Five Tips for Graduate School

During my first semester of graduate school in theology, the required class on the Trinity nearly “ate my lunch”. To put it simply, I could never study enough to understand the subject more, nor could I seem to improve my papers enough to elevate my grade, or my pride. As I surveyed my situation, my insecurities in the area of study (that I did not know I had) mounted. Looking back, these things mattered little, but they took much of my attention at the time. Luckily, Fr. McTeigue, SJ, gave me some sage advice that put things back in perspective: study is a holy thing and the devil wants to keep you from focusing. For those who are embarking on a new program, or who know someone who is, here are a few things that are worth considering as one stares down those first few months of study.

1. Make Prayer Your Lodestar

There is a truth universally unacknowledged by most Catholics when beginning to study worth noting at the beginning: complete strangers will be affected by your spiritual life and the way you spend your time. Consequently, what you do with prayer matters, even in the busyness of graduate school. All the spiritual masters of the Church are right: prayer is indispensable, it is the lifeblood of the Christian. When a fellow Dominican brother asked St. Thomas Aquinas for advice on study, he similarly noted, “Do not stop making time for prayer.”1

No matter how bad your professor, or how challenging the work, or how human the motivations appear for your being sent to study, the Holy Spirit is at work in you and your daily contact with him is the primary task of this period of your life. Making prayer your lodestar means consciously acknowledging the truth that Holy Spirit is always the launching point.

Studying is a great privilege and many in our society do not have the opportunity, intellectual capacity, or financial ability to take time to study. Raise the stakes with your own prayer. Consider that God may be asking more of you because you might have a schedule that is more free. Bearing this in mind, how can you step up your prayer life during this stretch of time? For those of you who are studying on top of working (which means you are not as free), how can you maintain a regular, robust prayer slot while taking on this new venture?

Although it’s encouraged to set aside a specific time for personal prayer, how you structure it is up to you. Litanies and private devotions can be helpful here, but cultivating a relationship with the living God (Mt. 22:32) means that there is someone on the receiving end. When he responds, I stop and listen.

Some common struggles with prayer:

  1. Finding time to pray. Carve out at least thirty minutes of personal prayer in addition to other obligations. Perhaps that thirty-minute time slot will have to change on a daily basis because of your class or work schedule. Before I left on my graduate school assignment, another sister who had completed the same program told me, “Make time for prayer in your schedule first. Once school starts, it can be easy to overlook it, or rationalize that time away.” She was right. It can be easy to give other tasks priority when new life as a student is thrown at you. Studying theology gives one an opportunity to understand the truths of the Faith more deeply, but it is not the same as prayer, strictly speaking. Likewise, spiritual reading is not praying. One can pray through what one reads (and should) while studying, but face time with the Lord is its own kind of “thing”, as Aquinas would say.
  2. Feeling as though your time of personal prayer is fruitless. As many spiritual writers have attested, prayer does not always feel comforting. Many times it will be dry and difficult. If you are concerned that your prayer life may not be fruitful, consider its effects. Are you growing in love for God and more aware of your need to increase in virtue? Are you more open to inviting God into your sins, and more conscious of your need for the sacraments, especially Confession? Has personal prayer become a time when you do all the “talking”? God the Father’s words to St. Catherine of Siena could be helpful for a couple of these elements. He says,

    A soul may set herself to say a certain number of oral prayers. But I may visit her in spirit, sometimes with a flash of self-knowledge and contrition for her sinfulness, sometimes in the greatness of my love setting before her mind the presence of my truth. And sometimes the soul will be so foolish as to abandon my visitation in order to complete her tally. As soon as she senses her spirit ready for my visitation, she ought to abandon vocal prayer.2

    He goes on to explain to her that, with the exception of religious who are bound to pray the Divine Office, all other vocal prayers can be returned to and completed if there is time, but to focus more on God’s “visitation”. Consider growth in virtue and love for God when examining your prayer life and less what actually appears to go on during that time. Since my community already celebrates daily Mass together and reciting the rosary is also built into our schedule, I love to include the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in my own personal prayer. However, there are days when I all I can do is stare blankly at the tabernacle and know that Jesus is there. I wonder if those are not some my best efforts to reach out to the Lord.

