What Graduate Students Should Unlearn Before Becoming Evaluators

Calling all new and emerging evaluators—this post is for you! Graduate school can change the way you look at the world, but is that change for better or for worse? The answer, of course, is that it depends. But some skills typically learned in graduate school can actually hinder the ability to properly conduct evaluations.

In the beginning, learning to write literature reviews and design research studies is challenging because it requires one to exercise very careful logic to reach conclusions. Each thought must be justified by research-based evidence, each term must be painstakingly defined, each theoretical framework must be eloquently outlined, and each system or process must be elaborately illustrated. Much time is spent honing not only critical thinking skills, but also the ability to use (and show!) logic. Linking A to B, completing Step 1 before Step 2, proving X leads to Y—the brain becomes accustomed to thinking in a linear manner. Causation, causation, causation! After hours of reading and writing, of rereading and rewriting, it is no surprise that these habits can be hard to break. But we desperately need to unlearn some of those habits we paid so dearly to obtain.

Let me explain. I don’t have the data to prove it, but I wager that a quick survey of graduate students in academic disciplines—research-based rather than practitioner-focused programs—would reveal that more time is spent working alone than in groups. Solitary work is quite conducive to linear thought, at least in the academic sense (keeping focused on the work at hand is another story!) In such circumstances, one has the luxury of designing elaborate models that control for any and every conceivable variable that could affect the ability of the research to yield statistically significant results. And this type of research is incredibly effective for the purposes it intends to serve. In fact, many organizations engage in research, and these skills are critical to pursuing that type of work. But too many students latch onto the idea of evaluation as a career path and, fresh from their studies, attempt to use the research paradigm they’ve recently internalized in order to answer complex questions in a messy world that requires a different approach. As a recent graduate student, I know how hard these habits can be to break and how much practice it takes to effectively determine when to use research versus evaluation. This post aims to help you figure it out faster!

So what exactly does evaluation do differently than research? John LaVelle created a great visual to show just that:

Eval and Research Hourglass

Still not convinced? Check out this excellent article by E. Jane Davidson on unlearning social scientist habits—required reading for recent or soon to be graduates looking to break into evaluation!

If one of the first things you are learning as a new evaluator is how to design a logical framework or logic model, be sure you review these resources (and more!) very carefully. I use logic models regularly and find them useful in many ways, but they can be ineffective and downright dangerous paired with an “objective” research lens. Start unlearning those less-than-helpful-for-evaluation research habits from the start, and you’ll become a stronger and more seasoned evaluator.

What other habits learned in graduate school need to be unbroken or adapted upon entering the messy world of “work’”? Share your tips!



    • Molly Hamm

      Thanks, Ann! I find that explaining evaluation to non-evaluators can be quite challenging at times. Visuals help a lot, especially in filtering out jargon that can make evaluation even harder to understand!

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