Dr. Amira Simha-Alpern is the new Director of Postgradute Programs at the Derner School of Psychology. In the interview that follows she discusses her thoughts on postgraduate training and her vision for Derner’s postgraduate program.
Dr. Amira Simha-Alpern is the new Director of Postgradute Programs at the Derner School of Psychology. This program provides advanced training in psychoanalysis, group treatment, couples treatment, psychodynamic school psychology, child, adolescent, and family psychotherapy, and psychoanalytic supervision. In the interview that follows she discusses her thoughts on postgraduate training and her vision for Derner’s postgraduate program.
John Burke: Welcome. Thanks for taking the time to speak with Day Residue. To start, can you tell me about how you came to be director of post-graduate programs at Derner?
Dr. Simha-Alpern: I basically grew up at Derner. I started my postgraduate program before I had even completed my Ph.D. Because I had kids in-between, my training took forever, and I know more than one generation of teachers. I then did the postgraduate training in supervision.
After that I stayed and hung out. I attend as many conferences and colloquia at Derner as possible. When Mary Beth Cresci [previous director of post-graduate programs] announced her departure, she suggested that I apply for her position. It was her idea. When she wrote to me I thought she was joking. I had to ask her “Are you really serious?” I am very committed to my profession. Frequently I write and present psychoanalytic papers. She and I attend many conferences together and she knew a lot about me – about how I think about psychology and psychoanalysis. She also knew that I was the director of the Suffolk Institute, a small psychoanalytic institute, also on Long Island. . . She knew that I have some background not only in psychoanalysis and writing, but also in managing an institute. One thing led to another, and they invited me to apply.
JB: It sounds like you have a real connection to Derner too, having done so many things here.
ASA: It’s really my home in many, many ways.
JB: Can you say a little more about that?
ASA: To be a psychoanalyst today is very difficult, for a number of reasons. One reason is because our discipline is attacked. It is attacked from within psychology, because psychology wants to be evidence-based. And from outside of psychology, critics say “It’s too long” “It’s too complicated” “It’s just for the rich and famous.” As a psycho-analyst it is hard to have a sense that what you’re doing is good, right and effective. Especially for those of us who are in private practice, having a professional reflective community, that helps you maintain a professional identity, is very important. So I kept in touch with my colleagues.
JB: That makes so much sense. Especially with private practice and how isolating it can potentially be.
ASA: A second reason is that our work is often within a gray area, often requiring judgment calls… how do you know that what you did was right? You bounce it off of colleagues. There is no single formula where if you do it “right” you get the results you wanted. You need to discuss your work with colleagues to help process what you do.
JB: Thank you for sharing that. That’s something good to hear as a student. Can you give me a brief description of postgraduate training in psychoanalysis for people who might not know much about it?
ASA: If I would have to explain what psychoanalysis is about, I would say that it’s the allegiance to the unconscious. The premise in psychoanalysis is that the human mind has an unconscious. That’s what makes it different from CBT or DBT or other therapeutic approaches. The patient has an unconscious and the therapist also has an unconscious. Our goal, as therapists is to find access to the unconscious in order to understand each other better – what motivates us, what we long for. If psychoanalytic training aims to help therapists understand the human mind, it needs to teach how to access, understand and work with that part of our personality. There are different ways to do it. Some people say dreams, but that’s not the only way. There are other ways like enactment, transference, the therapeutic relationship… There are many ways, and that’s what the training is about – To be reflective… To understand human behavior… To go underneath to unconscious processes in order to help patients change and heal.
JB: Some people might respond, “But I finished my Ph.D. or L.C.S.W. already.” How would you respond to someone who would say that?
ASA: The training that you talk about is absolutely necessary. You have to do that first. But in therapy, no matter how scientific we want to be there is an art to it. There is judgment call, there is intuition. It’s informed intuition, it’s reflective intuition. The academic program will teach you technique, it will teach you what works in terms of outcome, but it will not teach you how to use yourself as a therapist. Post graduate training will help you understand how and why the patient relates to you in a certain manner and what is in you that reacts in one way or another. The purpose of the postgrad is to make ourselves better “tools” to be better therapists for our patients.
JB: Which brings me to the question of personal psychoanalysis. That’s part of the postgrad training as well?
ASA: That’s essential. In the past, there was more hierarchy between patient and therapist. In the old school, the therapist was perceived to be the healthy partner in the dyad. He was the more developed one, the more aware one. Today we don’t work like this. We know that it’s more mutual, where both unconsciouses are active. If we have allegiance to the model of the mind that has an unconscious, then we have to own the fact that the therapist also has unconscious. So to answer your question, you have to at least know some of your unconscious in order to get it under wraps… not to act out, to be more reflective. You have to do it if you want to be a better therapist.
