With the start of a new school year, we thought it would be helpful to hear from one of our current students on how to thrive in seminary. Edwin Smith is a M.Div. graduate and is currently working on his Th.M. at Phoenix Seminary and these are his top tips for making your first year a success.
When I had entered my first seminary class, more than ten years had passed since I was regularly in a classroom. I had completely forgotten how to write an essay or study for a test. I couldn’t even remember basic principles like what to do with a syllabus. Still, I wasn’t completely hopeless. Having worked as a web developer for the last few years, I knew a few tricks such as finding the right tools, building a good workflow, and above all else, how to Google well.
I work a full-time job in addition to being a full-time student and having a full-time family, so I knew that I needed some tactics for managing the various buckets of life if I were to retain a modicum of sanity. I thought it might be helpful to pass on some of those tactics.
Of course, I continue to learn new ways to help life run smoothly, and I always have moments of anxiety, where no tactic works except to cast my cares on the Lord. However, I trust that these strategies will be of some service, not only in your first year but the rest of graduate school as well!
Here are 10 tips and tools that helped me make it through the first year of seminary.
Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but it definitely wasn’t obvious to me. Bringing a Bible should probably be Seminary 101. I spent the entire first semester putting my phone away at the beginning of each class only to pull it out again five minutes later, trying to zip down to Isaiah or the Psalms. Second semester I wised up and got a small Bible to keep in my backpack. Find yourself a nice paper Bible in a translation appropriate for an academic setting, and keep it within arm’s length at all times.
Knowing the season of life and personal history of those in your class serves at least three practical purposes. First, it grounds you in love and community. Other academic settings might permit study in total isolation, but learning as a disciple of Christ should always be rooted in mutual respect for fellow image-bearers. Secondly, this helps guard against dead orthodoxy, since we are less likely to write and speak in a manner divorced from love. Thirdly, these friendships “grease the skids” of class discussion. Conversations have more vitality, more compassion, and more laughter then they would have if you were only speaking to a room full of strangers. If meeting new people is intimidating for you (as it often is for me and other bookish types), start with their names. Then, ask them their testimonies, learn their stories.
Your first week of class, once you know the schedule, the required reading, and the professor’s expectations, print out the syllabus for each class and create your master syllabus (there should be a latin phrase for this, and probably is). Gather a list of all of your reading assignments and the due dates for every essay. This will give you a bird’s-eye view of your workload for the semester. I should warn you that doing this might put you in a mild state of panic. But, I promise that you will thank me later.
How, one might ask, do you accomplish step 3 anyway? Are you supposed to cut up your syllabi and paste them together into a master document? I’m glad you asked. You can front-load all of your assignments into an electronic to-do list. While everyone has their own strategies for effectively staying on task, I highly recommend this method. I use a piece of software called Todoist. It has saved my keister (and probably my marriage) more times than I can count. Some advantages of using a tool like this include: ubiquitous access, organized lists, notifications, and at-a-glance overviews. I recommend the paid version, but the free version is probably enough to manage a semester or two of assignments.
This is the first principle of David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity method, and maybe the most useful. Our brains only have so much “working memory,” and if we try to pile more information into our heads without processing the existing data, it all just falls out the back, and in the meantime, we stress ourselves out juggling all that information. Using a tool like OneNote or Evernote, even emailing thoughts to yourself will help you keep your mind free for discussion or the task at hand. I prefer Evernote because (1) I can use it for handwritten notes, (2) it can take pictures of whiteboards and handouts and identify the words in the photo, and (3) it’s easy to search across the entire archive for the information stored there. This article started out as several thoughts quickly jotted down in Evernote!
The library staff members are the wizards at the Biblical Research Center, making useful and relevant information appear out of thin air. Seminary research is a leviathan of ancient documents, archaic languages, difficult-to-find sources, and especially esoteric terminology. And the internet does not seem to make this any easier. You need some guides through these vaults, and developing a good rapport with the librarians will go a long way toward alleviating late-night headaches and last-minute scrambles for those five primary sources.
One of the advantages of collating your syllabi, organizing a to-do list, and setting up a content capture system, is that you can set yourself a pace for research papers. Professors will help set this a little bit, usually by requiring a topic choice early in the semester. You can take it a step further by setting milestones for gathering source material, working on early outlines, and collecting notes and quotes. An added advantage to this early start is that, if you find the well of resources dry, it’s not too late to adjust course on your paper. And speaking of papers...
Zotero is a tool that helps you collect information for research. More importantly, it’s a tool that helps you accurately cite your research. Yes, Zotero can produce wonky bibliographies. Yes, Zotero is not a replacement for learning the SBL Handbook of Style. However, it has an uncanny ability to quickly grab bibliographic information from online journal articles, blog posts, and Amazon pages; it’s got terrific integration with Microsoft Word; it's actively maintained; it’s also one of the only places where you can find an SBL citation generator. (Bonus tip: when entering a note in Zotero, put the page number as the very first line of the note. It will save you time in your citations, and it helps organizes your notes inside the software.)
I am an advocate for minimizing laptop use in the classroom. There are times when it’s necessary to break out a full on word processor, but most of the time it detracts from the experience by presenting distractions to the student and giving the professor the impression that you’re not paying attention (whether you actually are or not). I’ve used both a digital tablet for note taking, as well as pen and paper. However, if you do use a laptop, I recommend using an app like Freedom to create a kind of “Do Not Disturb” mode on your computer that allows you to work without the normally entertaining diversions. I am the type who is easily distracted, so I often employ this when I need to focus on a bit of code or write an essay.
Wayne Grudem has been a seminary professor for over forty years, and he says this has been the number one thing that has kept fresh his personal walk with Jesus. Spending time in private prayer, reading, and meditation needs to be another non-negotiable during your time in school—let’s be honest—your time in life. It will be tempting to let Greek translation, or Augustine, or Calvin become the first thing you take to task in the day, but none of these are an effective substitute for the Word of God, and the God with whom we have to do business. A seminarian, even a first-year seminarian, if they are full of ministerial aspirations and theological ambition but lack religious ardor, is next to useless for the work of Jesus Christ. For all the strategies you might employ to make it through seminary, only one thing is needed.
Edwin Smith is married to Jen and they live in Phoenix with their four above-average kids. Edwin received his M.Div. from Phoenix Seminary and is now working on his Th.M., also at Phoenix Seminary. Edwin works as a Translation Consultant for Wycliffe Bible Translators and is a member of Desert’s End Church. You can check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.