CAREER PATH

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Markeshaw Dessie, an IDinsight data collector (right) conducts a survey about asset ownership in Wogera district, Amhara, Ethiopia. (from Big Win project) ©IDinsight/Ali Hakim

25 MINUTE READ

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) specialists collect, track, and analyze data to assess the value and impact of different programs and interventions, as well as translate these assessments into actionable insights and strategies to increase the impact of an organization. 

 

M&E specialist careers might be a promising option for some people. If you’re an exceptional fit, especially if you’re based in a low- or middle-income country where there’s lots of scope for implementing global health and development interventions, then it is worth considering these careers.

 

However, the impact you’ll be able to have will be determined in large part by the organization you enter – making it particularly important to seek out the best organizations and avoid those that only superficially care about evaluating their impact. Additionally, if you’re a good fit for some of the top roles in this path, it’s likely you’ll also be a good fit for other highly impactful roles, so we’d recommend you consider other paths, too.


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Monitoring & Evaluation Specialist

Path Overview

What do we mean by a monitoring and evaluation specialist?

 

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is the practice of monitoring and assessing the impact of organizations, programs, and interventions. M&E specialists use tools from the social sciences to form metrics, design data-collection methods, and develop actionable insights to aid organizations in tracking and increasing their effectiveness. 

 

There are some differences between the activities included in monitoring as opposed to evaluation. A rough distinction between the two is that monitoring tends to focus on the day-to-day oversight and operations of a program or intervention, using the continuous collection of quantitative and qualitative data. A charity that distributes school textbooks, for example, might monitor their program by collecting data on the number of textbooks they distribute per day, and perhaps observe lessons to ensure they are used as intended. 

 

Evaluation, however, focuses on larger-scale assessments of a program’s effectiveness in achieving its goals, often measured over longer periods of time, often after an intervention has taken place. The charity might, for example, evaluate whether providing these textbooks increased students’ grades or improved their employment rate. 

 

Different roles in M&E careers will focus to different degrees on either monitoring or evaluation, depending on the specific role you take, and also on the type of organization you work in. M&E also takes place at different levels within an organization. For example, some M&E specialists might work on setting an organization’s overall goals and strategies and form theories of change for the organization as a whole. Other M&E specialists work at a more micro level, setting strategies for individual programs and interventions, working out what data needs to be collected for both monitoring and evaluating them, and engaging in field work to collect this data (or managing teams that do this). 

 

It’s also worth noting that monitoring and evaluation can sometimes come under different names and acronyms for different organizations – some might call it monitoring, learning, and evaluation (MLE) or add additional concepts like accountability (MEAL) or research (MERL) – but they’re all referring to broadly the same kinds of activities, processes, and roles, with some variations.

 

Where might M&E specialists work? M&E specialists can be found across a wide range of organization types, including implementing nonprofits, governments, and multilateral institutions (like the World Bank). Additionally, some organizations contract out M&E work to consultancies and M&E partner organizations, especially for resource-intensive and highly technical activities like large evaluations. Some organizations in this space include IDInsight, J-PAL, Mathematica, the Center for Global Development and Innovations for Poverty Action, among others.


 

How promising is this path?

 

Monitoring and evaluation is important for any organization aiming to have an impact. Without collecting evidence and data, it’s easy to seem like an intervention or program is having an impact, even when it’s not. Here are a few ways in which M&E might be able to generate impact:

 

  • Discover effective interventions that do a lot of good. For example, rigorous evaluation by J-PAL affiliates and Evidence Action found that placing chlorine-treated water dispensers in rural African villages reduced under-5 child mortality by as much as 63%. Evidence Action has now pledged to double the size of its water-treatment program, reaching 9 million people.

  • Make improvements to known effective interventions. Improving the efficacy of an already-impactful intervention by even a little bit can generate a large impact, especially if the intervention is rolled out on a large scale. Consider this study run by malaria charity TAMTAM, which found that charging even a nominal price for malaria bednets decreased demand by up to 60%, leading a number of large organizations to offer them for free instead.

  • Identify ineffective or harmful interventions, so that an organization can change course. A great example of this is animal advocacy organization the Humane League, which determined that their current strategy of performing controversial public stunts was ineffective, and pivoted its strategy towards corporate campaigns. In doing so, they convinced Unilever to stop killing male chicks, saving millions of baby chicks from gruesome deaths.


