Dunlop Answers Questions on her VEST Experience at Curry and U.Va. Economics Department


The Curry School of Education continues to support the Virginia Education Sciences Training (VEST) pre-doctoral fellowship program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. This interdisciplinary program has been supporting Ph.D students at U.Va for over 10 years!

With more than 75 alumni across education, economics, sociology, and psychology departments at U.Va, VEST has produced highly trained professionals who hold positions from postdoctoral scientists to education statisticians to assistant professors. The VEST program applies rigorous research methods and analytical techniques in the social sciences field to study school and classroom effects.

The Curry School of Education launched a new Question and Answer series with VEST alumni being released throughout 2014. We sat down with Erin Dunlop, a 2012 Ph.D graduate from the Department of Economics, to learn more about her experience at the Curry School of Education and her professional life beyond U.Va.

Dr. Erin Dunlop is currently an education policy researcher at the American Institutes for Research, non-profit research think tank organization in Washington, D.C.

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Question: What are some of the main duties of your current position and how did the VEST program prepare for that?

Dunlop: I would say there are two different groups of tasks I do; first is what I would describe more as contract work, and second is more independent research where we write grant proposals and disseminate findings to policy makers. With the first, we get hired by an organization to help them evaluate a policy they’re implementing. For example, we partnered with a large school district to help them see how student test scores are changing over time. I really enjoy this type of work because it informs what’s happening on the ground. The work I did in the VEST program with Jim Wyckoff helped me prepare for these tasks. Dr. Wyckoff was doing a lot of work on teacher effectiveness and I was involved in the hands on decisions that researchers were making, which laid the groundwork for my current position.

Question: What is the most rewarding piece of your current position?

Dunlop: It may sound so cliché, but I really enjoy just how practical it is. I thought about going into academia but there is less of that trickle-down effect to policy makers and decision makers. I think the most rewarding part about my job is that a lot of the research that I do actually has practical implications. I had presented my dissertation in graduate school to other academic audiences and people thought it was a good paper but nothing ever happened. I finished up working on it while I was here at AIR and I had the opportunity to actually go to the Department of Education to present it to people who influence how the Stafford Loan program is administered. That is an example of the more practical application parts of my current position that are very rewarding for me. 

Question: How has the VEST program impacted your research interests and future work?

Dunlop: I came into the Department of Economics at U.Va and I wasn’t really sure what kind of economics I wanted to do. I took a class with Sarah Turner and she gave a lot of education examples that just seemed so practical and important. This prompted me to apply for the VEST fellowship to work with both Professor Turner and Professor Wyckoff at the Curry School of Education. I got to work on a variety of education topics with VEST and have been able to continue that breadth in my current position, including work at the K-12 level, in higher education and with financial aid. Working in both departments gave me the best of those both worlds. I was able to work within the Curry School and get feedback on my ideas on what sort of outside factors I should be considering, but also draw from my rich set of quantitative skills I got from the Department of Economics. One of my favorite things about the VEST program was the interdisciplinary part of it, and it really inundated me in education research so I was a better candidate for my current position.

Question: What aspects of the VEST program were a benefit for your future work?

Dunlop: The support to be able to travel to conferences I thought was incredibly helpful. So, for most of my fellow graduate students in the Department of Economics there’s just not a lot of money to travel. I went to more conferences than anyone else I knew because of the VEST program. I think that is just such a great experience for a young researcher to present your work in different arenas. I got great feedback at these conferences, and learned you just need one or two comments to really strengthen a paper. The experience of getting to talk to people with different backgrounds about your research I just think is invaluable, especially when I went on the job market.

Question: What advice would you give to students who may be interested in educational science or the field of research?

Dunlop: I had a wonderful time at UVA and I think incredibly highly of everyone at the Curry School of Education where the faculty members were so supportive. I got a really nice job out of graduate school and I owe a lot of that to the VEST fellowship. So I would definitely recommend it to anyone in other departments that were thinking about doing education research or want to experience advisers in different departments.

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Dunlop is the second VEST fellow alumni to be interviewed in this series. Read the first Q & A about Wei-Bing Chen.

For more information about the VEST program, please visit our website or email CurryVEST@virginia.edu