Curriculum & Instruction

How to Start a Career in Program Evaluation

How to Start a Career in Program Evaluation
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Noodle Staff March 23, 2018

Looking to become a program evaluator? Noodle has details how how you can make that happen.

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How to Become a Program Evaluator

Every year, abundant sums of money go toward programs and interventions that are designed to help others or alleviate various problems in society. While this is very important, it’s essential that someone be responsible for deciding if the programs being implemented are achieving their goals. A program evaluator has the unique task of assessing programs and interventions from numerous angles to determine if these programs are appropriate and helpful. This is accomplished through research, gathering of data and other proven methods.

As a program evaluator, you will also assess the efficiency of a particular program. That includes looking at its cost versus its benefit. The best programs yield results that outweigh all the efforts and funds required to implement them. A program evaluator would help identify these types of programs, as well as ones that are failing in this area.

Program evaluation is an important profession that offers a way for those implementing programs to be accountable for what they’re doing. This is a benefit for programs of all kinds, from government to private organizations. Even when the program is successful and appropriate, as many are, it’s helpful to have research-driven data to demonstrate its effectiveness. It might even be a program that can be duplicated elsewhere.

Choosing a career in program evaluation

When starting a career as a program evaluator, options are diverse for employment. Program evaluators assess and investigate programs of numerous kinds and sizes. As a program evaluator, you might be employed in an educational setting, charitable organization setting, health care field, human services settings, or government program.

As a program evaluator, you’d expect to employ various kinds of research. This would try to determine if the programs are working effectively and efficiently and whether goals are being achieved. Along with this, you can expect to work with those who commissioned the evaluation to ensure the findings are properly understood and implemented. Program evaluation works best when stakeholders or those impacted by and funding the program, work together with the leading program evaluator.

With a career in evaluation, you’d report your findings to the people who need to know. This would likely include the people making decisions about the programs, those who run and design the programs, those who fund the programs, as well as the individuals who use the programs. Reporting to these audiences can offer accountability, improvement, and facilitate learning.

Typical job responsibilities for program evaluators

Although program evaluator job descriptions will vary from one organization to another, some key tasks will likely overlap. As a program evaluator, you will likely be in charge of designing and developing tools for data collection to be used in the program evaluation. You may upgrade and manage databases being used by the organization. Furthermore, you would likely analyze the program’s processes and outcome data.

You would likely be required to work closely with the program staff to identify ways to improve on the program. This would include training the staff on different aspects of evaluation. After the evaluation ends, you would also need to communicate the findings to program staff and explain how to implement any recommended changes. This might include numerous written reports regarding the findings of the evaluation.

As program evaluator, you will also conduct meetings with program staff and others to explain the process of evaluation and solicit input. In addition, you would review documents related to the program along with data files.

A program evaluator heads up numerous assessments, all designed to determine if the program is achieving its goals effectively and efficiently. An important one is a needs assessment. With this tool, you would examine what population the program is trying to target. The goal is to determine whether the need is truly present in that population and how to best address it.

Some other key aspects of a needs assessment include identifying what problem the program is trying to address and who is affected. Also, how widespread is this problem? What are the measurable effects being caused by the problem?

When funds are being used to alleviate a problem, it’s essential to verify that the problem truly exists and whether the program’s methods are likely to improve the situation. A program evaluator would use a needs assessment to answer these kinds of questions.

Important skills for program evaluators

If your goal is to become a program evaluator, possessing some specific skills and traits will make you the ideal candidate. Those who do the job best are known for being curious as well as analytical. A lot of program evaluation is about asking questions, but it does little good to ask them if you’re not able to analyze the findings.

Other helpful traits to have include being thick-skinned and unflappable because you may have to ask unpopular questions and research areas that program developers would rather you not investigate.

Program evaluators should also be very detail-oriented, persistent, possess good intuitive skills, and be practical. Along with these characteristics, a background that includes research courses in college or in former employment can be a benefit.