 

Advantages

  • Clear links to effectiveness - Because M&E is explicitly concerned with measuring the impact of interventions, there’s often a clear “theory of change” for how your work might translate into positive impact. 

  • Leverage - If you’re working in a large organization, or working on an intervention with a large pool of potential funders and implementers, your work can influence where large amounts of money is spent, or how large amounts of other resources are distributed.

  • Flexible skill set - the skills and qualifications you’ll need for a career in M&E are robustly useful across a range of careers. As such, it’s likely that M&E work will provide you with flexible career capital for pursuing other paths. 

Resource spotlight

 

How much difference does good monitoring and evaluation make? This article from the Center for Global Development on the efficacy of various World Bank programs suggests that the quality of M&E is a significant predictor of success. Projects that received a “substantial” rating for their M&E processes were 38% more likely to produce better results than projects with a “modest” M&E rating.

Disadvantages

 

  • Narrow range of cause areas - Within our top recommended cause areas, there are far more M&E roles within global health and development than the others. This means M&E may be a promising career path if you want to work on global health, but perhaps less so if you prioritize other cause areas, like animal welfare or global catastrophic risks.

  • Varying sensitivity to evidence - The amount of influence M&E work can have is likely to vary significantly across organizations. This is in large part because it can conflict with the incentives and personalities of other people and departments within the organization. For example, some organizations may be unwilling to pull the plug on a project if it is found to be ineffective, perhaps because doing so would create bad PR, damage fundraising efforts, or because it’s a “pet project” of someone influential within the organization. These dynamics can be personally frustrating and curtail your impact. Because of this, any career in M&E should prioritize joining organizations that really care about their impact – we’ll talk more about this in the priorities section later on.

Is it a good fit for you?

These are some traits that might mean that a career as an M&E specialist could be a particularly good fit for you:

 

  • Comfortable with numbers - Though not all roles within M&E are highly technical, numbers are still important within many aspects of M&E work. If you like working with numbers and datasets, you’ll find yourself in good company in an M&E career, particularly if you find a role that focuses on conducting large-scale evaluations. 

  • Competent communicator - M&E specialists need to be able to not just collect and analyze data, but also communicate helpful insights from this data, both orally and in writing, for both internal and external audiences. This is an essential skill that experts have repeatedly emphasized.  This is an especially important skill because, sometimes, the M&E activities might uncover the fact that an organization or intervention isn’t having as much impact as had been hoped. If you’re running evaluations for a client (like an NGO or government), it can be difficult to relay this tactfully to relevant decision makers, especially if a program is politically sensitive. If you’re within an implementing organization, it may be difficult to communicate actionable insights to your team members, who will often be personally invested in the project under critique.

  • Geographical familiarity – If you’re in a role that is based in an area where an intervention or evaluation is taking place, or which involves frequent travel, it’s generally an advantage to have familiarity with the area. Because of this, organizations often strongly prefer to hire people with strong knowledge of the local context, rather than outsiders. This means M&E specialists from low- and middle-income countries may have an advantage in both getting into these roles and excelling in them, at least in the context of global health and development (though there are still opportunities for those from high-income countries!).

 

Because M&E contains a broad range of role types there are few “dealbreakers” that would conclusively show that you’re not a good fit for careers in this space. However, there are a couple of considerations that might mean M&E careers are less likely to be for you:

 

  • Not detail-oriented – Though not all roles in M&E require a highly technical or quantitative background, the vast majority will require you to engage with complex information. The best M&E workers are those who really want to dig into results and figure out why they show what they show, and be willing to investigate and understand any potential discrepancies.

  • Difficult conversations – Many roles in M&E require significant external interaction with clients and partners. These conversations can be difficult, especially when your findings might imply that a program should be changed or halted. You may need to communicate this information sensitively to people who are very emotionally invested in a project, resistant to perceived criticism, or incentivized to reject critical evidence. Not everyone is suited to these sorts of sensitive (and often political) interpersonal interactions – and they can be really tricky to navigate well – so avoiding roles with significant interpersonal components might be best if this describes you.

Resource Spotlight

 

The M&E Universe, produced by the nonprofit Intrac, is an interactive site containing a huge number of articles on many components and methods involved in monitoring and evaluation. We highly recommend you take a look if you want a more detailed dive into the concepts discussed in this path profile!

