It's nerve-wracking to be approached by a recent grad or student asking my advice on how to break into the evaluation field. I want to look around and see if they're really talking to someone else, someone who's been doing this forever who knows exactly what they're talking about, not someone in the midst of breaking into the field themselves.
Then I remind myself that no one ever knows exactly what they're talking about, especially in a field as dynamic and rapidly growing as evaluation. And while I may still be at the start of what I hope will be a long career, that also gives me an excellent perspective on things that in five or twenty years I may have forgotten about or may no longer be relevant. So none of this advice comes with a solid guarantee of success, but it does come with my absolute promise that you're not the only one using it.
EDITED FEB 28, 2017: One year later and I wouldn't change a word of this advice! Also, if you are interested in getting involved in our growing network of new and emerging evaluators in the BC-Yukon region, please get in touch with me or Michelle Naimi (michellenaimi at gmail!) and we will add you to our Slack group and mailing list so you're in the loop on new opportunities for emerging evaluators in our region.
1. Have a vision
Don't shy away from thinking about what you want from your career. As evaluators, we know identifying goals is critical when it comes to assessing programs, and they're just as important when planning your career. It's fine to take formative approach though, or even a developmental one! Personally, my vision right now is 1) to live in Vancouver and 2) to work with service providers who are invested in transformational impact and community growth. These two goals have guided much of my decision-making over the last few years and steered me through some challenging and confusing times.
As far as priorities go, they are pretty flexible, but like bright stars in the night sky, they help keep me on course. And, like a good evaluator, I routinely re-assess to see if my priorities have changed and if I'm getting where I want to go.
You probably already have a vision for what you want too. Don’t be afraid of it! Don't worry about it being too simple or too grand. Right now it's only a guide. Think about what you want, write about it somewhere private, share it with people you trust. Let it be an evolving, living thing that grows as you do. It may sound a little fluffy, but think about all the incredible programs and organizations that start with just a vision, and don't sell yourself short.
2. Be visible
This means that people know what you do and where to find you. It can be scary, like being on stage when the house lights are down, staring out into blackness, worrying that either no one is watching or everyone is. (The truth is somewhere in the middle.) But while it can be intimidating to put yourself out there, it's essential for making those elusive and unexpected connections that lead to further opportunities. I follow a historian on Twitter who commented on how many interesting research leads he's gotten from people contacting him out of the blue, simply because they knew what kind of work he did and how to reach him.
Social media is a big part of this. I use Twitter and this website to make myself visible and accessible, but there are lots of different platforms out there. Pick the ones that make the most sense for you and start following and sharing. Even if you're not planning to be an independent or external evaluator, having a web presence lets you introduce yourself and get involved with the evaluation community, learn about useful resources, and stay on top of new developments in the field. If you don't feel up to interacting with others or generating your own content yet, it's just as valuable to listen, read, and engage that way.
It's not all web-based either! Visibility and accessibility means being present and engaged in your community, whether it’s a community of evaluators or the community you live or work in. Show up, let people know who you are. When you go to events, get a $25 pack of DIY business cards at an office supply store and print off a few sheets with your name and contact information. Learn to talk about what you do with passion and energy, so that when people hear about something you might be interested in, they know just who to share it with.
Don't worry if it doesn't seem like anyone is listening at first. Establishing a presence is like starting a garden. It takes a lot of patience and starts small, but keep planting seeds.
3. Get involved
and meet people
I'm an introvert so this is the hardest of my own advice to take, but it's important, so I work at it all the harder.
This is a logical extension from from being visible and accessible. You also need to connect with others. Evaluation can be a lonely job, whether you are your own boss or the lone evaluator in a crowd of service providers and stakeholders. Other evaluators, your peers and mentors and extended professional network, will be a critical source of support, solace, advice, ideas, and opportunities. Fortunately, we are a friendly and collaborative bunch, and there is no shortage of ways to connect with us locally and across the globe.
National associations like the Canadian Evaluation Society or the American Evaluation Association are a great place to start (and membership in one will get you a discount for the other). Look for student rates while you can. National conferences are awesome for networking and meeting new people (don't be afraid to submit for them either! Be visible!). Don't discount the opportunities close to home either. In Canada, there are regional chapters of CES across the country, each with their own unique slate of events. Check out what's happening in your own backyard.
And get involved! CES and all of its regional chapters are there to support evaluators, so let them know if there's something you'd like to see or help organize. The meet-up for new and emerging evaluators that Michelle Naimi (CES-BCY Student Engagement Coordinator) and I are putting on in a couple of weeks came directly from a desire to foster community among evaluators at similar stages in their careers. There may be something in your area that's just waiting for a passionate evaluator to make it happen. There are also more and more options out there for online meeting groups, so geography is not a boundary.
