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22 January was my viva. I don’t know what you know about PhD vivas, and I’ve only ever done one of them, so am not a great judge of whether mine was typical. If you read Tinkler & Jackson, or had a judicious Google, you’d learn a few things:

  • Mostly supervisors don’t let you submit if they don’t think you’ll pass
  • Vivas have an internal examiner, from your own university; and an external from elsewhere
  • They last between an hour and a day
  • Part of the process is checking that you actually wrote the thing & did the work described
  • The key thing is that you can ‘defend your thesis’ i.e. justify your research decisions, reflect on the outcomes and possible future work.

And that was about all I knew. I talked through some likely questions with my supervisors and they briefed me on the logistics. I prepared by reading the thesis again; marking up corrections (found a reference I had missed, as well as a few minor typos); and re-reading the key literature. Oh, and planning an evening out the night before with friends who would calm me down and not allow me to become too nervous.

Loughborough was lovely on Tuesday morning in the sunlight and snow and arriving on campus early (this is me we are talking about so of course I was early – been pacing about the hotel since 7:30, trying not to wake Phil up). Had a comedy unplanned icebreaker as I bumped into my external examiner, asking for directions – so I introduced myself there and then.

Sat for a few minutes with a hot chocolate checking phone messages – I was the recipient of many good luck texts and tweets – then ambled over to the Department.

And then we were off. The internal examiner told me the viva would only last an hour – which was either a really good thing or a really bad thing, so that was something of a wobbly moment.

I don’t really remember in detail the questions I was asked but I vaguely think we talked about…

  • Explaining a graph (at which point I had a total memory block about which is the x axis on a plot)
  • Justifying choice of mean as measure in one of the content analysis parts
  • Talking through the RQs
  • How might I use this work in future – discussion on early adopters/ lay volunteers/ ways of creating sites
  • Whether my discussion undersold the results
  • If I thought my content analysis was robust, reliable and valid
  • What were the interesting parts of the interviews that I couldn’t record (lots! some really great conversations)

I could see the list of questions being ticked off as we progressed. The further down the list we went the more I was thinking, ‘OK, this is going to be the tricky question – the next one will be the one I really struggle to answer…’ but it never arrived.

After an hour we were done, but it felt like about five minutes – the time whizzed by. Supervisors & I were sent out of the room for a few minutes. Then the judgment. Pass, with minor corrections. Phew! This is what I had hoped for, and what most had expected – it is a very common outcome. There is often a bit of re-writing involved, typos to correct, references to amend and the University allows six months for them to be made.

However, the mandated corrections were minor indeed – more than I’d found myself and anticipated following the viva. (All took me less than an hour to make). The external examiner said very nice things about the project and the thesis – that it was a good read, and very well presented and proof-read. So I was (still am, a week later) elated – pleased to have passed, and overjoyed to have ‘passed well.’

So that’s it. Corrections done, and informally passed by the internal examiner. Now I am just waiting for official notification from the University and instructions on submitting the final version.


October 1st… three months (well, two and a bit) until my self-imposed submission deadline. How am I doing?

Well, I’ve written a draft. Three hundred and something pages, 78-and-a-bit thousand words. A bundle of appendices. One or two diagrams, the placement of arrows therein being a disproportionately time-consuming task. I’ve checked for dodgy references and scolded myself for bad librarianship for spotting a mangled quote and a few wrong names and years.

Said draft is now with my supervisors waiting for their comments at my next meeting with them in three weeks’ time.

The only problem is, and this is a fairly major issue as these things go, is that I have absolutely no idea where this draft is on the scale of good-ness. I know it’s not bad, or at least I have been reassured as much in previous discussions I have had with supervisors (the general gist has been, ‘this is fine, carry on.’ But in terms of upping my game from ‘draft’ to ‘submittable’ – I have no idea.  Is it a staircase, a few steps, a chasm that needs a helicopter and serious lifting gear? I hope I will find out in a few weeks, and that the task of rebuilding what I’ve got after supervisory demolition isn’t too horrendous.

What I do know is that I am (a) pleased there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if I have several final furlongs of tunnel still to go; (b) heartily sick of the questions ‘when will you finish?’ and ‘what will you do afterwards?’ (c) really rather fed up with the topic and wishing I had picked something exciting, like rocket science or dancing kittehs, and (d) fairly sure that (b) and (c) are normal stages to go through.