How to test personal fit 

 

It’s often hard to know how well you’ll suit a career path. Because of this, it’s a great idea to find practical ways to test your personal fit in advance. Here are some suggestions: 

 

  • Read M&E job descriptions at orgs like IDInsight and J-PAL, or specialist job boards like Evalcommunity. Could you imagine yourself performing these tasks? Is there anything you’ve done in the past that resembles these tasks, and that you’ve enjoyed or excelled in? 

  • You could also consider taking an online course in M&E, like this course from Georgetown University on impact evaluation within low- and middle-income settings. For more, here’s a useful list of a range of both free and paid courses.

  • J-PAL has a list of internship opportunities, many of which are relevant for M&E careers. See also this list of paid M&E internship opportunities at EvalCareers.

  • If you don’t live in a low- or middle-income country, consider spending substantial time in the country or region you’re considering working in (and the more time, the better!). This will be helpful both because understanding the local context is so helpful and because you might not know yet whether you’ll enjoy living there. Some of the internships listed above might facilitate this. 

  • Some relevant master’s programs (which we discuss a little more in the “getting into the field” section) include optional consultancy projects. If you’re in one of these programs, you may be able to volunteer your services at a relevant M&E org to fulfill the conditions of your program and concretely test your fit for this work at the same time.

Priorities within M&E specialist roles

 

Where can you work as an M&E specialist? And where might you have the most impact? Very broadly, there are three categories of organizations that hire M&E staff: implementing organizations, dedicated M&E organizations and consultancies, or multilateral institutions, governments, and foundations.

 

Work in-house at an implementing organizations that particularly values M&E

 

An “implementing” organization is one that deploys interventions and programs itself. Implementing organizations often have their own internal M&E staff to track the rollout and efficacy of these programs. However, large project evaluations are likely to be outsourced to external organizations (unless it’s a particularly large nonprofit), meaning that internal M&E officers may find themselves focusing more on monitoring activities as well as conducting smaller (sometimes qualitative) evaluations. Internal M&E specialists may also find themselves developing theories of change and communicating these to the rest of the organization, as well as other strategic work – though this will likely depend on the role’s seniority.

 

An important point to consider here is that there is significant variance in the extent to which implementing nonprofits really value M&E processes. For some, it’s just another box to tick or a way to generate numbers that can be included in marketing materials. In these organizations, you could find that your work is rarely used to inform or actually improve the organization’s actions, substantially reducing your potential impact. 

 

Because of this, if you pursue an M&E role within an implementing organization, it’s really important to look out for organizations that place an unusual amount of value on gathering data and responding to evidence. But how can you identify these organizations? One place to start could be to look at whether an organization has collaborated with an external evaluating partner like J-PAL or IDInsight – this is some evidence (albeit nonperfect) that a nonprofit really cares about the efficacy of their work. 

Resource Spotlight

​Did you know that nonprofit organizations can differ dramatically in how much impact they make? This article from Giving What We Can highlights how even organizations which work on similar problems can have as much as 100x more impact, per dollar donated, than others. The work of M&E specialists is vital for working out just how much value organizations really produce.

Another promising option is to research which organizations receive funding from foundations and evidence-based funders like the Gates Foundation, the Global Innovation Fund, the Gates Foundation, Instiglio, or GiveWell. Again, this is no guarantee that such organizations are high-impact, but it gives reason to think they have an above-average concern for M&E processes. 

 

A further possibility is to look at resources on the organization’s website, like annual reports and evaluation reports. Some organizations may oversell the impact they’ve had in order to please funders, which can indicate that they don’t take evidence seriously in their decision making. Instead, look to see if they make reasonable claims about the size of their impact, if they’re transparent about their numbers and data collection methods, if they’ve documented times when they’ve changed their activities in response to new evidence, and whether they own up to any mistakes they’ve made – these can be promising indicators. 

 

As a final note on working in implementing organizations, it may be a particularly promising option to join a new, forward-thinking implementing organization that takes evidence seriously. Experts have shared that such early stage organizations can find it difficult to hire for these positions, compared to larger organizations who tend to draw more candidates, making it more likely you’ll be able to have impact at the margin

 

We don’t have a clear or confident view on whether you’ll generally have more impact at such organizations than as an M&E specialist in a larger implementing nonprofit, but we imagine the tradeoff will often work like this: at a smaller organization, you might be able to bring larger marginal improvements to the organization, as you could be the only M&E specialist (or one of very few), but will naturally influence fewer resources and smaller-scale interventions than you might at a larger organization. At a large organization, the reverse is true – you might have less scope on average for large marginal improvements, but the total amount of resources spent by the organization could mean this still yields substantial impact. 

