30 tips for new seminary students
I am beginning my second semester of doctoral studies. I thought it may be beneficial to write (from a current student’s perspective and one that recently finished his M.Div.) some of the things I wish I would have known before beginning seminary.
It is by no means exhaustive and they are not in order of importance.
- Prayer/meditation. One of the most difficult aspects of life, at least for me, is silence and prayer. As a student, life gets busy. Generally, you are not only a student but also a spouse/parent and work some type of job. The busyness of life can prohibit handing the aches and pains of the soul. It also tempts you to become dependent on yourself, striving to do better, and failing to thank our Father for his many gifts. Our hearts become hard when we do not reflect on the state of our soul and point our eyes to the Father above.
- Read the Bible. If you are going to seminary, you will probably be teaching and preaching the Bible when you graduate and many of you are doing so now. Read the Bible for several different purposes: devotionally, for knowledge, for academics, and many others. If your discipline involves the languages, then consistently read in Greek or Hebrew so you don’t lose all the hard work you put in to learn them.
- Plan your study time. When I first began my seminary career, I would sit down each week and schedule out exactly what assignments and reading needed attention. I also blocked out time with specific tasks associated with each block. When it was time for me to study, I pulled out my schedule and knew exactly what I was working on. This not only made my study time more productive, but it also kept me on track throughout the semester. Later in my degree, I stopped doing this. I suddenly became more scatterbrained and less focused. This semester I am back on track and am already reaping the benefits. I found doing this at the beginning of each week allowed me to modify my schedule throughout the semester.
- Library. Get to know all the resources at the library and use them. Here at Southern the research experts can pretty much answer any question you throw at them. There is also a wealth of tutorials and workshops to help you research and write better. See my posts here and here explaining some of the resources offered at Southern. I can’t stress this enough. The library is your friend not only because it has the books you need but staff members are knowledgeable and available to help.
- Write early, write often. Writing is one of the best ways to articulate your thoughts on different subjects. My doctoral supervisor, Dr. Jonathan Pennington, advises to “park on a downhill slope.” By this he means when you finish a day of writing, begin the next section. Jot some ideas down that need to be addressed. Next time you sit down to write, your brain will have a jumpstart. Also, begin thinking and writing about a topic at the start of the class and don’t wait till the end of the semester. Another advantage to writing early is the editing process. I would guess most students who begin their papers at the end of the semester actually turn in a first draft. Write, edit, write, edit, write, edit …
- Write even if it is not for a paper. Augustine said, “By writing I have myself learned much that I did not know.” We learn by writing and getting ideas on paper. It helps us formulate thoughts and put them into concrete ideas rather than abstract thoughts. Seminary is not a time just to work on getting good grades. You want to be a well-rounded pastor/teacher/scholar/missionary; so, write on a variety of topics.
- Learn how to use bibliography software. This will save you tons of time when writing a paper. Instead of formatting by hand every reference in your paper, the software does it for you. It also stores all your references so you can use them in the future. And better yet, there are browser plugins that allow you to search for the book online, click a button, and gather all the information for you. Ryan Vasut has written an extremely helpful guide to getting started with Zotero. Best of all, Zotero is free.
- Learn how to use software to be more productive. Evernote is a great app for organizing notes and research. It can be intimidating because it can do so much. (shameless plug!) This is why I wrote my Evernote for Academics series to help students get started using Evernote. Also, check out my other site, Techademic, for other helpful articles and screencasts to increase productivity in your studies.
- Take the languages early and often. Not only is this vital for any pastor or teacher’s tool belt, but it also allows you to slow down and look more closely at the biblical text in Greek/Hebrew as well as English. It is hard work but well worth it. Once you take the languages, consistently read in them. You will begin to gain more proficiency the more you read. Personally, I find it best to set a time goal rather than a verse goal. In the beginning set a goal of 5-10 minutes a day and gradually build on that. In my experience, when you set your goal via verses or chapters you can get stuck on a verse and spend more time than planned trying to make your way through it.
- If married, make your spouse a priority. Love them, serve them, and enjoy them. Don’t talk about seminary all the time. Your spouse is probably interested in you, which also makes them interested in the things you are interested in. But it is likely they do not want to hear about the details of the Greek verb, or the complexities of the Trinity, or even about the Synoptic problem. And please, please, don’t try to teach them Greek (unless of course they really want you to).
- Think ahead. Plan your classes ahead of time. Make a base schedule then deviate from that. Know how many electives you have and don’t waste them.
- Read, read, read. Get your reading finished early. Don’t try to cram it all at the end. See above for scheduling.
- Get up early. I find mornings to be the most productive time.
- Read people you disagree with. When writing a paper, interact with others who you disagree with. Not only will your paper be better, but also you will learn to think more critically. This should be a given but, sadly, in many contexts this is not emphasized enough.
- Review your notes often. You won’t have to “cram” at exam time.
- Research for papers early. This is similar to my earlier writing advice, but you need to begin research early. If you have the syllabus, then begin thinking about topics before the semester starts. Schedule a time to meet with the professor to discuss paper ideas. Researching early also gives you a head start on finding key resources. Towards the end of the semester, you will find that many of the books you need will already be checked out.
- Get to know your professors. Talk in class. Ask them out for coffee or lunch.
- Community, community community. Get to know other students around you. Everyone is in this together. Community does not just form by itself. You must be intentional. When I was a master of divinity student, I was intentional about getting to know students who were ahead of me. Some of them are now my best friends. Their constant encouragement and knowledge of their studies grew into deeper friendships.
- Church. Join a church, fellowship with believers, and join some type of community group. See where the church needs help and devote appropriate time with that.
- Discuss research ideas with other students. You are all in this together. Help each other. Brainstorm together. Your paper will not only be better but you will become a better student as well.
- Syllabus. The professors know they have to provide the syllabus. Don’t email and bug them about this. It will be available online soon enough.
- Don’t feel like you have to do all the extras. On our campus, you could be busy doing extras almost everyday of the week. You are here for school—that is your priority. Do extras as appropriate, but you simply cannot do them all.
- Stay off social media when doing homework and reading. It is distracting and not profitable for learning. You know this. I know this. Turn off the phone, turn off the Wi-Fi, and focus on your studies.
- Read the Church Fathers. See my post here for my thoughts on this.
- Take the hard classes. You only get to learn here once, so challenge yourself. You will be a better pastor/teacher/missionary because of it.
- Be on time for class and when meeting with professors. This should be self-explanatory.
- Email the grader for logistical questions, not the professor.
- Grading. Realize that in many of the introductory courses the professor will not grade your homework or even your papers. This is why they have competent and smart graders. It can, at first, be disheartening to realize that your professor is not reading some of your assignments in your introductory classes. But you should realize that many of your professors have other courses along with doctoral students too. As you progress through your degree and begin to take more focused courses, you will have more hands on interaction with your professors.
- Try handwritten notes. Personally, I have found it beneficial to take hand-written notes in many of my classes. By doing this it aids in retention and memorization. It is also less distracting. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogs cannot be viewed on paper. And you will be tempted. You can find a list of articles concerning this topic here.
- Exercise. I have found that when I do this I am more focused, less tired, and feel better all around. Sadly, I do not do this enough.
Brian Renshaw is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at Southern Seminary. His interests include Gospel studies, hermeneutics, theological interpretation of Scripture, and history of interpretation. He works as an instructional designer in the SBTS Online Learning department and also serves as the director of digital production for CACS. When he is not reading you can find him roasting and brewing craft coffee. He and his wife attend Sojourn East. He writes on biblical studies at his personal site and Techademic. Follow him on Twitter.