NC Evaluators Week: How I Benefit from Being a Non-Traditional Graduate Student in Program Evaluation by Noelle Wyman Roth

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

Lessons Learned:

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. 

The American Evaluation Association is hosting North Carolina (NC) Evaluators Affiliate Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from NC Affiliate members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

2 thoughts on “NC Evaluators Week: How I Benefit from Being a Non-Traditional Graduate Student in Program Evaluation by Noelle Wyman Roth”

  1. Noelle,
    Having been both a ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ graduate student myself, I applaud you for working toward your professional and educational goals simultaneously. I think there is much to be said about being busy and goal-oriented when in graduate school with a job that is rewarding and engaging. I found myself as prepared for courses as my peers pursuing the RA/TA route, which also is work, but of a different kind. I think the core challenge is time-to-degree as it took me longer to get from completing exams to an approved prospectus and completing my dissertation than my peers who were able to devote full time to their projects. Finding sufficient time to write sometimes also conflicts with work commitments, and then you have to choose which to prioritize. But that is all in the future. So let me just end with a hearty congratulations on getting into a program that helps develop your already substantial evaluation skills. Let me know if my experience as a fellow traveler on the work/school/research pathway could be useful in any way. All the best!

  2. Hello Noelle,

    Thank you for sharing your experience, I really enjoyed your perspectives and in a way, it brought me a sense of relief. I am also a graduate student in a non-traditional way. I was hired to a school board and shortly after I decided to complete a Professional Master’s of Education as I knew it was always something I had wanted to do. Especially now during the times of COVID, I felt it was the perfect time as I had less on my plate, surprise, I was wrong with that mindset. You mentioned how at times your schedule can be busy but how your life outside of schoolwork can bring so much more to your work as a student. I am very new to the teaching profession and already with one year of experience, I feel as though I get more out of my program as I have more real-life experience and examples to pull from. You mentioned how you are a better student now because you are able to pull from real-life examples, I could not agree more. One thing I have also noticed with my own teaching practice is applying what I am learning in my courses to my work with a short turnaround. I also find having the ability to practice what I am learning allows me to understand the material and take more time to evaluate and analyze.

    I really enjoyed your honest comment and tips. I made many personal connections and similar to you, I would recommend the non-traditional approach to elevate the learning experience and professional development.

    Take care,

    Andrea

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