2. Live a Regular Schedule

Living a regular schedule arms you to be regular and at peace, regardless of whatever wrenches are thrown your way. As you consider designing a schedule, there are a couple of elements to preserve in addition to a regular life of Mass, the Divine Office, and the Rosary: clock at least six hours of sleep (getting eight is better, of course) and be sure to eat at least twice a day. With all the commitments of classes, study, and the liturgy, sometimes basic things like eating and sleeping get relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder, which lead to deteriorating health and energy. Obviously, it is a given that your schedule of prayer should be a priority, and should be at a set time each day, if possible. Large assignments and responsibilities can make it appear tempting to pull all-nighters to finish projects or polish papers. Resist this temptation. As a religious myself, one of the things I am most grateful for is the stated bedtime in my community’s constitutions. Knowing that I cannot stay up later to finish an assignment forces me to think ahead, days and weeks in advance, to use the time that I have well. Living a consistent schedule helps to exploit the free moments one has, and to use them in stronger ways.

Struggles with living a regular schedule:

  1. Large blocks of time may lead to distractions. It came as a surprise to me that even though I love reading and studying, my brain could not sustain deep study for eight hours a day, though I had the time. If you find yourself with large blocks of time, consider breaking up two hours of studying with exercising, doing a charitable work (unloading the dishwasher!), or shifting to another class, rather than trying to tackle all your homework for one class at once. Kudos to those who are able to delve deeply and retain a subject at one sitting, but for most of us mere mortals, repeated “hits” with a difficult book or concept, could be a steady way to master the class.
  2. Fractured time. As a religious, situations would arise where my normal schedule would be chopped up because of community obligations. If you find yourself in a similar situation, do not be afraid to make good use of 10–15 minutes. In the course of looking ahead, I would often ask myself: what are tasks I can accomplish when my sisters come home from teaching and will want my attention? Could I use that time to punch holes in all my handouts and get more organized? Or is that 15 minutes before my next appointment a good time to read a few pages of that challenging book? Small goals for small amounts of time can help you tackle stressful tasks more than you might think. More on this later.

3. Don’t Worry: Your Brain Needs to Get Used to It

More help from Aquinas, here: “Choose to enter by the small rivers, and not go right away into the sea, because you should move from easy things to difficult things. . . . Put whatever you can into the cupboard of your mind as if you were trying to fill a cup.”3

If the program you are enrolled in is truly doing its job to prepare you pastorally, academically, and spiritually to engage the major questions of the field, then this requires thinking in an entirely different way, not just learning new material. Thomas Aquinas says that teachers are meant to possess the principles of their subject perfectly and to pass them on to their students in an ordered manner. The instructor’s meticulous application of these principles is meant to model an order of reasoning that the student practices in order to master the subject. A teacher’s and students’ holiness is wrapped up in this process of contemplation and application. For you as a student, this process is fitting (or, for some of us, “retrofitting”) you for the work that God will ask of you. As you take on this new way of thinking, do not worry about how much you are learning. Your classmates may be younger, possess a stronger aptitude for the subject, or be better educated than you, but they do not know everything. You are all in grad school for a reason. Your professors are equipping you to engage in the most pivotal questions in your field. It’s meant to stretch you. Do not be dismayed when, in the middle of the semester, all you see is the carnage: the messy notes, the piecemeal assignments, the unfinished reading. If you are showing up to class, paying attention, and striving to engage with the material, do not be too quick to presume that no learning is taking place, even if the subject matter is a challenge for you. Each semester I found myself surprised at how I was able to integrate and express the new knowledge I received in papers, final exams, and ultimately in my thesis. New ideas percolated unnoticed in my conversations with others outside of class and my own musings when I was alone. A strong program will leave you asking more questions and knowing what reliable sources to chase. Jesus is with you and, as you offer your work to him, he is the one who will bring it to completion in his own time (Phil 1:6).

