Tag Archives: advice

30 Tips for New Seminarians

Here is my humble attempt at giving advice to new seminarians. I am beginning my second semester of doctoral studies. I thought it may be beneficial to write out (from a current students perspective and one that recently finished his Masters) some of the things I wished I would have known before beginning seminary. This is a slightly revised post that I wrote a couple years ago. It is by no means exhaustive and I didn’t necessarily order them in any particular way. If you have any questions/comments or anything to add let me know.

  1. Prayer/Contemplation. 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 block dealing with the aches and pains of the soul. It also allows you to become dependent on yourself, striving to do better, and not reflect and 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.
  2. Read the Bible. If you are going to seminary you will probably be teaching and preaching the Bible when you get out. Read the Bible for all different purposes: devotionally, for knowledge, academically, 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.
  3. 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 I needed to be working on. I also set out blocks of time with specific tasks associated with them. When it was time for me to study I just got out the 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 for some reason. 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.
  4. Library. Get to know all the resources at the library and utilize 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 just because it has the books you need but because the people there are knowledgeable and there to help.
  5. 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 are finishing a writing day begin the next section you will be writing. 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. Not only will your paper not be as good (even if you can get an A!) but you will not get the most out of it. Another advantage to writing early is the editing process. I would venture to guess that most students who begin their papers at the end of the semester actually turn in a first draft. Write, edit, write, edit, write, edit…
  6. Write even if it is not for a paper. Augustine says, “…by writing I have myself learned much that I did not know.” We learn by writing and getting ideas out 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 all different topics.
  7. 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 all the information is gathered for you. Ryan Vasut has written an extremely helpful guide to getting started with Zotero. And guess what? Zotero is free.
  8. 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 be more productive in your studies.
  9. 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 both Greek/Hebrew and English. It is hard work but well worth it. Once you take the languages consistently read in them as well. You will begin to get more proficient 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.
  10. 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 too).
  11. 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.
  12. Read, read, read. Get your reading finished early. Don’t try to cram it all at the end. See above for scheduling.
  13. Get up early. I find mornings to be the most productive time.
  14. 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.
  15. Review your notes often.
  16. Research for papers early! This is similar to my earlier writing advice, but you need to 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.
  17. Get to know the professors. Talk in class. Ask them out for coffee or lunch.
  18. 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 MDiv student, I was intentional about getting to know, now some of by best friends, students who were ahead of me. Their constant encouragement and knowledge of their studies grew into deeper friendships.
  19. Church. Join a church, fellowship with believers, and join some type of community group. Don’t feel that you have to be a super student and be overly involved in your Church. See where the Church needs help and devote a small amount of time with that. Your calling now is seminary. Focus on that.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. Don’t feel like you have to do all the extras. On my campus, you could be busy doing extras almost everyday of the week. You are here for school—that is your priority.
  23. 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.
  24. Read the church fathers. See my post here for my thoughts on this.
  25. Take the hard classes. You only get to learn here once, so challenge yourself. You will be a better teacher/pastor because of it.
  26. Be on time when meeting with professors and other faculty. This should be self-explanatory.
  27. Email the TA/Grader for logistical questions, not the professor.
  28. 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 teachers 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 teachers.
  29. 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. You can find a list of articles concerning this topic here.
  30. 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.

I am sure there is much wiser and sound advice out there. If you have any just add them in the comments!

How to Write a Lot

Purchase

Writing. That daunting tasks that looms ahead of every student and professor. Most people don’t have time to “write a lot” or at least so they think. The 8–10,000 word article sits before us like brocolli sits before a child wanting to get up from the table to play with the other kids. The task has to be done but it is difficult to begin. The book How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia provides many practical tips on how to write a lot or more accurately as he describes in his final chapter How to Write More Productively During the Normal Work Week With Less Anxiety and Guilt (130)." The first three chapters: 1) Introduction 2) Specious Barriers to Writing A Lot and 3) Motivational tools are extremely helpful. The final four chapters provide many helpful tidbits but overal are focus more specifally for writing for the sciences.

Writing is hard and not natural. The act of writing takes practice, determination, and a set plan. Far too often academics long for the days off, spring breaks, and summer vacations to “get writing done” but then complain afterwards because of how much they did not accomplish. Writing is a skill that needs developed not a talent that comes naturally (6). Silvia provides four “specious barriers” that inhibit the writing process:

(1) “I can’t find time to write” also known as “I would write more if I could just find big blocks of time (11).” This is a blatant lie. Don’t believe it. Productive writing comes in smaller scheduled chunks throughout the week. If you are trying to find time to write then you will never find time but will fall into the trap of “binge writing.” This means that you have one “successful” 6 hour writing period every couple weeks and it makes you feel good inside. Don’t believe the lie. Rather, allocate your time throughout the week to write and defend it as you would your teaching schedule, time with family, and other activities that are important to you.

(2) *“I need do to some more analyses first,” aka, “I need to read a few more articles* (18).” Use your scheduled writing time to do “prewriting” as well. If you need to review some more research then do it during your scheduled time. This is help not hinder your productive writing if you are on a schedule.

(3) “To write a lot, I need new computer (see also a ”laser printer,“ ”a nice chair,“ ”a better desk") (19). This is just a lame excuse!

(4) “I’m waiting until I feel like it,” aka “I write best when I’m inspired to write” (23). Waiting for “inspiration” does not work.

We all need motiviation to help us continue writing. The third chapter outlines several motivational methods for writing:

  1. Setting specific goals
  2. Setting project goals
  3. Set concrete goals for each writing day

Goal setting is needed when it comes to writing constantly If you run out of specific goals then you are likely to become disinterested and forget why you are writing. Next, you need to write down specific project goals (journal article, thesis, book section, etc.). This allows you to track and prioratize your goals. Once you have completed steps one and two you need to write down concrete goals for the writing session (number of words, pages to research, articles to review, etc.) Everyday can’t be a certain amount of words because writing involves more than just writing it takes preperation, research, and revisision. Finally, you should monitor your progress so you can look back and see how well (or poorly!) you did. Oh, and writers block only happens to those who believe in writers block…writing begets writing so take up and write (38)!

As I said in the introduction the first three chapters are chocked full of wisdom and practical advice (along with a swift kick in the butt to get to writing!). The fourth chapter encourages you to form a writing group to help you with peoples individual goals. Chapter five examines writing helps specifically in the style of your writing. Silvia notably points out that the writing and editing process are not one in the same. Write then edit do not try to do both at the same time. Chapters 6–8 are specifically focused on writing for the sciences. Many of the same principles can be used for other fields of writing (such as theology) but practically they are aimed for a different audience.

Overall, I found this book a helpful motivator to begin writing more. I hope to take many of the principles—especially in scheduling and goal setting—in my academic career. Did I mention that it is also only 132 pages so it is an easy read for one session.

Seneca and Stating the Obvious

Dale Allison quoting Seneca while writing on the genre of James and the reason why stating the obvious is profitable[1]

People say, “What good does it do to point out the obvious?” A great deal of good; for we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them. Advice is not teaching; it merely engages the attention and rouses us, and concentrates the memory, and keeps it from losing grip. We miss much that is set before our very eyes. Advice is, in fact, a sort of exhortation. The mind often tries not to notice even that which lies before our eyes; we must therefore force upon it the knowledge of things that are perfectly well known.’

Seneca Ep. 94.25–26


  1. Jr, Dale C. Allison. 2013. James (ICC): A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (International Critical Commentary). Cri Int edition. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 75  ↩