Great communication skills are essential, in addition to being a hard worker and a self-starter. Program evaluators are generally confident and should be able to convey a message well both verbally and in writing. With all the data collection involved with program evaluation, you will need the ability to convert large amounts of information into reports that can be understood by the people involved.

Another important skill for program evaluators is an ability to recognize social trends. As an evaluator, you would pay close attention to the community where you work and reside to see what kinds of issues arise frequently. But you would also pay attention to current events and see what sorts of problems people are facing on a larger scale than just your local community. It also helps to learn what is being done to solve problems in yours and other communities, to see what options have already been tried and were either successes or failures.

Finally, program evaluators need flexibility. Sometimes the results of an evaluation won’t be what you expected, but you have to proceed with the plan anyway. Situations may change, and you’ll need to adapt quickly. For some people, it can be a challenge to adjust their plans to accommodate unexpected changes. But program evaluators develop skill at doing just that.

Program evaluator education and training

Program evaluator jobs are filled by people with the most appropriate education and training. Sometimes program evaluators start out in another field of study such as social work. They may gain experience in program evaluation through their employment. No specific license exists that says you can’t call yourself a program evaluator unless you possess the license.

Although employers can seek to fill these positions with individuals from a variety of backgrounds, you may be on the right track to program evaluation opportunities if you pursue a college degree in program evaluation, specifically. This ensures that you have the opportunity to learn the necessary skills and many aspects of a career in program evaluation.

With today’s focus on accountability for funds that are spent, program evaluators are becoming an important addition to many organizations and government programs. The US State Department, along with the US Agency for International Development, established policies requiring evaluation of numerous agencies. Many nonprofit and commercial programs also started program evaluation, including it as part of their routine operations. These practices fueled a new need for trained and educated program evaluators.

Careers in evaluation are beginning to grow. One noticeable effect of this growth is the increasing membership in the American Evaluation Association, which is a major professional organization for program evaluators. Their membership has expanded rapidly in recent years.

Examples of schools that offer master’s degrees in program evaluation

Many programs exist to train you for a career in program evaluation. One example is a Master’s of Science in Measurement and Evaluation at American University in Washington, D.C. This particular program is 20 months and provides 30 credits. It’s designed for online completion, which makes it very convenient for students with busy lifestyles.

University of Rochester also offers a Master’s of Science in Program Evaluation, as well as an advanced certificate. A prior bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for either program. A great benefit to this master’s program is a capstone project that includes actual experience in the program evaluation field. During this time, students may do program evaluator work in Rochester’s schools, colleges, or non-profit organizations with supervision from a professional in the field.

At Claremont Graduate University, you can obtain a Master’s in Evaluation and Applied Research by taking classes online. Their program is especially for students interested in evaluation or research, and prepares these students for an active career in policy and management. It emphasizes a foundation of knowledge in science and methodologies. This includes learning to use research methodology to analyze data as well as conducting your own research.

Michigan State University also has a reputable graduate program for program evaluation. They offer a Master’s of Arts in this field. Their courses are offered entirely online. However, they also offer a two-semester practical application course, which allows students to work alongside program evaluators in the community. It’s an excellent opportunity to learn to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from the prior classes.

Typical curriculum for master’s level program evaluation studies

When pursuing your master’s degree in program evaluation, regardless of the school you choose, similar curriculum is likely to be present. You would expect foundational classes to teach about data collection, evaluation design, and the basics of program evaluation.

Other classes would likely focus on statistics for evaluators, qualitative and mixed method evaluation, along with classes to prepare you for communication about the findings of the program evaluations. In addition, many colleges offer a practicum and perhaps some additional classes to polish up your skills.

Costs of attending college for program evaluation

Costs to obtain a master’s degree in the field of program evaluation will certainly vary depending on whether the school is in your state or district. For the Warner School of Education, which is at the University of Rochester, the cost of tuition is $1,390 per credit. Additional fees apply, such as health fee required for all full-time students. (This cost was for 2016-2017.)

