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The Black Hole

So, you want to be a program evaluator when you grow up…

BY BETH | JUL 22 2010

Since Dave has started us off on the “So you want to be a blank when you grow up” series, I’m going to take the lowest of the low hanging fruit and tell you all about what I’ve learned since becoming a program evaluator!  But first I’d like to mention two things:

  • If there is a type of career you are particularly interested in, let us know and we’ll see what we can dig up.
  • If you are a PhD who hasn’t followed the tenure track and would like to share your experiences with our readers in this series, please let us know. We’d love more guest posters!

— Now, onto the exciting world of program evaluation! So, you want to be a Program Evaluator when you grow up… Evaluation is a great career for a PhD, because it allows you to use the skills you developed in your training – research skills, problem solving, critical thinking, project management, and more. Though I’d not heard of evaluation as a field per se during my education, it actually is quite established as a profession.  If you want to get a good sense of what evaluation is all about, I’d suggest checking out:

Each of these societies’ websites have a wealth of information about evaluation, including things like evaluation standards of practice, literature, conferences and workshops, and, importantly, job postings and requests for applications for contracts.  Which brings us to the question:

In-House Evaluator or Independent Consultant?

There are pros and cons to both, of course.  Working in house (like I do) offers things that are appealing both personally (like a stable income and benefits) and professionally (like the ability to have a thorough understanding of the programs you evaluate, the opportunity to work with programs over the long-term and see them flourish, and a chance to build evaluation capacity in your sector ((if such a thing appeals to you, like it does for me.)).  Working as an independent consultant offers benefits like flexibility of when and where and on what you work and the chance to make a lot more money than you will in-house.  Apparently there is a tendency for evaluators to flip between in house and independent throughout their careers (as one colleague described it to me, you get sick of the bureaucracy of working in-house, so you go out on your own for about 5 years, then you get lonely from working on your own for so long, so join an organization. And repeat).  You can, of course, combine the two – for example, having an in-house job and do small evaluation projects on contract on the side).  And working for an evaluation firm – where you have some security, benefits, etc., but some of the flexibility of working on your own – is a possibility as well.

Training in Program Evaluation

There are a number of training opportunities to learn more about program evaluation and to build particular skills.  The above-named societies offer a variety of training workshops, as does the Evaluators’ Institute. As well, if you are interested in doing more schooling, you can get graduate-level training in program evaluation at:

As well, the CES has recently launched a credentialing program, and though it’s still early days, I think it will be well worth working towards obtaining that credential, especially if you plan to work as an independent consultant. And a few resources worth checking out: In addition to the wealth of resources on the CES, AEA, EES websites, here are a few things that I would recommend reading:

  • Michael Patton’s Utilization-focused Evaluation ((Patton has also recently published a book called Developmental Evaluation – I haven’t read it yet, but it’s probably worth checking out))
  • Kellogg Foundation Logic Model Development Guide
  • Consulting and evaluation with nonprofit and community-based organizations by Judah J. Viola, Susan Dvorak McMahon.

Final words: Like Dave said about science writing, it’s worth starting to build your portfolio of evaluation projects early. You can certainly use aspects of your graduate research as a demonstration of your skills, but picking up some small evaluation projects while you are in school – perhaps even working under a more established evaluator as a mentor – would be good way to start off your portfolio.

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  1. Beth / August 9, 2010 at 15:58

    Thanks for posting those, Kelly! I haven’t yet had much of a chance to read up on Developmental Evaluation yet (though I have printed out the primer!)

  2. Emarvydo / September 18, 2012 at 16:53

    What exactly IS program evaluation? I visited the American Evaluation Association but it was a bit vague. Could you give an example of what a program evaluator does?

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