For many, the academic rigor of master’s-level seminary work is daunting. S. Craig Sanders, former editor of Towers and an SBTS M.Div. graduate, offers a few tips and words of advice below.
I often hesitate to offer academic advice because I recognize we’re all wired differently. What worked for me may not be the best approach for everyone. The type of advice I needed in seminary was to focus on my marriage and build friendships both inside and outside the seminary. I’m glad I heeded that advice. But other students need advice on academic preparation, either to make it a higher priority and pause on other commitments or to adjust their academic priorities in light of career or ministry goals.
Nevertheless, there are tips that apply almost universally to seminary students. We all live an age of distraction and most students will have to balance family and work alongside school. Here are four things to keep you tethered to seminary and to leave much wiser than when you arrived:
Find your study place
Whether it’s somewhere in your home, a hidden nook in the seminary, or a coffee shop, figure out as soon as possible the best place for you to read and write undisturbed. Depending on how crammed your home or schedule is, you may only have one spot. Wherever it is, make sure it’s a place where you have absolute confidence it’s there when you need it. Don’t settle for an especially busy coffee shop or study space where you might not get an open table when you most need it. If it’s a space in your home, let your spouse or roommate know that you’ve set apart this place for studying. I’ve found this to be the most essential aspect of my study routine, and it helps the rest flow naturally.
Make a plan and stick to it
First, create a schedule with your class times and meetings, and designate blocks for reading and writing. Place that schedule in multiple places so you don’t forget about appointments. Once, I was working 40 hours per week on second shift (2:30-11:30 p.m.) all while taking nine credit hours. The only way for me to survive academically was to know what assignment I would be working on and when during the precious windows of time I had available on my schedule.
Second, start your paper research at the beginning of the semester. Begin by gathering resources and pick a topic as soon as you are able. Keep a line open in your mind to think about questions you want to ask and claims you want to make in your argument — when an idea grabs hold of that line, make sure you have a way to write it down. Often the best things I’ve written started as ideas that grabbed my attention while I was in the shower or trying to fall asleep.
Finally, be flexible. Circumstances may arise that set you behind on a major project. As long as you’re able to chip away at regular assignments and get ahead in other areas, you can adjust your schedule to make up for lost time on that final research paper.
Never avoid a challenge
One of my favorite pieces of bad advice I heard in college and seminary was, “Don’t take that professor. That class is way too hard.” Whenever I encountered that, I accepted the challenge and immediately signed up. You can’t pass up on difficult situations in ministry, so why should you take the easy path to prepare?
Now, it may be unwise to take the three most rigorous seminary classes in the same semester. But find out what courses will be most challenging for you and start planning how to register for them the next time they are offered. If you’re especially nervous about a particular class, ask around for a student who thrived in the course and develop a strategy for success. The satisfaction and reward for conquering a challenging course will far surpass the leisure and fading knowledge you earned from taking it easy.
Listen more than you talk
This is a precious skill to develop as a student, and one that will pay off in life, marriage, and ministry. There are Christians around the world who long to walk the halls of Southern Seminary and sit under the teaching of our faculty, and some of them move thousands of miles away, unsure when they’ll see their families again for that very reason. Cherish the time you have to learn from Southern’s world-renowned faculty.
Put away your laptop and take out a notebook so you retain more of the information you hear. Attend the lectures and luncheons: some of the most inspiring things I learned — wisdom that inspired my research today — I heard outside the classroom in the lecture halls. Don’t watch it online if you’re on campus; be there, take it in, and get to know the visiting scholars. These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Set aside time for conversations with professors and fellow students. More times than not, you’ll find the next step or a new source for a research project unexpectedly just by learning from those around you.