Denise Dahlhoff

Denise Dahlhoff

Senior Researcher, Consumer Research at The Conference Board
Senior Fellow at the Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies at the Wharton School


Master of Philosophy in Liberal Arts, University of Pennsylvania ‘10
Master of Liberal Arts, University of Pennsylvania ‘08
PhD in Marketing, Friedrich Schiller University Jena ‘02
Diploma in Business Administration and Economics, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz ‘96

Denise Dahlhoff (Master of Philosophy in Liberal Arts ’10) already held a PhD in marketing and an established career in marketing-related consulting and academia when she began looking for her next academic challenge. “I love studying. I love learning and expanding my horizons,” she explains. “In fact, I specifically wanted to study something that had nothing to do with my day job.” Her intellectual curiosity led her to Penn’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) degree, where she studied subjects from university governance and life stories to urban folklore and the history of pop culture. “I took a variety of courses that initially didn’t seem to have a connection—but they actually did, in the end,” she reflects. Her master’s capstone explored the financial and social benefits of arts and culture.

Denise’s interdisciplinary MLA research led her right into another project: an exploration of how public places foster social interactions and community in a city—and how digital media, which was gaining traction at the time, can impact social relationships in both positive and negative ways. To continue her self-guided curriculum, she enrolled in the Master of Philosophy in Liberal Arts (MPhil) program at Penn. “I was definitely more focused at that time, because I knew what I was interested in,” says Denise. “The professors were just great. They are true experts in their fields,” says Denise. “You tap into a new area that you’re not familiar with, and you meet an expert who knows everything about it—it’s a whole new universe.” Denise took courses in ethnography, urban culture, digital media’s social impact, and social psychology, valuing the opportunity to learn from students of other academic and professional backgrounds. “The group discussion was a really important component of all my classes,” she says. “We would all read the same things and share our perspectives, and it was fascinating to hear my classmates’ reflections because we all bring different backgrounds and experiences to the classroom.”

Denise became closely acquainted with the city of Philadelphia by doing ethnographies of public spaces such as a coffee shop, a park, a restaurant, historic attractions like the Franklin Fountain, and shopping experiences like IKEA; she observed the people who came into those spaces and their movements, nonverbal communication, and interaction. The result is a complex portrait of community that she has reflected on often in the last year. “I think many times we take social interactions for granted. We don’t think about them, it’s like the air we breathe,” she says. “The pandemic has shown us how important social relationships are to our lives and well-being.”

Likewise, changes wrought by the pandemic have emphasized the importance of flexible and creative thinking across all sectors—something that Denise thinks will be here to stay, also considering that technology and other developments will require constant adaptation. “There can be unforeseen incidents in our lives, and we all have to be agile and adjust to new circumstances,” she says. “They say that in 10 or 20 years there will be many jobs which don’t even exist today. If you can tie together different ideas from different areas and create something new, that's one of the most important things these days. I think people with that skill set will be in high demand.”

Denise entered the MPhil program with a particular project in mind, but kept the same spirit of exploration and curiosity that directed her MLA curriculum—and encourages prospective MPhil students to do the same. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” she advises. “You might come across something along the way that really piques your interest.”

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