How to Have a Career in Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) with No Prior Experience
Over the last several months my inbox has been exploding with questions related to having a successful career in the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). The queries include ‘How can I land a M&E job if prospective employers keep asking for direct M&E specific experience? The question continues, 'I have only worked in programme management (or I have no prior in experience in development work at all)?’ and ‘Which M&E training course is the best one on the market for me to pursue?’
I thought it better to pen a blog article so everyone can benefit from the information I am about to share on my own professional progression. First of all, my disclaimer is that ‘many roads lead to Rome’. In other words, there is no one, guaranteed track or path to ‘M&E Career Bliss’. My own path has been a bit unorthodox.
With this said though, whichever path you choose, before you embark on your journey, it is paramount to:
Acquire formal certification in Monitoring and Evaluation
I personally believe that no single institution is the holy grail of M&E instruction. The course of study only needs to be accredited, recognised and the trainers experienced. No need to chase after a prestigious, ‘brand name learning institution’. Of far more importance is how the curriculum aligns with the stage and goals of your career.
For example, if your knowledge and experience in M&E is absolutely zero and you have made up your mind that M&E is exactly what you want to be doing with your life, then it behoves you to pursue a course that covers the fundamentals (such as a longer academic programme).
However, if you have worked for many years in project management and involved in numerous evaluations but lack the official ‘M&E’ job title and what to make a career shift, then perhaps you could opt for shorter professional development courses (pitched at either ‘introductory’, intermediate’ or ‘advanced’ levels) rather than pursue a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree programme.
None of my undergraduate or postgraduate degrees specialised in ‘Monitoring and Evaluation”. Instead I majored in Sociology, Psychology and International Development. However, under these academic programmes I took courses related to social research methods, survey design, statistics etc.
These are all skills that came in handy in the M&E assignments that increasingly came my way on previous jobs. This became such a recurring thing that at a certain point I decided to complement my formal education with different short professional development courses in M&E (think 2-5 day workshops). After this I segued into being a M&E practitioner. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting some form of training before branding yourself a ‘M&E expert’.
Once you have acquired the ‘papers’ to feel confident to talk and work on M&E matters, the next step is to gather the relevant experience. This is the problem that a lot of persons new to the field are currently facing. Most M&E job vacancy ads for entry level positions insist that the ideal applicant has at least 2-3 years of direct M&E experience. However, how will you ever get the M&E experience if most employers don’t even want to hire you in the first place?
Luckily, there are several ways to get around this
1. Using your actual job as a springboard
If you are currently employed in development work, you may be able to create the opportunities to gain the M&E experience you seek. For example, if your project has been implemented for a time now, perhaps you could push for a Mid-Term or End Evaluation. Then you get involved in drafting the Terms of Reference for the consultant conducting the evaluation, try and be a part of the Inception Meetings, make yourself available to be the focal point within the programme team for the evaluators, make sure you also get a chance to review the draft evaluation reports, ask the evaluators questions on their methods, observe, take notes etc. You get the picture! Do this a few times and you will gather some M&E experience.
2. Volunteer to assist experienced evaluators
If you are unemployed or your current job does not allow for the opportunity to get M&E experience (maybe you work in the banking sector at the moment), you can volunteer to assist a more seasoned evaluator.
Many professional evaluators I know simply detest entering data into long Excel sheets and other statistical software. As such, they would be happy to have this mundane task done by someone else. Why not let that someone be you? There is nothing wrong in being humble and starting at the bottom of the M&E totem pole. Believe me, an evaluator is far more likely to mentor you and take you on as an apprentice if you actually bring some value to the table to make their lives easier. This is crucial to remember. Next time you think of contacting someone out the blue to mentor you, keep in mind that they probably receive dozens of similar requests on a regular basis. As such, set yourself apart from others by actually demonstrating how you can be an asset to them.
Volunteering and mentorship gives you invaluable M&E experience and at the same time help you make professional connections that may eventually land you a paid job.
Perhaps you are now wondering, ‘how do I even get to volunteer or get a prospective mentor if I never meet these evaluators?’ No worries. See my next point for suggestions on how to come in contact with these professionals.
3. Join evaluation networks and associations
It is vital for all serious M&E professionals (aspiring and seasoned) to be part of an evaluation association. This is a good way to network and learn of opportunities such as jobs that may never get widely advertised or mentorship programmes like the one from DME for Peace. This interactive map gives an overview of the evaluation societies and associations worldwide.
4. Let go of your preoccupation with job titles
Now say you have formal training in M&E (professional development course(s) and/or a degree programme) and you have acquired experience on your job, through volunteering or a mentorship.
You feel confident that you can execute the functions of M&E specialist, (heck, some of you have been doing M&E tasks for years already though their official title is ‘Programme Manager’ or ‘Social Officer’). However, you see a job vacancy ad that states that the successful candidate should have held the post of “M&E Manager” in the past etc.
Doubt may start to creep into your head where you tell yourself that you don’t have direct M&E experience because your official job titles did not say this. Nonetheless, you have been a lead researcher on many studies in the past, trained in participatory methodologies and you are a statistics guru. These are relevant skillsets that you should highlight in a job interview and stop fixating that your current or past the job titles were not ‘M&E Manager’.
Having said this, my last advice is just to;
5. Apply for the job
Bear in mind that employers rarely get the ideal or perfect candidate for any job. They often settle for the best from the pool of applicants. Furthermore, a well experienced M&E professional with more than 5 years experience mostly likely will not apply for an entry level M&E post of a certain salary. Chances are you are competing with persons with the same amount (or absence of) experience like yourself. The playing field is level, as such, JUST DO IT!
I hope you found this article helpful. Please feel free to share any other tips or useful information for aspiring M&E professionals (or how to improve this article) in the Comments section below.
If you liked what you read, remember sharing is caring, so spread the word on social media so others may benefit from the information.