Q & A with Dr. Arthur Ripstein

Dr. Arthur Ripstein is one of this year’s recipients of the JJ Berry Smith Doctoral Supervision Award. Read more about the award and see a profile of Dr. Ripstein.

Q. Did you have any mentors while you were pursuing your own graduate studies? Have there been any models for your own approach to supervision?

A. The day that my topic was approved, my supervisor, John Haugeland, took me out for lunch and gave me an extremely important piece of advice: he told me that my dissertation was the last thing I did as a graduate student, rather than the first thing I would do in my career. […] it was fabulous advice, because, above all, it made me appreciate that being a graduate student [requires] a certain set of skills to prepare you for independent research, and that preparation must be the central focus. 

It also taught me something central to the way I understand my task as a supervisor: an essential part of the transition from student to professor is learning when to revise, and when to stop revising. John was also a great believer in making me write multiple versions of every chapter, even if he was happy with them. At that lunch I mentioned, he actually gave me an organizational tool – salad spinner, not because he thought that my writing was bad, but because he thought that every doctoral student needed to work relentlessly on organization and clarity of expression. It was not enough to have good ideas; you needed to make them clear enough for everyone to understand. You also needed to accept the fact that no matter how clear your work, not everyone would understand and, conversely, that if you were clear you would sometimes provoke more disagreement, because people knew exactly what you were arguing.   

Q. How would you define “good doctoral supervision”?

A. My job is to train doctoral students to be independent thinkers and workers, giving them the skills that they need without telling them what to think or say. 

Q. How do you know you are doing a good job as a supervisor? How can you tell if you need to adjust your approach?

A. One of the things that many students find difficult in making the transition from writing papers in their coursework to writing a dissertation is figuring out how to divide a topic up into manageable sub-parts. That is one of the skills that I always emphasize to my graduate students. At the same time, at least as important as any skill is the kind of independence of mind that is required for successful academic work. That means that I have to do everything I can to encourage and enable my students to think for themselves, even though “you have got to think for yourself” sounds self-defeating when stated as advice.

Q. Do you have any advice for students who may be in the process of trying to choose a supervisor? Are there any important questions they should be asking?    

A. You need to find someone with whom you aren’t afraid to share half-baked ideas. Students who are afraid to share their work with their supervisors until they are sure it is ready miss out on the main benefit of working with someone.

Q. Do you have any advice for faculty, particularly those who are just starting out in a supervisory role? (Anything you wish you were told before you started supervising doctoral students?)

A. Just as writing a dissertation is a matter of acquiring a set of skills, so too is supervising the work of others. To make the transition from being supervised to supervising, find yourself a mentor. When I joined the philosophy department, I was second reader on several committees on which my wonderful colleague Wayne Sumner was the supervisor. He suggested that the two of us meet with the students together. Wayne was a wonderful role model and mentor to me.

Read about Dr. Tania Watts, another recipient of this year’s JJ Berry Smith Doctoral Supervision Award.

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