JB: To change gears, can you tell me what your hopes are for the postgraduate program under your leadership?
ASA: I have a lot of hopes. I see a postgraduate training that is a tripod. One part is training mental health professionals. Training in couples, in psychoanalysis, in groups… whatever we have. But that’s only one part of it. The other part is creating a professional community that will be a home for clinicians even after they graduate. As a community we can provide continuing education and an infrastructure that will enable professionals to achieve goals they cannot achieve on their own. For example, for professionals who want to write psychoanalytic papers, but cannot just sit in their office and do that, I would like to create an environment that encourages scholarship and reflection, like writing groups or study groups to inspire psychoanalytic ideas. We can study trauma… immigration, the effect of family separation on children… I’m mentioning things that are in the news – contemporary maladies. I think an institute like ours can provide that type of education and create an ongoing learning environment. I was director of an institute after the 2016 elections, both patients and therapists were besides themselves. We had workshops, meetings, colloquia to discuss. What do we do? What happened? Why did it happen?
What should we do as mental health professionals? Whether it’s about something contemporary because of a crisis, or it’s revisiting an old topic and wanting to know more about it, we as professionals who believe in ongoing learning can offer that education. And the third leg of the tripod is providing service to the community. Psychoanalysis will survive only if it will find solutions to contemporary issues. We cannot be in the ivory towers. We cannot just talk about transference-countertransference. I’d like to provide services. My dream is to create a trauma center. We have a very good group program. I’d like us to provide group therapy for different types of groups and psychological struggles: People who come out, people who have been sexually abused, and more. I was the coordinator of group therapy at Stony Brook University Counseling Center. I’d like to bring similar services to Adelphi. Whether we serve the student community or we serve the outside community, I’d like us to be a center for services, and services pro bono. We have the skills, we have the enthusiasm, we have the people, and we owe it to society.
JB: What do you see as challenges for postgraduate training here at Derner or more generally?
ASA: I think we are facing the same thing as most of psychoanalysis. There is a decline in our reputation. There’s a decline in what the public thinks of our value and efficacy. Partly, it’s because life is tough. Psychoanalytic education is extremely expensive, between the supervision, the tuition, the personal analysis… it’s a financial commitment and a time commitment. People are working hard today. They have to see twice as many patients to earn the same amount. People go out of college with huge debts. They have to repay debts… they cannot pay for another 5, 6, 7 years of training. So that’s part of it. I also think that our world changed. Our culture is fast. Either you cure me in three sessions or I’m not interested. Psychoanalysis is not like this. You have to wait, you have to talk. It’s something that’s against our culture. It’s something that’s not consistent with the fast pace of Google. Our approach to time is different. We are slow. We are reflective. The younger generation doesn’t value this.
JB: How do these challenges affect the Derner program?
ASA: Our enrollment is low. It’s picked up a little bit this year. But in the heydays of Derner we had 12 to 15 students every year. I had 12 in my class. And we had classes every year. Now some of our programs did not have candidates for a few years.
JB: Are you talking with others about this issue?
ASA: Yes. We’d like to recruit. But we also have to reflect and understand why people are not coming, and maybe change the way we offer training. For example, if we know that people cannot commit for more than a year, one of the things we would like to do is offer shorter programs that cover maybe one aspect rather than many aspects of psychoanalysis. One of the programs we are trying to develop now is a trauma track. It’ll be only one year, with an option for two, or we may offer 5-6 long workshops on weekends, rather than meeting every Wednesday evening throughout the year. We need to change the way we deliver the training to adapt to the needs of the times. We’re going to deliver training in different ways, that will be more geared to professionals’ contemporary needs. We have a few ideas already for next year. We’re open to suggestions.
JB: What other message would you like to share as you start as director?
ASA: I’d like to see more collaboration between the doctoral and the postgraduate program. I would love to do things together. If any of the grad students have an idea, I would love to hear it. If there is anything that you want outside of the curriculum? You want to create an educational event? Talk to me. Any clinical services that you want? Talk to me. If we can make it happen, we’ll make it happen. The graduate students that I’ve met, are motivated, smart, and reflective. It would be a wonderful infusion to the postgraduate program.
JB: Final words for current doctoral students?
Dr. Simha-Alpern: Go for postgraduate training. It’s worth it. It’s fun. It’s meaningful. It will make your work more meaningful.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
For more information on postgraduate training at the Derner School of Psychology, visit https://derner.adelphi.edu/psychology/postgraduate/
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