Michigan State University’s figures for 2017-2018 show an cost of $13,078 for tuition, assuming you live in Michigan. For students outside the state, that will be $25,696. Books and supplies may cost approximately $1,500, and of course room and board must be considered.

For those choosing to take classes at Claremont Graduate University, you can expect a cost of $1940 per unit for their online program, as of 2018. Since they require 32 units for graduation, the total cost would come to $62,080.

Graduate students at American University in Washington, D.C. pay $1,642 per credit hour in 2017-2018. This doesn’t include other fees, such as a $65 sports center fee, $120 student technology fee, $30 grad activity fee, an additional $750 per semester for SIS Master’s Program fee, and a $375 per semester fee for Additional Joint Degree program. You would also need to budget for needed books, along with room and board.

Doctoral programs for program evaluation

Reasons to pursue a doctoral degree vary widely, and you’ll need to think about the pros and cons of going. It will definitely make you an expert in your field and hopefully open doors to more opportunities in the community or government to practice the skills involved in program evaluation.

Examples of schools with doctoral degrees for program evaluation

There is more than one path to obtaining a doctoral degree that prepares you for a career in program evaluation. One example is a doctoral degree in education with an emphasis in the area of assessing and evaluating programs. You can find a program like this at Berkeley: University of California. Their PhD program aims to reach students with an education background who desire to evolve their career into one that includes program evaluation and assessment in the field of education. If you don’t already have a master’s degree in a field related to education, there will be additional requirements.

Another option exists at Western Michigan University, where you can obtain your PhD by specializing in evaluation, measurement, and research. Their program is designed to reach highly qualified students who are pursuing careers in program evaluation and related fields. The program prepares them for opportunities in schools, non-profit organizations, universities, and government.

If you’re seeking more online classes, then Kent State University, which is in Ohio, offers a PhD in evaluation and measurement. This 51-credit hour program, with additional dissertation hours, seeks to develop specialists in the field of program evaluation. Kent State was also rated as one of top 100 best online graduate programs by US News and World Report in 2017.

Typical curriculum in the doctoral program for program evaluation

Some courses will vary, depending on the university you choose to attend. But some examples of what to expect include classes in advanced application of measurement methods, design for applied research and evaluation, classes covering qualitative research and general linear models. You would also look for advanced classes covering measurement, research, and evaluation.

A necessary addition to your doctoral studies is a field practicum that offers hands-on experience in the field. Possible other offerings include classes in multivariate statistics and other special topics. Plus, you’ll need to complete a doctoral dissertation.

Costs of obtaining a doctoral degree

In the United States, the cost of a doctoral degree ranges from $28,000 to $40,000, depending on school choice and location. However, most students don’t self fund their PhD, because there are various options to help with paying for your education. With funding sources, you can avoid going into significant debt to obtain your doctoral degree.

Continuing Education for program evaluators

When seeking ways to sharpen your skills as a program evaluator, it’s helpful to find opportunities for continuing education. Sometimes these may be offered at your place of employment. They may also appear at universities where classes are available in program evaluation.

The largest gatherings for evaluators to continue their education are organized by the American Evaluation Association. During 2018, they will be offering evaluation-related classes during the summer, in addition to their normal conference in the fall of 2018.

Some organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, understand the value of evaluation and offer training to help you better understand why it’s important. They provide evaluation-related webinar links on their website, and have a professional evaluator teaching in the American Evaluation Association conference during 2018.

You may find online courses, also. Better Evaluation has several to select for the year of 2018. Examples include courses on writing an evaluation report, becoming a successful evaluation consultant, managing the politics of evaluation, and a guide for evaluation practitioners. Workshops are also offered in places all over the world, such as one about cross cultural evaluation, being offered in Australia during March of 2018.

Program evaluator associations to join

As with any career path, program evaluation has its own associations that promote professional development, alert members to employment opportunities, and offer a place for evaluators to connect with like-minded individuals.

