis was “Hunting the Big Bad Wolf: A Material-Semiotic Analysis of Community Discourse.” On the morning of September 2, 2009, I opened the homepage of my local newspaper and saw an image of what I first thought was a large dog dangling from the arms of a man dressed in camouflage. I quickly realized that it was a selfie of the first wolf legally killed in the in the U.S. during the legal battles to keep wolves on/off the Endangered Species List in 2009 and 2010. I gathered reader comments in local, regional, and national media outlets and analyzed them using Grounded Theory, Semiotics, and Actor Network Theory, a mixture of quantitative and qualitative research.
I deeply enjoyed writing my thesis and by the time I finished with the research, writing, editing, and defense I felt like I was ready to begin. The chair of my committee met with me weekly to go over the current phase of the thesis project, discuss obstacles, and recommend possible resolutions. It was one of the most intellectually satisfying experiences of my life.
I defended my thesis to my committee (three members of the department and one from an outside department) and found it to be a supportive experience with strong feedback for how to improve the final draft. I also presented the project to the college community at large.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from Montana Tech’s Master of Science in Technical Communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Emma MacKenzie] After graduating in 2011, I went on to the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication for a PhD program. My MSTC thesis committee at Montana Tech, and my chair in particular, prepared me for the academic rigor required in the SOJC PhD program. The first year of the doctoral program was exactly what I’d hoped for in learning the theoretical foundations of communication theory and I enjoyed it. After a year, I realized the program wasn’t a good match for my interests.
In my work as a communication manager and now as a freelancer, I draw on all the skills and information I learned in my MSTC program. For example, one of my electives was a course in risk communication which has come in very useful in a variety of projects. My current web design work is solidly based in the skills I learned and of course my editing and writing skills, which were always strong were refined in the MSTC program and have been the basis of many of my contracts. Other classes, such as semiotics, environmental communication, and rhetoric, continue to interest me on a personal level for pure intellectual enjoyment.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Montana Tech’s MS in Technical Communication program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at Montana Tech or another university?
[Emma MacKenzie] Technical Communication is a great field to become involved with as a career path. The need for people who know how to communicate with a variety of tools, with clarity, and with integrity is more and more necessary as our society becomes more and more complex. Start with the broad overview and pay attention to the different things that spark your interest, even if they don’t seem connected at the time. You can become skilled enough to combine them into your own particular specialty which will be needed.
More important, learn to love learning. Whether you use these particular skills for a handful of years or a lifetime (and the TC field offers skills you can use in any profession you choose!), once you know how to learn and you enjoy the learning, you will find doors opening to you in unexpected ways and leading you in unexpected directions. We can’t even begin to imagine the careers that will be available in 2, 5, 10 years – so if you can learn quickly and easily, you’re way ahead of the game.
Thank you, Ms. MacKenzie, for your excellent insights on Montana Tech’s Master of Science in Technical Communication program!