 

Working at top dedicated M&E consultancies

 

There are a number of organizations that exist to help clients like nonprofits and governments to assess the efficacy of their programs. These consultancies can be broadly divided into two categories: academia-driven & client-driven. Such organizations are generally responsible for running evaluations for partners and clients, rather than focusing on day-to-day monitoring work. Because of this, roles in these organizations are likely to demand a higher level of statistical and quantitative literacy – perhaps particularly so in academia-driven organizations. 

 

Academia-driven

Academia-driven organizations typically contain a mixture of in-house research staff as well as affiliated academic researchers (often economists) based in universities across the world.  These organizations will partner with a number of implementing organizations to gather data and conduct evaluations (such as RCTs) to test the efficacy of different interventions or programs. Academia-driven organizations tend to focus on quite broad questions about interventions, like assessing the effectiveness of cash transfers, or attempting to discover generalisable insights about the efficacy of different interventions which might be implemented by a range of actors. The results of these are also often published as papers in conventional academic journals.

 

Prestigious organizations in this space include J-PAL, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), and the Center for Global Development (CGD). It’s worth noting that, because of their ties to academia, some of these institutions might be considered to be development economics research institutions rather than M&E organizations per se – and that, therefore, careers in these institutions may overlap significantly with careers in development economics

 

Client-driven

Other organizations work with clients like governments and NGOs to deliver useful information (particularly evaluations) in a way that’s more tightly connected to specific organizational needs, generally on shorter timescales, and also on a smaller scale, than academic-driven consultancies. Such organizations might evaluate specific programs according to criteria produced in collaboration with the client, rather than attempting to generate highly generalizable insights about the impact of different interventions. Because such organizations are driven by the needs of their clients, rather than broader questions of academic interest, their work is highly likely to be practically applicable. A few well-respected organizations in this space include IDinsight, Mathematica, and Oxford Policy Management.

 

Which organization type might be more promising to work in: academia-driven or client-driven organizations? It’s hard to give a confident general conclusion, but it’s worth noting a few relevant considerations on either side. For example, with client-driven M&E work, you may be more confident your work is practically useful as you’re responding directly to organizational needs. However, the client-directed nature of this work may also constrain impact – you may find yourself helping clients who are working on problems you don’t think are the most important or pressing.

 

On the academic side, it’s a slightly different story. One potential problem is that academia-driven organizations may be constrained by academic incentives to produce work that is intellectually interesting and cutting edge, but might not always be as aligned with real-world needs as client-driven work. However, when academia-driven work does have an impact, it may do so on a larger scale. For instance, a large evaluation that identifies a promising new intervention, or a better way to implement an existing intervention, could pull a number of impact-inclined organizations toward changing their activities. 

Resource Spotlight

This article from J-PAL gives a helpful overview of the ins and outs of performing a randomized evaluation. Randomized evaluations are an important experimental method within M&E for determining the cost-effectiveness of programs.

 
 
 

Multilateral institutions, governments, and foundations

 

Large multilateral institutions, like the UN or the World Bank, are prolific employers of M&E specialists, as they integrate M&E processes fairly ubiquitously across branches and departments. Some M&E specialists within these organizations will also be responsible for setting high-level goals and strategies for the entire organization, such as developing systems to track and evaluate whether they are meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. There are a large number of opportunities at these institutions, and as such, they are prominent employers within the M&E field.

 

We’ve heard that incentives within these organizations can sometimes be misaligned with real impact, meaning that M&E activities may sometimes focus on how to make individuals or branches look effective, rather than performing genuinely truth-seeking work (at least in some cases). Because of this, some caution may be warranted when considering careers in these institutions. Though you may be able to help improve these institutions from the inside, (and there are likely well-functioning, high-impact pockets within these organizations), this may be quite difficult.

 

Additionally, these institutions tend to have good talent pipelines in place and are able to hire many talented young people into junior roles. The competition here means it could be less likely you’ll be able to have much counterfactual impact within these roles, though they may provide strong opportunities for building career capital. However, barring a particularly promising opportunity, they may not be the best opportunities for direct impact.

 

On the governmental side, we’ve heard that the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office is particularly invested in evidence-based decision making, and specifically the Development Innovation Ventures arm of USAID. Many LMIC governments will also offer M&E roles for domestic programs and interventions, though we’re uncertain about how promising these opportunities tend to be, or which governments might be particularly promising to work in (though our profile on civil service careers within LMICs may provide other helpful information). 