4. Plant Something, Bake Something, Paint Some­thing — Cultivate Leisure

Whether you are pursuing graduate studies part-time with a full-time pastoral position, or full-time, it is a demanding task. So demanding, in fact, that one can easily succumb to the pressure that one needs to study or prepare all the time. Even if you love your studies, as I did, this is another temptation to resist. Give your mind and body a break by cultivating a leisurely activity. As Josef Pieper argues, man works in order to have leisure, not the other way around.4 Cultivating leisure gives a person the freedom to fill out the holes in their humanity, while acknowledging their love and dependence on the Lord. As Christians, Sunday is the day for leisure because it is so deeply connected with worship. For priests and deacons, the weekends are your primary “work” time. But consider and reflect on how you approach your day of rest. Pieper argues that “the soul of leisure lies in celebration” and contains relaxation, effortlessness, and contemplation.5 So what are the things that help you to both celebrate and relax, to sink deeply into contemplation and enjoyment? To truly embrace leisure, take up another spiritual-reading book that you’ve put aside in the past. In my own experiments with this I started intentionally bringing the Lord with me into writing more, doing silly math drills, and a little gardening on Sundays, after I have spent extra time in extra prayer. Do you have a hobby you have been putting off? Have you wanted to explore that park you keep driving by on the way to school, or to go get lost in the city where you are studying for an afternoon? Perhaps there is some cooking you’ve been dying to try. Now maybe the opportune moment.

Even if you only have half an hour to spare, use it to explore and allow the Lord to bring you closer to him. As I stated above, your brain needs a break from studying, but your soul needs prayer and leisure. On more than one occasion I’ve been edified by priests who protect their day off. To me it is a sign that they know their own limitations and their need to be with the Lord and away from regular duties.

5. For Those Antsy about Writing: Do It in Pieces

Despite all the graphic organizers and “helpful hints”, the insecurity that I was not truly communicating much of anything in my high-school and college papers resurfaced in my first semester of graduate classes. As a result, I developed a habit that ended up preserving my sanity: cut the assignment into pieces. To stave off procrastination, I would “start” my writing assignments a couple of weeks early if I could. My first step was to reread the prompt and decide on the three points that I thought I could focus on based on my class notes and reading. This step took me about 10–15 minutes. Then I would create a simple outline, but after that I was finished for the day. I would spend no more than 30–45 minutes on this second step. The next day, I would choose one of my three points to begin researching or writing about. I would give myself a time limit on this (say, an hour) and only continue if I was jazzed about what I was writing or did not have another obligation. By my last semester, every Monday was devoted to writing. I would begin with the paper that was due first and then, as soon as it was completed, if I still had a few minutes, then I would move on to my first steps with the next paper, regardless of the due date. This kept me worry-free and plodding along. As the semester progressed, most of my papers I was able to finish early, and I could begin to accurately gauge about how many hours it would take me to write it after only a few minutes with the prompt.

Overcoming struggles with writing assignments:

  1. As stated above, the way to avoid procrastination is to begin. Give yourself manageable and perhaps small deadlines, even if your first pass at the assignment is only fifteen minutes.
  2. Write an outline. This age-old English teacher’s tool should not be easily passed over. When I was struggling with the first draft of my thesis, another sister pointed out to me that I had neglected to make an outline. The sheer size of the thesis had blinded me to the most important thing: the bird’s-eye view of my argument! The more detailed the outline is, the easier it will be to cut and paste into your document for a first draft.
  3. Resist the urge to pull an all-nighter right before a paper is due. Although the adrenaline rush can help you to focus, planning your time well in advance will be better for your health and your ideas.

Whatever your reasons for returning to school, know that this is a graced time that God is giving you. All study is meant to lead to the truths of what God has made, increasing your desire for him. And one cannot love what one does not know, as St. Catherine of Siena would say.6 May each of your hearts be set on fire for Christ, as you pursue the path of his unsurpassable love.

  1. St. Thomas Aquinas, Letter to Brother John.
  2. St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 125.
  3. Aquinas, Letter to Brother John.
  4. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), 4ff.
  5. Pieper, Leisure, op. cit., 28, 44–45.
  6. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, 9, 25.
Sr. Maria Catherine Toon, OP About Sr. Maria Catherine Toon, OP

Sr. Maria Catherine is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, a new vibrant community of Dominican Sisters canonically established in 1997. Beginning with four foundresses, they have now grown to over 125 sisters with an average age of 30; they teach in preschool through college all over the United States. Their motherhouse is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sr. Maria Catherinehas a master’s in theology from Ave Maria University and teaches high school at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, IL. For more on the Sisters, see their Facebook page, Facebook.com/DSMME, or visit their webpage for more information: www.SistersofMary.com.

Comments

  1. Patrick Quirk says:

    Thank you Sister. Sertillanges lives again!

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