The most notable of these is the American Evaluation Association. This group was founded in 1986, with the merger of the Evaluation Research Society and the Evaluation Network. Now active all over the world, American Evaluation Association had over 7,000 members as of 2014.

The stated mission of the American Evaluation Association is “to improve evaluation as a profession, and support the contribution of evaluation to the generation of theory and knowledge about effective human action.”

As a program evaluator at any stage of your career, you would likely benefit from membership in the American Evaluation Association. They are known for their great conferences, including one coming in fall 2018. This one will be Evaluation 2018, with a subtitle of Speaking Truth to Power. It takes place in Cleveland, Ohio.

The American Evaluation Association also hosts a summer program in June of 2018, held in Atlanta, Georgia. This program is expected to include keynote addresses, many training sessions, and group luncheons that will facilitate networking among the attendees.

Other organizations exist for program evaluators, although not as widely available as the American Evaluation Association. For example, the Center for Prevention Research and Development, located at the University of Illinois, focuses on applying research to public service.

Also, the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University spends time providing leadership in the area of advancing evaluation as applied to education and human services. Their main activities are research, development, instruction, and leadership.

What types of companies hire program evaluators

If you pursue a career as a program evaluator, you’ll likely discover that a lot of choice exists in where you might be employed. Program evaluators are often employed in all levels of education, federal and state agencies, non-profit organizations, and a host of private organizations. Some program evaluators also choose to work as consultants, offering services to a variety of companies.

Demand for program evaluators is high, due to an increased focus on accountability for organizations using funds to alleviate problems. For example, recently listed an opening for a program evaluator in the state of North Carolina. The person in that position would conduct program evaluation of health and human services programs.

In Portland, Oregon, another advertised program evaluator position was for someone to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of a child and family services program. This required at least a master’s degree and related work experience.

An organization in Albany, NY was recently seeking an epidemiologic and program evaluation assistant. If chosen for this position, you would be doing evaluation for the New York State Department of Health, AIDS Institute.

Another job opening, located in Orlando, Florida is for a vocational evaluator. If you were selected for this position, you would develop training and use methods of evaluation to set meaningful vocational goals.

As evidenced by these job opportunities, program evaluator careers are available all over the United States. Wherever programs exist, there is a need for evaluators to determine if the programs are effective and efficient.

Program evaluator salary

Compensation for program evaluators varies widely across the United States. The average pay for the United States, as a whole, is $62,774 per year. Breaking it down by states, New York ranks highest with an average salary of $73,000 annually for program evaluators. Examples of employers hiring program evaluators in New York are AmeriCorps, Volunteers of America, Mount Sinai Medical Center, and The Vitamin Shoppe.

At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest average compensation for program evaluators is found in Idaho at $39,000 per year. Of course, cost of living is a factor when considering which state to pursue your career. Examples of employers using program evaluators in Idaho are Emeritus Senior Living, Covenant Dove, and BrightStar Care.

When looking at program evaluator salary in select US cities, you also find a lot of variability. In Los Angeles, CA the average salary for a program evaluator is $61,220 per year. In Boston, MA the average annual salary is $68.200. For program evaluators in Chicago, IL, the average annual compensation is $54,496. A program evaluation consultant in Dallas, TX could earn an average of $57,000 per year.

As with the average pay per state, you would need to consider the cost of living for the city in which you choose to pursue your career, as well as personal preference factors. Obtaining more experience and education will also open doors for higher salaries.

Perhaps you have only recently discovered the field of program evaluation. Even with such a high need for people to do evaluation of programs, not everyone is familiar with this as a career option. In fact, US News and World Report declared it one of the top 10 best kept secret careers. This means the opportunities are abundant, because the competition may be less fierce.

The stakeholders, who are the people supporting and impacted by the programs, often welcome accountability. It’s simply unwise to fund a particular intervention without being certain that it’s going to work. Just as important, is it the best way to accomplish the goal, and how much is the cost to benefit ratio? If you would enjoy answering these kinds of questions, and more, a career in program evaluation may be an ideal fit for you.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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