I am presenting some of my findings at the Christian New Media conference on 20 October, running a short session on good and bad practice in website content, which will provide me with a bit of light relief…

Jubilee Celebrations? Not here. Instead I’ve another nine days lined up to write, think, read, delete, re-write, delete, think a bit more, write a bit more, delete, drink tea. That seems to be pretty much how the days go (with the odd run here and there). I have set a goal of working on the PhD for 42 hours (and yes, I have included this blog post in the time for today)

I have three targets for the week, four if you include ‘don’t go stir crazy.’ They are:

  • Complete draft of literature review, which I have more or less completely unpicked since its last incarnation, currently about 70%
  • Complete draft of discussion chapter, currently about 60%
  • Keep a record of Interesting Points that might be useful for the introduction

I also aim to combine the separate Word documents I have into one long this-is-it document; after this week I don’t have a great deal of quality time for a while so ironing out problems with headings & numbering is something I can usefully do whilst waiting on feedback from the proper written work.

Let’s see how we go…

It’s been some time since I talked about where I am with the PhD. I passed the 4th year viva, so am now scarily a fifth year and staring down the calendar to submission deadlines and 40th birthdays…

I’ve just had a week off work. My plan was to make a start on the discussion and see if I can nail down what my conclusions were. This I have done, in that I have about 4,000 words of varying quality written into some kind of structure  – I expect perhaps 1000 or so of those might make it to the final version. (It’s more stream of consciousness at the moment).  The problem I came up against was that I was trying to tie my work back into the literature I’d identified but that having not really paid much attention to said literature for a year and a bit, I’d forgotten a lot of what was there; and there are probably 20 or so newer papers to incorporate. So the week became a bit of a mish-mash of re-reading things, looking again at the lit review and deciding how to better structure it, reading new material (on IT and aging, and internet & moral panic), writing ideas down for the discussion, reading other people’s discussions in fits of self-doubt about whether I was on the right track, pulling evidence for the conclusions I was making from the results, looking out of the window, re-ordering the aims and objectives, fiddling with diagrams, etc. On Thursday I pulled together a table of the comparable results from comparable studies from content analysis of religious websites – kicked myself quite hard for not having done that on Monday, because it gave a really clear focus.

I also added a bit to my results where I compared my findings on the overall character of the websites (are they focusing more on organisational aspects or evangelical aspects?) with those from the study I have about this  looking at US Southern Baptist sites – seemed a useful piece of information to add. Same ratios (focus is on organisational) – I have things to think through about this before I can add the genuis insights to the discussion (genius not guaranteed).

I also started out compiling a table of the objectives and conclusions and what evidence I have for those conclusions.

My plan for the summer has allocated three months to June for writing the discussion and then July for the revision of the literature review. I think plan A will have to be modified so that actually it’s more of an integrated process – writing both sides at once, but perhaps focusing more this month on making sure I know which new papers are going in the lit review and what its new structure might look like – I think I am going to condense the sections on the other religions, for example. I have more relevant Christian work to talk about than I did 18 months ago, so although I think the cross-cultural things are still relevant, they’re not so important to sustain the argument.

I would probably have had something bordering on cabin fever had I not had church stuff to do – as usual I think I set myself about a month’s worth of work to complete in five days, forgetting how long reading and thinking take, and worrying that by day 3 of a three-month window I hadn’t got the perfect draft completed.  Fortunately there was encouragement in the shape of a trip to the pub, pom-pom waving and Twitter password hiding from @watfordgap and a few good runs to keep me nearly sane…

I’ve had a few people lately ask me what my PhD is all about. Since my 4th year progression viva is days away, this seemed like a good time to write one or two paragraphs explaining what I’ve done, why, and what I have discovered so far. Let’s see if I can boil the essence of 4 years down into a couple of hundred words. These are the slides that I’ll be presenting in our departmental conference on Thursday: Jan2012

Briefly, what I’ve been investigating is how and why church websites get published. There are some truly great sites, but there are also some fairly dire examples. I discovered this when looking for a church myself. As an information professional, I have an interest in how decisions are made about the information content of sites. It’s also studying how the internet is now part of everyday life, and how churches are adapting or ignoring the new media.

First off I took a nationwide poll of how many churches had a findable website – picking 400 at random, then seeing if I could find a site by Googling. I did this five times over 3 years. Currently, around 2/3 of the churches had a site I could find, and this was an increase from the first census taken in 2009.

Secondly, looking in more detail at fewer sites, I did a content analysis of 137 websites. What information are they publishing? How current is it? Do they make provision for newcomers? Are there lots of photographs? Is there any interactivity?

Finally, in 2011 I interviewed church leaders, webmasters and interested parties: 18 interviews in total. Whilst it’s easy to see what is published, without talking to some of the people behind the churches I would not find out who was looking after the sites, what skills they had, where their information was taken from or how often the website was considered by the church as a whole. I’ve just started drafting the findings from these interviews.

