I am used to blank stares and polite nods when strangers ask what I do for a living. “An evaluator?” they ask with a curious head tilt. Evaluation is not a commonly understood occupation. In fact, most evaluators admit they did not know about the field until they found themselves in it. Let me rewind and explain how I ended up in evaluation. Then, I will share some lessons learned as a novice consultant.
I stumbled into the field from an academic background in Political Science. Upon finishing my M.A. from Virginia Tech, I started working for an international research company that specializes in survey research in developing countries. I learned the entire scope of the research process, from questionnaire design to managing field logistics and analyzing datasets. The more I learned about research, the more I wanted to know its implications in the real world. In 2013, I attended my first American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference, where I was exposed to a world that goes beyond data and approaches social impact. I realized I could apply the research methodologies from my academic and professional experience to evaluate programs and policies. I quickly learned there is a clear distinction between “research” and “evaluation,” and required skills for the two are not synonymous. I needed further training if I was going to pivot my career from research towards evaluation, so I applied for American University’s Online Graduate Certificate in Program Monitoring & Evaluation. Four courses and eight months later, I knew evaluation—at the intersection of social science, program development, and communication—was the right career for me.
The online Graduate Certificate program whet my appetite to further my education in evaluation. The certificate provided me with a solid foundation and valuable technical skills to systematically evaluate programs, but also exposed me to how much more there is to learn. A year after completing the program, I left my research job to pursue an academic and professional career in evaluation. I am now enrolled in Claremont Graduate University’s Ph.D. program in Evaluation and Applied Research. As a doctoral student, I have found that the best way to learn evaluation is to actually do it. In addition to courses in statistics, methods, theory, and procedures, I am actively developing my consulting business. It has not been easy, as there is no well-travelled or predetermined path to becoming an evaluator.
So I thought I’d share some lessons learned over the past year as a novice consultant:
- Formal training matters. If you are just starting your evaluation career, I recommend pursuing higher education or professional development courses. Evaluation is a “melting pot” profession, with practitioners coming from diverse backgrounds. I have met many AEA members who say they learned evaluation on the job. While this is not surprising for an applied field, there is an emerging generation of evaluators who are equipped with foundational and transdisciplinary knowledge in evaluation. If you are new to the field, it is advantageous to receive formal training to expand your methodological toolbox and repertoire of evaluation approaches.
- Find a mentor. Another benefit of a graduate degree or certificate program is the networking opportunities with faculty and fellow students. I found mentors in both the American University and Claremont Graduate University evaluation programs who are invaluable for my consulting work. Not only do mentors help you develop what you know, but also who you know.
- Translate across fields. As I mentioned, most people are unaware evaluation exists as a discipline. Professionalization is a debate for another time, but it is worth noting that evaluation consultants should be translators for clients across fields. Evaluation services are not limited to social programs. For example, I recently met someone from a marketing company that is developing innovative approaches to digital branding. I explained evaluation in terms that resonated with him as a marketing professional, and he is now interested in hiring me to evaluate the effectiveness of their services. New consultants need to step out of the box and market their services in a language clients can relate to.
- Opportunities are out there. Lucky for new evaluators, the demand outweighs supply. Opportunities are out there, but you need to be proactive to find them. Stay up-to-date with relevant trends and get your name out by participating in AEA and other evaluation communities. Keep your eyes peeled for Request for Proposals (RFPs) and networking opportunities. If you are just starting, you cannot expect work to come to you. I chose to do a few pro bono projects to expand my network and experiences.
- Find your niche. I am still working on finding my “identity” in a field that lacks identity. I am eagerly learning best practices from professionals and academics and integrating their insights as I develop my own perspective. While scientifically rigorous, evaluation is also creative and interpersonal. Each evaluator has to find their niche—whether it is a subject matter, approach, or expertise. This may take years, decades, or your entire career to refine, but this is what makes evaluation consulting exciting.
About the Author
Nina Sabarre is an evaluation consultant and doctoral student in Evaluation and Applied Research at Claremont Graduate University. She has experience working on mixed-methods research and evaluation projects in over 25 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Her current work focuses on international development, public-private partnerships, and data visualization. She holds an M.A. in Political Science and B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy with a minor in Urban Affairs and Planning from Virginia Tech, as well as a graduate certificate in Program Monitoring and Evaluation from American University. To contact or collaborate with Nina, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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