An interview with Dr. Kelly McWilliams, a new faculty member at John Jay!

November 6, 2017

Where did you go to school/what did you get your degree in?


I did my undergrad at Emory University in Atlanta, graduating with a B.A. in Psychology. I then went to UC Davis for my PhD in Developmental Psychology and I did my postdoctoral research at the law school at USC.


What did you do your dissertation on?


My topic was on examining the dynamics of parent-child conversations, specifically looking to see how parental bias affects children’s memory reports. I wanted know if and how a parent discusses an event with their child may influence the child’s memory for that event. For example, if a parent is afraid something negative has happened to their child, could the way a parent questions their child change the answers the child gives?


What lead you to working this job at John Jay?


I was really interested in the program here because my research is very applied (eyewitness memory for children, children interacting in the legal system). In many schools, you may be the only faculty member doing applied research in a world of theoretical research, and at the program here at John Jay, the majority of faculty members have an applied aspect to their work.  We are interested in many of the same overarching principles and philosophies. It is a very unique opportunity to work with like-minded individuals. Additionally, I enjoy that the work the department does here at John Jay is often applied to help people; I found the social justice aspect of the program very appealing.


What first got you interested in forensic psychology?


I was always interested in behavior and psychology, and I had a really awesome undergrad advisor (Robyn Fivush) who spent a lot of time talking to me while I was trying to figure out where to apply to graduate school. When I realized there was a field where you could do psychology that applied to the law (without being a lawyer or a cop—which are careers that do not match my introverted personality), I realized that this was a perfect career for me. Academics is a long, hard and frustrating field, but there are those moments along the way that make you realize how much you love it and how worthwhile it is.


What are your primary research interests?


My research right now is in two main areas. The first area is looking at the theoretical underpinnings of child memory performance and how children communicate what they remember, especially information that may be emotional or upsetting. The other focus is an applied track, looking at the developmental sensitivity of current legal practices. I want to know how can we give kids the best opportunity to talk about what may have happened to them, and not lead them to possible false reports. I will be allowing students to volunteer in my research lab starting next semester.


What are some of your career goals?


Tenure, funding through federal grants, and publishing in top journals are definitely some of my current career goals. However, my main focus is establishing a solid research base here at John Jay.  Additionally, long term, I would like to develop working relationships within the legal system and law enforcement community here in New York. I want my research to be applicable and useful to the community where I live, as well as the community at large.    


What has been your favorite research/field relevant experience?


My favorite experience so far was in post-doc work where I was able to work as a forensic interviewer. I had the opportunity to work with family court (dependency court), social workers, and law enforcement, and to actually conduct the interviews with children. Being a forensic interviewer in the field (i.e., practicing within the area you research) is a surprisingly unique experience for an experimental psychologist. I feel that experience not only helped inspire relevant research questions, but it has also made me very empathetic to practitioners and to the struggles they face trying to apply research-based practices to individual cases. It was a great opportunity to see how impactful past research has been, but also to realize how far we still need to go.


What are some of your hobbies or favorite activities?


Walking my dog, Reilly (a golden retriever), on the west side highway. I love going to spin class, and I’m getting married in July so wedding planning is a big part of my life right now.


How long have you lived in New York?


I am originally from New Jersey, so coming back to New York feels like coming full circle after many years spent in California. I now get to see my family and friends regularly, for instance, I got to go trick or treating with my nieces for the first time which was so much fun. Even though I did love the west coast—and I am sure I will miss it when winter hits--I am very happy to be back here in NYC.


What are your pet peeves?


Slow walkers and students who don’t read the syllabus.


What classes do you teach at John Jay?


Developmental Psychology for undergrads


Any advice you have for current grad students?


I think remembering the big picture and reminding yourself what your ultimate goals are. In academics especially, things move very slowly—it is very easy to get frustrated or distracted. Another important piece of advice for students is the value of meeting people. It can be difficult to get out of your shell and approach people. But your fellow students, teaching assistants and professors have so much knowledge and advice to provide. I know it can be intimidating to approach your professors and they are very busy people. But, the professors here at John Jay are incredible and so knowledgeable. Making an effort to get to know them and becoming invested in their research can be a career changing experience. 

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