So that’s it, in a nutshell. That’s 4 years thinking, reading, writing, interminably dull website counting or content coding, very interesting interviews, printer problems, computer meltdowns, trains to Lboro, reading on the train and looking out of the window. One more progression viva to go and I am officially a 5th year; aiming to write this all up by the end of the year.

I have been fortunate so far in that I have been able to schedule some interesting interviews with various clergy. I’m hearing some great stories – and beginning to appreciate the similarities and differences amongst various organisations. So far I’ve been keeping more or less up to date by transcribing these on the train during my commute (except for today, when I didn’t bring headphones).

On the one hand I am enormously grateful for the help and time people have offered to tell me about their situation. On the other, I’ve been surprised by the number of emails which have not even resulted in a polite ‘no thanks.’ I have perhaps an incidental measure of the effectiveness of the chains of online communication within some local churches. Does no reply mean the email did not reach its intended target? Have I just added to an already groaning inbox? Or does my request really not warrant an acknowledgement…

It’s hard to believe but all being well, from 1 February I’ll be a fourth year student. I’m hoping the PhD process will take around five years, so it’s well over halfway. I am now in the next stage of research. I plan to interview church leaders and interested parties over the next 9 months. The aim here is to understand what circumstances, opinions and attitudes are shaping the use, or not, of internet-based tools in many guises.

It’s probably a legacy of my first degree – Psychology, where I learned to calculate statistics on paper – that my inclination tends to be towards quantitative methods. Give me graphs, give me numbers, give me spreadsheets and I am happy. Therefore dealing with qualitative interview data is going to be a whole new learning experience. There will always be times when counting tick box answers is the most appropriate method of investigating a question. But it will miss subtle differences, and doesn’t allow the kind of ‘yes, but…’ answer that can be really illuminating. In particular, I want to talk to people with little or no experience of creating content online. So as long as I want real opinions, interviews are the way to go. This approach is also going to allow me the pleasure of meeting and talking with people I don’t know, and that is always an interesting part of life.

I’ve just completed my fourth and (planned to be final) data collection day for the longitudinal part of the research project. Over two years, I’ve been recording the number of English churches with a website I can find. In January 2009 I took a random sample of 400 churches, and looked for their websites. This was in order to establish a kind of baseline for the number of organisations that had a presence on the internet.

This has been an interesting exercise. The number of findable websites has increased for all the four mainstream denominations that I looked at, but the rate of change has been different for all four. For the first time in December 2011 the well-known search engine I used returned two Facebook pages for churches, rather than a stand-alone website. That may or may not be indicative of an interesting trend. Data is below – I’m still thinking about what other stories these numbers may tell.









Phase 1 40 57 37 28
Phase 2 46 67 41 39
Phase 3 48 72 53 59
Phase 4 58 84 63 61

With the end of my third year fast approaching the rest of my New Years holidays will be spent finalising my report, planning for a PhD research day in the department on 7 February and starting to try to recruit potential interview volunteers for 2011.

November is upon us which turns my thoughts towards my birthday, Christmas… and my end of year report. I find it hard to believe I’m nearing the end of my third year – I’m past halfway on the project and in naive moments I catch myself thinking ‘only 20 interviews to do and writing up, and I’ll be done.’ (Cue evil laughter from, well, anyone involved in doctoral research).

Happily my 3rd year report has pretty much written itself this year. I’ve made what feels like good progress: I’ve got interesting numbers from the content analysis of church websites. I’ve got interesting data on the number of churches with or without websites. I’ve got some great comments from pilot interviews.

This year, too, I’ve attended a couple of conferences which have helped me feel connected to the rest of the research community helping my PhD feel like a real project rather than just something to idle away wet weekend afternoons.

And I’ve learned to live with a never-ending to-do list. Living with the feeling that as one task is completed, two more spring up to take its place, and that there are surely more than 168 hours in the week if I just keep looking hard enough!

So, the formal end of year report will document the methods, the preliminary results, the training, the corrections made and the contacts nurtured. But perhaps the real progress has been in making that sustained effort over the marathon distance.

Last week I conducted my first two pilot interviews. I was testing my questions and  my equipment as well as my ability as an interviewer. I am recording onto my iPhone and using a digital dictaphone as backup. This worked perfectly for the first interview but I failed to do something at the second interview and had only the copy from the dictaphone.

I’ve yet to start transcribing these but I did listen to one again during a run yesterday. Once I got over the initial shock of hearing my own voice I found this a good use of time. As well as familiarising myself with what was said ahead of the transcription, it gave me an opportunity to critique my interviewing technique. I definitely say ‘um’ too much, though this was the first time I’d asked the question so was rephrasing things on the fly. I’m no Melvyn Bragg.