I’m just completing my first semester in a seminary Ph.D program, which I began while keeping my full-time ministry job as Associate Pastor of my church. It’s not an easy task at all, and has more than its share of time management challenges. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and practices.
Expect life to change.
You cannot do graduate school and keep on with life as you know it. Many things will have to be sacrificed. After I got my acceptance letter, I began to adjust my schedule immediately so that I would be better prepared for the real shift six months later when the program began. Some things I did right away to prepare:
I started going to bed and getting up earlier. My best thinking time is in the morning (more on this below), so I wanted to set my schedule to maximize morning time. Besides, after 9pm, there’s nothing much to do.
I cancelled Netflix. I figured that TV and movies were an easy way to reclaim a little money and a lot of time, so I went ahead and bit the bullet.
I started studying German. Since I have to pass reading comprehension in German, anyway, I decided to get a head start. But more than that, I wanted to begin to establish a morning study habit. I started out with just an hour or so and built from there, so that when the semester started and I needed to study for much longer stretches, the adjustment would be easier.
Think about how you can adjust now to how life will have to be once you start your program.
Map your time.
I am blessed to have the kind of job that allows me to adapt my working hours. If you are going to do graduate study, whether a Th.M or a Ph.D, it will not fit in the cracks of your life. You need to designate a set time for study every day. This is important. Getting a degree is just like eating an elephant: you do it one bite at a time. The key question: when will you sit down to “eat”? If you expect to squeeze it in around everything else, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Block off uninterrupted block for study time, every day if possible, and limit your interruptions during that time.
Give your best thinking time to study
Graduate school takes a ton of mental energy. If you can, make your study time when you’re most mentally sharp. For me, that’s in the morning. I rise early, eat, shower, walk the dog, and then hit the books by 7:30 or 8:00. I work steadily until mid to late morning, and then go in to work in the afternoon. If you try to do most of your study during your least intellectually productive time, you’ll wind up re-reading a paragraph four times, or trying in vain to write one paragraph for 45 minutes, just because you’re not on your game.
Also: try to schedule your time to provide for the best work flow. I do my most productive work when I am uninterrupted, and can drop into the zone in reading and writing. Usually, that means 1-2 hours, followed by a short break, followed by another hour or hour and a half.
Some people work best late at night. There’s no shame in that. Put the family to bed and stay up another three hours cranking it out. Sleeping in or an afternoon nap can compensate for the lost sleep. Your solution will have to be crafted to the particular needs of your work and your family life, but as much as you can, give your best mental energy to school.
Utilize Every Second
I can’t emphasize this one enough: have something to read with you at all times. The amount of reading required for many programs borders on excessive. If you have any down time or waiting time, you can knock out some reading time while you wait. For instance, I walk my dog every day, so I got in the habit of taking a book and a pencil with me on the walk. I found I could walk and read with reasonable success, so I did, and it helped me keep up with reading. Others can read while they run on a treadmill, wait for doctor’s appointments, ride the bus, or whatever. Keep your reading with you at all times, and redeem those moments to make progress.
I have written before on how to read books with maximum efficiency, and I recommend that you give it a look. The method is not original to me, but I have used it with great success. My program has me reading roughly two books a week, so it pays to find ways to devour books quickly. This strategy won’t work for every book—some will require much slower and more careful reading—but it will work with many of them. You will save time and increase comprehension.
Each semester, start as early as you can
If you have breaks between semesters, utilize them to get a jumpstart on your work for the next term. Professors often have their syllabuses ready before the prior semester ends; and even if not, they can probably give you a list of required books if you ask. This is important, because you never know when something will happen to set you back. The difficulty with doing school and work at the same time is that you have far less margin. If you get sick, for instance, you’ll likely fall behind in work and school. It’s wise to prepare for occasions when things come up at work that require more time and attention than usual. If you have a head-start on the semester’s work, you’ll be in better shape if something arises to set you back.
Get the support of your employer
Make sure your boss knows what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Things will go much, much easier for you if you have his or her support. I’d recommend approaching your employer before you apply and talking about what you want to do and how it could affect your work. As a matter of fact, just to apply to my program, I had to turn in a form signed by my employer which stated they understood what I was getting into. I am fortunate to have a pastor and a church who believe in me and my program of study, and are completely supportive. So the last two weeks before final due dates, when I’m buried in finishing papers, they understand. Without that understanding, things would be harder.
In each seminar, understand what merits your best attention.
Not everything in each seminar is as important. You will be required to complete assignments that professors won’t even give a second glance. In one of my seminars this term, we were required to produce several five-page book summaries based on our reading. The purpose of that assignment is to ensure that we interact with and absorb the material in the book. Writing those summaries is a good way to do it. However, there is no way my professor is going to sit and read 16 different summaries of the same book. Most likely, he’ll glance at each one to see that our approach was adequate. So should I spend thirty minutes agonizing over how exactly to phrase that one concept? Absolutely not. Write it, get it done, turn it in.
Our big term paper, however, was another matter. In many seminars, you’ll produce one lengthy paper that is the lion’s share of the grade and the expectation for that class. It will be closely scrutinized by both your professor and your classmates. That’s where you should devote your best efforts.
Expect your first semester to be hard
The first semester in your program, you’ll have the steep learning curve of a newcomer. I was uneasy about what the standards would be, and how my thinking and writing would compare to others in the program. As it turned out, I was comfortably in the middle of the pack, but I didn’t really know that until the end of the semester. There are also skills to learn or relearn. How, for instance, do you do library research? I started my program after having been out of school for ten years. To understate it: library research changed a little bit while I was gone. The digital revolution made things easier in many ways, but I still had to learn how to navigate it. It’s also been ten years since I had to properly format a paper (margins, footnotes, etc.). After spending six hours properly formatting my first paper, however, I’ve learned the style, and future papers will be much easier. You’ll also be learning your own study habits: how long does it take to read a book? What are the really difficult parts of writing? For me, it’s formulating my topic. Once I have that, the rest comes more easily. Others struggle with drafting or editing. You’ll need to (re)discover your own strengths and weaknesses, and the first semester will be filled with these kinds of challenges.
Sit down in your seminars, and look around. Seated around you are some of the best and brightest people in your field. Many of them will be your colleagues for the rest of your life. Be friendly. Get to know them now. They can be an invaluable resource. Their reading and intelligence can make up for weaknesses in yours, and they can help you shape and refine your own ideas. Most importantly, they will understand the value of what you are doing in a way that many people in your life will not. Most people in my church have no idea why someone would get a Ph.D in Christian Philosophy, but fellow students do. They get it. You’ll need the support of friends like that when you’re enduring sleepless nights studying for comps, or wrestling your way through your dissertation.