Master's vs. PhD for a Program Evaluation/Impact Assessment Career
August 17, 2015 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm halfway through a two-year master's degree in an applied social science field, and would eventually like to work as an evaluator for a non-profit or the government. Should I pursue a PhD on top of the master's?

After graduating from college and working for about six years, I returned to school for a master's degree, and am about to start my second (and final) year. My program is focused on applied social science research. The coursework is only tangentially related to my past professional experience, so most of what I'm learning is new information for me--statistics, quantitative/qualitative research, program evaluation & assessment, survey methods, etc. I'm also working at an assistantship and summer internship, both of which are relevant to my program of study.

So far, I've been happy with the program and classes, but I'm starting to worry that a master's alone won't be enough for me to advance in my future career. When I graduate, I'd like to work in program evaluation or impact assessment for a non-profit, cultural institution, or the government. I've looked at job openings in these fields, and am somewhat concerned about the number of listings that require or prefer a PhD. Of course, this doesn't apply to every job I've seen. Some will accept either a PhD or a master's plus a few years experience, and some only require a master's.

I know the standard advice is to steer clear of PhD programs unless you want to be a professor, but I'm starting to wonder if--for applied research careers--I might be shortchanging myself by stopping at a master's. I guess I'm worried that 10 or 20 years down the road, my career will stagnate and I won't be able to move beyond a certain level without the doctorate.

I would enjoy taking more upper-level graduate classes, and am confident that I could do the PhD without debt (at my current institution, at least). However, I have to admit that I'm less enthusiastic about writing a dissertation. Although I have some ideas about potential dissertation topics, it's hard to stomach the thought of spending 2-3 years working mostly alone on a project only a handful of people are likely to read. I tend to prefer working with others, shifting my focus between multiple projects, and analyzing or solving practical problems. Moreover, I'd be 33 or 34 by the time I graduated with a PhD. This seems late to be jumping into a relatively new career. That said, if the lack of a PhD is going to seriously hinder my job prospects, I think I'd be foolish to avoid it. should I proceed from here? Graduate with a master's degree, skip the doctorate, and spend my time gaining work experience instead? Keep going for the PhD? Consider returning for a PhD in a few years (even though I'll be in my mid-late thirties by then) if it turns out that having only a master's is indeed a career hindrance?
posted by oiseau to Education (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
it's hard to stomach the thought of spending 2-3 years working mostly alone on a project only a handful of people are likely to read

I know this is the stereotype, but if it turns out like this, you might have chosen the wrong topic. Especially since you're interested in immediate problems and solutions. Speaking from what I've seen in social-science-ish cognitive psychology/neuroscience, many students' theses are simply 3+ of their published (or submitted) papers as chapters with some transition pages, supplemental material, an intro, and conclusions. Articles certainly get read if they're in middling-or-better journals.

shifting my focus between multiple projects

Out of everything you've said, this is the biggest roadblock I see. But then, like above, you can be interested in multiple aspects of the same problem, publish on them, and string them together with a bit of narrative.

Do you have a PI in your program that you want to work with as an advisor, and wants to work with you? If you do, I don't see anything stopping you (other than the opportunity cost of (starting salary - stipend)*5ish years).
posted by supercres at 10:51 AM on August 17, 2015

PhD can't HURT, particularly if you're aiming for executive level positions later, but I would say perhaps you should look into becoming an intern, volunteer, or graduate assistant in a department or program that actually deals with applied assessment simply to build up your resume and to establish a network. In the end education and a dissertation look good and impressive, but employers, even at the university level, want to see that you can execute what you've learned for various "clients." Joining a professional association couldn't hurt either.

Does your university have an institutional research or effectiveness department that offers graduate assistantships or internships? That's a good start. Before diving into a PhD you might want to see if that is even a career you enjoy. Evaluation jobs come with an entire slew of frustrations just like academia and its best to see if you're the sort that can handle them. ASK ME HOW I KNOW.
posted by Young Kullervo at 11:15 AM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

This was exactly my SIL's field. She had done all but her dissertation and worked as an evaluator for cultural programs in Germany for many years. She passed away recently so cannot connect you but I know she loved her work and was well regarded by her colleagues and I think the phd did matter.
posted by leslies at 2:42 PM on August 17, 2015

This is my exact field. I don't think a phd is worth it unless you want to go into govt specifically or a think tank like urban that also does eval. Evaluation is great in that it is still a newish field where credentials don't matter that much. And I can say my
Job has definitely turned ppl away for being too academic. People I know have social work, biz, psych degrees along with a fair number of MPHs and MPAs. Experience trumps education once you have a masters
posted by neematoad at 2:56 PM on August 17, 2015

I work in program evaluation at a university. I dropped out of my sociology PhD program after two years. This has definitely limited my ability to push for different titles, raises, etc. at my job because of bureaucratic requirements. However, I do exactly the same work as the PhD research scientists in my office, and our payscale is flat enough that I am not terribly offended that I'm paid less than them. (And if I'd been in school not earning money during years I was working instead, I might even be behind now, and I was fully funded in my program. I would never consider PAYING for a PhD.)
posted by metasarah at 3:08 PM on August 17, 2015

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