The Centre for Evaluation recently held a lunchtime seminar, hosted by the Centre's Student Liaison Officers, to discover more about life as an evaluator. Though the main audience was current LSHTM students, the experience and advice provided by the expert panellists is relevant to anyone seeking a career in evaluation!
With the academic year slowly approaching its end, many students wonder what will follow after their Master’s degree at the School. For those intrigued and excited about the diverse field of evaluation, the Centre for Evaluation’s student liaison officers organised a career panel on May 4th, 2021. Questions ranged from “What skills do I need as an evaluator?“ and “In which fields can I work to conduct evaluations?“ to “Should I pursue a PhD first before working in evaluation?”
The session started off with an introduction to our panellists: Joanna Busza, Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Associate Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health at LSHTM; Munshi Sulaiman, Regional Research Lead in Africa at BRAC International and Research Advisor at BIGD; Anne LaFond, Director for the Center for Health Information, M&E at John Snow Inc and Ona McCarthy, Deputy Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Assistant professor at LSHTM.
Together, the panellists covered a wide range of sectors in the field of public health evaluation, topics and methods of interest as well as different career stages. As displayed by their diverse backgrounds and current sectors, working in “evaluation” can have many different meanings: the scope of work can range from conducting evaluation projects as an academic to working for non-governmental organisations or being hired by private consultancy firms.
Additionally, often times evaluators not only change sectors sequentially but also mix different positions and contracts concurrently. While some start off with a PhD in evaluation and slowly complement their work with consultancy contracts, others step out of academia after their MSc and learn much of their evaluation skills through direct hands-on practical work. Early in the panel, it became clear that there is no one path leading to a career in evaluation and that life as an evaluator can be diverse and manifold.
Correspondingly, the set of skills needed to work in the evaluation setting cover a wide range of topic expertise as well as methodological proficiency. Against this backdrop, all panellists agreed that young evaluators need a basic evaluation mindset and framework as well as a general grasp of quantitative or qualitative data analysis. This can be obtained as part of an MSc degree, stand-alone modules or short courses. Anything beyond the basics can be learnt directly on the job and in the field under the auspices of senior evaluators.
When asked about the balance between breadth and depth of knowledge and methodological expertise in public health evaluation, the panellists came to the conclusion that a general specialisation in either one public health topic or one methodology is critical in order to clarify the added value of the young evaluator to the team. Yet, a broad interest and initial understanding of other topics and methodologies combined with the flexibility to evolve and learn remains important.
In addition to the “hard” topical knowledge and methodological expertise, the panellists stressed the importance of “soft” communicative and cross-sector collaborative skills needed for a successful career in evaluation: as an evaluator one is working with different actors around a programme’s funding and implementation, making it essential to be able to work and communicate in diverse teams and foster strong, formidable and long-term partnerships. This holds true especially in communicating with and “evaluating” the implementer’s work. A perceptive and knowledgeable insight into the realities of an implementer is key for successful collaboration and evaluation.
Another question of importance to the soon-to-be MSc graduates was regarding the necessity to pursue a PhD degree if one is planning for a career in practical evaluation outside of academia. The panellists agreed that one should follow a PhD if one is inherently interested and not merely out of career considerations. Nevertheless, with today’s phenomenon of “degree inflation” a PhD may be helpful in advancing one’s career. Yet, it is by no means an absolute requirement. Similarly, one may start one’s career after the MSc, gain practical knowledge and experience in evaluation before deciding to conduct a PhD at a later career stage. The gained insights into real-life evaluation will help shape and enrich your academic work. The panellists agreed a PhD does offer a great opportunity to focus and deep dive into one part of evaluation for a longer period of time, equipping the student with a very advanced skill set and offering personal development.
Additionally, for those enjoying academic work, e.g. teaching, academic publishing and generating knowledge on a broader scope, it can be an interesting and enriching path to combine practical evaluation with academic work. This helps in staying at the forefront of state-of-the-art evaluation while ensuring that new theoretical concepts are applied to real-world settings.
Finally, the panellists’ careers and stories were a living example of the various starting points and paths students can take in their evaluation journey. One should not shy away from applying to open positions and using existing networks to reach out and connect. A good starting point is to familiarise oneself with an evaluator’s past work before contacting them displaying one’s effort and interest in their projects. Sending an email may seem daunting at first, yet can be the start of an exciting opportunity.
To conclude, the field of evaluation is still growing, very diverse and characterised by a huge demand for skilled junior evaluators. Identify your topic or methodology of interest, invest in obtaining the basic skills and stay open for and adaptable to new challenges. If interested in academia, a PhD may be a good starting point but a career in evaluation does not need specific credentials or modules but rather an evaluation mindset and openness to learn and grow.
This blog entry was written by Amir Mohsenpour.
The Centre for Evaluation’s student-liaison officers would like to thank all panellists for their time and all students for their interest.
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