Fascinated by questions about the nature and nurture of everyday people, Allison Epstein ’17 explores how our environment shapes who we are. Gaining critical research experience at UMass Amherst and completing several internships in the field are just a few experiences that greatly prepared her for graduate study in forensic psychology. Along the way, she found the courage to interact with individuals in challenging environments and offer guidance as they strove to reenter the community.
Epstein found a home at UMass Amherst’s Infant Cognition Lab, directed by Erik Cheries, as a research assistant spanning sophomore through senior year. She completed an honors thesis “Do Infants Use Gender to Predict Social Behavior?” in the lab under Cheries’s guidance. She had great interest in research examining how personality traits develop after birth and how our environment can initiate changes to these traits. “Due to that experience, I am confident in my ability to create a research topic, research my topic, and write my [dissertation]. In addition, working as a TA for both Professor Cheries and Professor Lickel helped prepare me to take on more responsibilities, as is expected of students in graduate school,” says Epstein.
Many classes at UMass, including abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, and sociology were great primers for forensic psychology. Epstein became interested in forensics after reading Mindhunter by John Douglas, which depicts an FBI behavioral science unit and explains criminal profiling. One of her first steps towards this career was an internship at St. Vincent’s Psychiatric Hospital during sophomore and junior year. There she was a co-facilitator, running life skills groups with men and women with severe psychiatric disorders, covering topics like conflict resolution and healthy communication. Soon both Epstein and her supervisor discovered that she had a talent for facilitating group therapy.
“I am motivated to work in this field because I genuinely believe that so much more can be done to help incarcerated individuals re-enter society."
During senior year, Epstein interned at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections, a “step-down” facility that focuses on the importance of incarcerated individuals reentering the community. There she worked with case managers, forensic clinicians, and discharge planners. This was a real proving ground for her, she wanted to be involved in this field but was unsure if she could handle the stressors it involved. With the help of her supervisor and coworkers, Epstein gained the confidence to work in a jail environment, which she admits can be very challenging.
One of the most important lessons she learned from her time there was how to actively listen, in a genuine and non-judgmental way. Epstein recalls, “There were many times working with clients that I heard about criminal actions which I could have easily expressed an aversion too. However, as a helping professional, it is my responsibility to work without biases and to help my client to the best of my abilities. I quickly learned the importance of active listening skills as well as the necessity to pay attention to my own and my client’s non-verbal body language.”
After graduation from UMass Amherst, Epstein became a group facilitator at the Brooklyn House of Detention. She worked in two maximum-security housing units, teaching life skills such as anger management. Once again she was confronted with an entirely new and demanding workplace, a city jail. With the help of supportive mentors, colleagues, friends, and family, she once again overcame the challenges of the environment, furthering her passion for counseling incarcerated individuals.
“I am motivated to work in this field because I genuinely believe that so much more can be done to help incarcerated individuals re-enter society. I am interested not only in the 'criminal mind' but also the environment that facilitates or encourages criminal behavior. I think there are many services that can be helpful for these individuals to help them put their criminal life behind and move on to be more successful and safe in society,” Epstein states.
In addition, she feels that much more can be done to provide incarcerated individuals with proper mental health diagnosis and treatment. Educating others on the symptoms of mental health disorders, and how to approach them, is also part of her work.
Epstein is currently pursuing a PsyD in clinical psychology with a forensic psychology concentration at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. A PsyD in clinical psychology differs from a PhD in that it focuses on providing clinical services to private, group, or organizational settings. As part of her practicum each year, Epstein will work at sites like jails or courthouses where she will gain knowledge specific to forensic psychology. She says her dream job is working for the FBI, with an ultimate goal of conducting competency to stand trial evaluations.
“I chose a PsyD path because I really wanted to get that clinical hands on experience with a little bit less of the research experience. I get the best of both worlds, my whole program is not dedicated to research…but it does require me to complete a dissertation,” says Epstein.
During a visit to the new Forensic Psychology class offered at UMass Amherst, Epstein gave the following advice on keeping a work/life balance, “Whether you are working in this field or not, in grad school or not…you want to make sure you have a self-care routine going forward. You can’t take care of other people if you’re not taking care of yourself,” she notes. Chatting with friends and family members, getting a massage, and cooking new recipes are all things she uses to reduce stress after a long day.
Epstein’s passion for group facilitation and working with incarcerated individuals has been strengthened each time she rose above the challenges presented to her. She endeavors to make a difference by showing her clients new perspectives and giving them the skills they need to make positive changes in their lives. Epstein credits the help of supportive mentors and experiences at UMass Amherst for her successes in the field of forensic psychology.