Yesterday, the institution at which I work hosted an Orientation for some 50 new students who will begin their graduate theological education imminently. I was asked to provide an informal talk to a smaller group of them about student success. What follows below are the revised and expanded tips I made for how to get the most out of their degree programs, which may or may not have ready application outside of the seminary context (or graduate school in religion) for which they were designed.
1. Begin to form habits, patterns, and networks for success. This will involve
- blocking out chunks of time in your schedule on a weekly basis (away from family, work, ministerial, or other obligations) for study,
- cultivating a circle of peers both within and outside of your classes for collegial support. As I told those assembled, it is no false modesty on the part of we faculty when we say that they will likely learn more from their peers in their graduate school education than from their instructors and that the friendships they make with their classmates may well sustain them for the remainder of their adult lives.
- taking advantage of all the resources at your disposal. At our school, that includes librarians eager to help you conduct research for your papers, staff and tutors at the Writing Center willing to help you with papers and citation style, and a host of student organizations and staff in the Office of Student and Community Life who are dedicated to co-creating a vibrant learning community.
2. Develop relationships with faculty early in your program of study.
- With respect to the faculty who teach the classes in which you are enrolled, take advantage of opportunities to get to know them before your first major graded assignment, so as to come to a better understanding of their course objectives and so that your first significant one-on-one exchange with the professor is not to lodge a complaint or contest a grade. In fact, I encourage all my new advisees to book an office hour appointment (in person or through Skype) with each of the teachers of their classes within the first two weeks of class so they can relay their hopes and concerns about the course in a more intimate setting and accordingly signal their seriousness to do what it will take to succeed.
- With respect to seeking advice from faculty about “bigger picture” questions—about vocational discernment or potential careers in academe—seek out advice and mentorship from multiple sources. For it is not uncommon for faculty to provide different, if not mutually incompatible, advice about all sorts of matters (e.g., how to select a thesis topic, what to do to be competitive on the job market) and thus it is to the student’s advantage to receive a range of perspectives on the matter.
- Keep in mind that a special relationship should exist, however, between each student and her advisor, given that the advisor is institutionally more responsible for her advisees in ways that other faculty may not be. Thus, it is not a bad idea to defer to the judgment of one’s advisor when you receive conflicting advice and/or alert her advisor if pursuing a different course of action than the one recommended. If, however, the student discerns in her course of study that another faculty may be better positioned (for a variety of reasons) to serve as her advisor, (s)he should seriously pursue the prospect of a change, though of course such matters need to be handled with care.
3. Remember why you sought an advanced degree in theological education and guide your actions accordingly.
This is easier said than done and what I mean is this—if the purpose of your seminary degree is for you “work out” longstanding theological questions, build a certain skill set, develop greater appreciation of religious traditions other than your own, become better equipped to handle issues that will likely arise in your ministry, and so forth, note that meeting or not meeting those goals) will have nothing in principle to do with the grades you’ll receive in your classes. And yet, something that continues to surprise is how many students, including those not intent on pursuing further doctoral studies or those who are in no way danger of not meeting basic GPA requirements (to graduate or to maintain a certain scholarship, nevertheless feel so much pressure and anxiety over grades.
So while on the one hand I want to advise students to form an intention for their education and pursue it (apart from any goals you may have regarding grades), I also want to encourage students to keep an open mind. It is not uncommon for students to enter into their degree program thinking that they had interests in X, only to take a course, have their minds expanded, and thus seriously want to change course to Y. As I told students at Orientation, advisors, degree program tracks, even entire degree programs, can be changed (in some cases more easily than others), and while students should not make decisions to “switch” lightly, sometimes such changes will work to the betterment of all parties.
4. Don’t want until (small) problems become (major) crises. Whether you are struggling with mental or physical health, burdensome work/ministry demands, course material you find excessively difficult, confusion about graduation requirements, or other personal problems, bear in mind there are many people who are trained and willing to help, who could arrange for accommodations, or who could otherwise lessen your burden by offering emotional support. I have come to regard the institution at which I work, Claremont School of Theology, as a genuinely caring place, and I know for a fact that many of us are committed to help those in need in ways that we can, with our ability to genuinely help our students increasing the more (and earlier) you involve us in the process.
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Blessings for a productive beginning to the New Year and semester. May your first weeks of learning be enriching and invigorating!
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and co-editor, with Ilsup Ahn, of Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press, 2015).