 

Relatedly, large foundations (like the Gates Foundation) may also house employees who support grantees and partners in their M&E processes. Similarly, both Instiglio and the Global Innovation Fund are two organizations that offer funding to start and scale-up programs contingent on strong evidence of effectiveness. These may be promising organizations to work at, though the roles here might not look like “typical” M&E careers. 

 

Strategies & next steps


Because of the diversity of role types within M&E careers, and the diversity of organizations, there’s a fair amount of flexibility regarding the backgrounds and experiences of those who might enter this path. Nonetheless, here are a few considerations: 

 

Getting into the field

 

  • An undergraduate degree in a social science or quantitative subject will generally be an advantage for securing an entry-level position, especially for external evaluation consultancies, multilateral institutions, and large foundations. However, if you can demonstrate sufficient quantitative experience outside of a degree program, this may also suffice. For less quantitative-focused roles, an undergraduate degree is still generally highly preferred, but a wide variety of backgrounds are accepted.

  • Advanced degrees, including PhDs in quantitative or social science subjects, can be important for ascending the ladder within academia-driven M&E organizations, multilateral institutions, and large foundations – it can be difficult to progress in many of these organizations without one. However, we’ve heard that client-driven organizations place less weight on these qualifications (though they’re likely still helpful) - and that there’s some regional variance in how much weight is placed on formal credentials. Implementing nonprofits are likely to vary significantly in their requirements and preferences.

  • Examples of common master’s programs for M&E specialists include MPH (Master in Public Health), MPA (Master in Administration), and MPP (Master in Public Policy). The Master in Public Administration in International Development from Harvard has been especially recommended, and we’ve also heard good things about specialist masters courses in evaluation, like this one, are helpful for providing an overview of various evaluation methods. 

  • Experience in statistical software or a coding language like Python is generally needed for data-focused roles. The particular software used will vary by organization, but SPSS, R, SAS and STATA seem to be particularly common. 

  • The World Bank Group Young Professionals Program is a particularly prestigious entry-level program that runs globally, and could be a good opportunity for learning the ropes and having an impressive experience on your CV (though it’s highly competitive). 


 

Excelling in the field

 

Here are a few tips for those within M&E to increase their both success within the field and their impact:

 

  • Working in promising cause areas. As with all careers, choosing the right cause area is a crucial part of increasing your impact. Though there aren’t many opportunities outside of global health and development within our top cause areas, it’s also important to choose the right problems to tackle within this broader cause area. A great way to work out which problems might allow for the greatest impact is to use the importance, tractability, and neglectedness framework, which we find incredibly useful when working out how we can do the most good in any given career.

  • Join a regional M&E community – There are a number of specialist monitoring and evaluation communities and associations located around the world. These often host conferences and workshops, and we’ve heard they can be a helpful way to keep up with the latest advances in M&E work. Examples (mostly focused on evaluation) include the American Evaluation Association, African Evaluation Association, and regional chapters of EvalYouth. The organization P2Peval also runs advisory sessions for early-career professionals in the evaluation space. 

  • Learn management skills - Even at fairly junior levels of M&E work, it’s common to be responsible for coordinating and managing others. For example, data analysts are often responsible for coordinating field teams. See our article on people management for more on how to become a good manager.

  • Practice communicating with different audiences – Communication is repeatedly emphasized as one of the most important skills for an M&E specialist. Because of this, it’s a good idea to practice this as much as you can: take opportunities to write explanatory emails, prepare presentations, and try to visualize data in interesting ways.

Additional content

 


 

Career alternatives

If you’re not sure you want to become a monitoring and evaluation specialist, other potentially high-impact paths you might want to consider include:​

 

Development economics

Nonprofit entrepreneurship

Grantmaking

Acknowledgements

 

To produce this career path profile, we have interviewed and collaborated with some of the leading experts in the field. Not all views expressed in this article are necessarily endorsed by all the experts we’ve consulted with, and all mistakes are our own. For their help, we would like to give special thanks to:

 

Avnish Gungadurdoss: Co-founder and Managing partner of Instiglio.

Dan Stein: Chief economist at IDinsight

Meghan Mahoney: Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at Educate!

Sophie Gulliver: Policy analyst at the Center for Global Development

 
 
 

Where to go from here: