My name is Noelle Wyman Roth and I am a Research & Evaluation Analyst at the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University. In addition to working as a full-time evaluator, I am beginning a part-time PhD program at UNC-Greensboro this fall. I’m writing to share why being a non-traditional PhD student by pursuing my degree part-time is ideal for me, and how this choice benefits both my work and my contributions in the classroom.
Why a PhD in program evaluation?
Like many, I have taken a meandering path to program evaluation. I earned a professional master’s degree in environmental management nearly a decade ago, and spent much of the intervening time in academia focused on qualitative environmental education research and project management. This eventually led to supporting qualitative evaluation projects as a small portion of my role five years ago, which has become a full-time, mixed-methods evaluator position.
I had thought about doctoral work for some time, and ultimately decided to augment both my analytical skills and my understanding of evaluation as a field through pursuing formal graduate training in program evaluation. (I leaned heavily on this AEA page to explore my options.) I selected and was admitted to UNC-Greensboro’s PhD in Educational Research Methods with a concentration in Program Evaluation.
While there are certainly benefits to being able to dedicate my full attention to my studies, as I have done previously, there are also uncelebrated benefits of being a part-time student. I elected to be a part-time graduate student for practical reasons: I’m a mom, home-owner, and breadwinner, and as such, I could not feasibly quit working. The flexibility to pursue a PhD part-time was an important part of selecting a graduate program that was the right fit.
Last academic year, to get to know my program, I took two courses as a visiting student. Through this experience, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I learned that working in my chosen field of study has an immediate payoff. For example, while working on a state-funded program evaluation, I learned about the history and role of evaluation in public policy more broadly. Through a course on culturally-responsive evaluation, I had gained new theoretical groundings and resources in this framework that I could bring to grant applications and project design. Furthermore, being a student gives me the space to critically examine my work and role, such as the power dynamics of being a junior evaluator.
Furthermore, I believe I am a better student because I have current work experience in evaluation. I’ve found that drawing on practical examples in classroom discussions is helpful for my learning; I am hopeful that my classmates will benefit as well. I am also more able to connect with guest speakers and ask thoughtful questions. For the first time in my academic career, I have clear, articulated interests and questions that I want to pursue—namely, I intend to explore role of the natural environment in program evaluation with an emphasis on the intersection of sustainability and social justice. With this focus, I feel I have the capacity to contribute to the field.
Certainly, this is a substantial balancing act. I recognize that the graduate experience extends beyond the classroom; my advisor and I plan to be strategic and plan co-curriculars for each semester. Despite these challenges, I think that being a part-time PhD student is the best choice for my personal, scholarly, and professional worlds. I am enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to continue my studies.
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