Damien (left) with team mates and supporters at the CES Student Case Competition held in May this year. (Image: @CES_casecomp)


Grad Co-op Gives Insight into Evaluation Career for SFU Philosophy MA

December 16, 2019

While not traditionally part of the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Philosophy MA program, grad student Damien Chen found that a summer co-op placement helped consolidate and extend his philosophy skills into the workplace. A federal internship with CIRNAC (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada) gave insight into an alternative to the traditional PhD route. Back on campus, Damien explored this further, taking an evaluation certificate and joining student activities at the university. This led to a team win at the Canadian Evaluation Society (CES) case competition. Damien is now working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Ottawa starting this November.  

Alternatives to the Academic Track

Although the MA program focuses on application to top PhD programs, SFU Philosophy supports both academic and non-academic career paths. If students are not yet completely sure that academic philosophy is for them, the program is geared so they can explore the subject in a more focused setting. So in addition to rigorous academic training, students also have access to a strong arts co-op program.

Damien, who entered the MA program in fall 2016 after completing a Bachelor of Law degree at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, decided not to apply for PhD programs. After successfully defending his professional paper in April 2019, he instead chose to follow an interest in evaluation developed during a summer co-op placement.

What is Evaluation?

Evaluation is “the systematic assessment of the design, implementation or results of an initiative for the purposes of learning or decision-making.”
(source: Canadian Evaluation Society (CES) website)

Notes from Brandy Shymanski, Grad Coordinator for the FASS Cooperative Education Program

"The Philosophy Masters co-op program is a new pilot program that began this year following on from Damien as the first MA Philosophy co-op student, in summer 2018. The program runs as a trial over the summer of 2020, with the hope that it will continue on after the pilot concludes.

The program offers work terms throughout the year with the summer semester being the most popular. If you are interested, attend an info-session held during the first few weeks of each semester – you’ll need to apply at least two terms before you want to work. As co-op is an accredited education program, you will return to SFU for at least one term before you graduate."

Working in Government Evaluation

After a series of interviews, Damien landed in the Evaluation and Audit branch of CIRNAC tasked with research design and implementation for various evaluation projects. Alongside both evaluations officers and a small team of interns, he learned about the evaluations projects in progress and also worked on internal research initiatives.

Following initial training, research and familiarization, the team developed email and phone call interview guides, then prepared for and conducted interviews with stakeholders including government staff, external evaluators, Indigenous organizations and community members. This included travelling to a Saskatchewan community where Damien learned more about ways in which the government could provide meaningful support through policymaking.

Damien and his team then coded the data collected for analysis, making it available to future researchers and policymakers.

Philosophy in Action during Co-op

In his Work Term Report, Damien notes that he learned many different skills at both the professional and personal level. This included workplace communication and writing, collaboration and teamwork, and time management. However, he also values skills brought from his philosophy training, noting that in general they are very transferable as well as highly relevant to evaluation.

“For example, the ability to communicate complex information is important. My teaching experience as a TA really helped cultivate this,” he explains before admitting that it took quite a bit of work to transition from writing academic papers to writing memos and briefing notes.

But the placement was highly valuable; since completing co-op, Damien built on the experience to find out more about evaluation as a career and adding to his résumé.

“Almost the entire first page of my resume was built with things since Co-op,” he says. But that’s not all. Co-op has had a much deeper influence on Damien.

“On a personal level, it has had a significant impact on how I think about reconciliation.”

How? and Why? - Co-op for an SFU Philosophy MA Grad

Question: Co-op isn’t traditionally open to MA grad students – can you tell me how you got involved in the program? Was it an easy process?
Damien: Once I realized I want to explore an alternative non-academic path, I looked around for opportunities and support programs at SFU then found that Political Science and Public Policy have a co-op option for their MA students. Through the FASS (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) Co-op office, I found that I could join the existing Arts MA co-op (Poli Sci & Public Policy) program for a one-time trial. Philosophy Grad chair Holly Andersen was fully supportive.

Q: Did the co-op experience influence your career plans?
The co-op experience has definitely influenced my career plans; before the internship I had only a very vague idea. During my co-op, I conducted many informational interviews to learn more about different kinds of government work and gain a more concrete sense of what is the best fit. These also helped me see what I need to do to prepare myself for the career path. For example, I took an Essential Skills Series certificate in Evaluation, joined the CES BC council, and took part in the student case competition.

Q: Did you find co-op valuable to you as a grad student? And for a Philosophy MA grad student? Would you encourage others to take this path?
DC: Absolutely yes to all three questions. The academic path is not for everyone. It is very important to at least consider other possibilities. Co-op is the best way to explore the non-academic world.
For me, co-op was super valuable. It introduced me to evaluation and gave me direction. Since then, I have done more training, networking, and competition to build up my evaluation competency. Almost the entire first page of my resume was built with evaluation experience since my co-op placement.

“If you are 100% sure PhD is what you want, that is great and go for it! If you are having second thoughts, then Co-op is very beneficial.”

Damien’s tips for a successful co-op

  1. Explore your options while at SFU – reach out to FASS Co-op for advice and potential placements. Take advantage of career services for more information.
  2. Keep an eye out for program alerts; summer work term postings can happen as early as December. Be prepared!
  3. Study all notes and information from prospective employers carefully; Damien found that presentations by the recruiting team gave examples of rubrics and questions later used during the interview process.
  4. Prepare the cover letter and application materials carefully; follow all requirements accurately.
  5. Be proactive; you may need to learn about a subject that is new to you but integral to the position. For example, Damien took the University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada online course through Coursera to boost his knowledge on Indigenous issues. He also audited the methodology class in Political Science to get up to speed on policy work and empirical research. 
  6. Knowing as much about the position prior to placement helps; for a placement with government branches, Damien recommends studying how to write briefing notes and then practicing. 
  7. Use your co-op term as an opportunity to explore career options—ask questions and seek informational interviews to refine your own career goals.
  8. Damien notes that it’s also a good idea to find out about your employer’s hiring cycle while on your placement. Also, taking co-op towards the end of your studies means you don’t have too much classwork left to do.



Study Philosophy at SFU

Holly Andersen, Philosophy Grad Chair

"Co-op is a wonderful opportunity for our students to use their skills in critical thinking, careful reading, analysis, and discussion in a broader setting. Policy analysis positions like Damien's are a fantastic way to put those philosophical skills to use.

While our faculty have the skillset to help students apply to Ph.D. programs, we really value the Co-op Coordinators in getting our students ready for other job applications. They take over where we have less experience and give MA students a great track for gaining skills and experience.

We don't pressure students into a Ph.D. program and support them making decisions about whether they want to continue in academic Philosophy. One key part of this is finding resources for those who decide not to continue in a Ph.D. program after their MA, or who are still unsure about an academic track.

This partnership with Co-op works well to support our students make a choice that is right for them."

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