Don't limit yourself to just evaluation circles either! There are lots of associated professions, like planning and public administration, that may have great opportunities (IPAC Vancouver has hosted a number of events relevant to evaluators lately). Design is becoming a huge topic in evaluation, so I've taken advantage of having the Emily Carr University of Art + Design nearby and checked out several of their events and begun to meet new people that way. Every region and city will have its own opportunities. And again if there's a sector or particular organization you are interested in, then attend events or start volunteering as a way to get involved. You don't need to overwhelm yourself, but there are endless opportunities once you start looking.
Finally, but most importantly, don't overlook the value of just reaching out to people and seeing if they're interested in meeting with you to talk shop over coffee. I've both given and responded to requests like that, and had interesting and useful outcomes from both. Everyone you meet will give you a chance to grow and learn as a professional.
4. Keep learning
One of the most demanding (and rewarding) aspects of evaluation is the rate at which the field is growing and evolving, meaning there's always some new skill to be honed or concept to be added to your ever-growing repertoire. Everyone has their own strengths, but a strong evaluator is someone who can draw on a solid array of tools and knows who to ask for help when out of their depth. Even when you're no longer a student, you will never stop being a learner. This is also where having your vision in mind will help because you're going to need to pick and choose between learning opportunities.
Evaluation training opportunities abound. CES has its Essential Skills Series and regular webinars. AEA offers weekly coffee break webinars and has a whole library of online resources. Whether or not you're planning on applying for the CE designation, check out the CES evaluator competencies to see where you think your weak spots might be, and look for things that will help you develop there. For those interested in advanced training, there are a host of educational opportunities out there, from full graduate programs to part-time certificates and diplomas. Sign-up for weekly email blasts and newsletters to learn about current opportunities in your area. Building on the importance of the professional network, you'll also learn from talking with other evaluators, sharing your own struggles and successes, and listening to theirs.
Think outside the immediate field as well. Evaluation is influenced from all directions. Interested in data visualization? That's a whole field unto itself, and there may be conferences, workshops, and training opportunities near you. Want to up your public speaking and presenting skills? Look into acting workshops or your local Toastmaster's club. In Saskatchewan, I took Cree language classes to help me with all the new-to-me words and names and to better understand the cultural context of the province I was working in. Now I'm taking computer science courses at BCIT because of my interest in data infrastructure and technology solutions. There's also no shortage of books, articles, websites, and YouTube videos that will help you self-teach on an endless number of topics.
5. Do your research
For many new evaluators, the number one question is, "How do I get a job?" Being visible and accessible, making professional connections, and keeping on top of your skills is part of that, but to bring it all together, you also need do your research on the field. Find out who is who, who's doing what, which organizations are big and which ones are up-and-coming, and what topics other evaluators and potential employers or clients care about most.
Try putting "program evaluation" and the name of your city or region into Google and see what comes up. Every time I learn about an agency, whether an evaluation firm or a funding foundation or a community group I'd like to work with, I check out their website, read through any reports and resources they have available, and bookmark them in my browser. I routinely do searches on topics I'm passionate about, like evaluation capacity building or innovative data solutions, to look for new resources. I also keep an eye on my Twitter feed for articles and resources on topics I haven't even thought to look into yet. Anything I find useful gets bookmarked and sorted. (If you're in BC or Yukon, keep an eye on this CES-BCY resource website for new job postings.)
I also read every job posting and proposal request I see, even when I'm not available, eligible, or interested in them. It keeps me informed about who's hiring and who's putting out projects, what kinds of skills and knowledge are in demand and how my qualifications rate, and what a reasonable salary range is. CES's weekly email blasts are handy for this, as is my Twitter feed, where people often announce and share job postings. As I've built my professional network, I'm also more likely to get forwarded email notices about potential projects or job opportunities. Keep your CV up-to-date because some positions come up with very short turnaround times or you may not find them until just before the closing date.
Again, volunteering can help you learn about a specific organization or a sector from the inside, whether you're offering your evaluation services or doing more traditional volunteer work. It's also an excellent way to get involved and meet people and build that crucial network.
This is not an exhaustive list of everything you can do as an emerging evaluator. Nor can I offer any guarantees of success, as I said. But it's the kind of advice I know I benefited from or would have appreciated hearing over the last few years, so here's hoping it will be useful to you. If you have specific questions, you can get in touch through my contact form and I'll do my best to help you out.
On a final note, a few months ago an evaluator colleague shared this excellent poem with me, the Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann. It's full of wise words and solid guidance, and I find it a soothing read in the middle of an otherwise stressful and challenge-filled day, so in that spirit I share it here for all of you:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Copyright 1952.