Career Profile: Robyn Wright Dunbar

Senior Associate Director for Science and Engineering, Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University and Associate Professor, by courtesy, of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University

Education: B.A. Geology, Trinity University; M.A. and Ph.D. Geology, Rice University
Robyn Wright Dunbar provided the information for this profile for the 2004 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences Workshop.

Jump down to: Description of current position * Career path * Advice for graduate students

Description of current position

My job is to support and promote effective science/engineering teaching at Stanford through a combination of individual consultations, group services, and teaching orientations. I consult with faculty members about courses, observe classes, and assist instructors in both getting student feedback and in responding to that feedback. I consult with graduate students and post-docs on career development and teaching portfolios and I lead teaching workshops for faculty and graduate students.

What do you like best about your current work?

I enjoy the diversity of people, disciplines, and teaching challenges that I encounter. I take great satisfaction in helping other people meet their teaching and learning goals.

What is most challenging about your current work?

The need to be a credible and knowledgeable resource for science learning in a wide range of fields outside of the geosciences is my biggest challenge. This new learning curve is also the most engaging and vitalizing part of my job.

Which experiences that you had before do you find most useful in doing your job?

My prior experience as a geology faculty member and my activity as a geoscience educator (both at the university level and in pre-college applications) best prepared me for this career change.

What do you see as the future of this career field?

The field of faculty and graduate student development is well established, with centers at most major universities and professional organizations that support growth and best practices in the field. Some centers may close as others open anew, but the net change toward an increase in such campus resources is likely to persist.

Are there any myths about your job that you would like to help dispel?

Myth: I "left teaching and research" for an admin position. I am teaching all the time and, through workshops, consultations, and pedagogy courses, my "teaching gene" is well satisfied. As for research, our center is a service-providing unit and we do a very small amount of educational research. There are, however, centers in which active research on teaching and learning is an integral part of the function. One need not give up substantive research to move into this career.

Career path

Passion for teaching binds my career path. My first job, Assistant Professor of Geology at the University of New Mexico, began the dual-career challenge (my spouse was then a geology prof at Rice University). After five years and an arduous decision process, I left the tenure track for a non-tenured position at Rice. There, I taught selected courses (hard money), maintained a research program (soft money), and began my work in geoscience education. To develop needed background, I established collaborations with local K-12 teachers and "apprenticed myself" to the Geological Society of America's education/outreach program. When we moved to Stanford (led by my spouse's job), I had an active K-12 outreach program going in addition to my faculty work.

How did you become interested in your current job? How did you get the job - who did you contact, were there particular ways that helped?

A Stanford ad for a full-time position working with science/engineering TAs caught my attention. The job was consistent with my long-range goals, albeit not an attractive full time option for me. Not sure the job was a good match, I contacted the Center for Teaching and Learning. As our conversations evolved, the job "morphed" to become better aligned with my qualifications and I accepted an exciting offer.

What made you more competitive to get your job?

What made me attractive for this job was my Ph.D. in a field of science, my ability to converse in the language of science education, my solid experience as a faculty member who had thought deeply about and practiced ways of effectively teaching science, and my public speaking skills.

Advice for graduate students

Make things happen! The only job I ever filled that matched its initial description was that of Assistant Professor of Geology at UNM. There was no education outreach program at Rice, but with due credit to a supportive department, I grew it. There was no "faculty internship program" at the GSA, but we created a partnership that helped me learn the ropes. The position I now hold grew from one of limited scope into one better matched to my qualifications through dialog I initiated. Consider what you need to make it happen, and do it! If you are interested in a career in faculty or graduate student development, explore and utilize the resources that are already in place on your campus or in your area. Become actively involved if there are roles for graduate students or post-docs. Learn about POD, the Professional and Organizational Development network; get on the email list (; attend an annual meeting. Study teaching center websites; see who is employed by them and what they do. Jobs in this field are advertised in the Chronicle of Higher Education, through the POD email list, and by internal communication among center directors.

On personal choices and careers

Being part of a dual-career couple significantly influenced my career moves and I have been happy with every choice made. I rank lifestyle very high in my career decisions and my path enabled me to devote time to family and still have an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling career. I consider it a luxury that, when I get to work, I become so absorbed that I forget about my family, and when I get home, I do the opposite. Set priorities and stay consistent to your own values.