It’s written. It’s somewhere in limbo between the Lboro print room, my supervisors, and the research student office. Paperwork is completed. Cogs in the process have started to turn. But as far as I’m concerned, as far as current workload is concerned – it’s submitted. Done. Finished.* Written up. Completed. 

The fat lady’s not quite singing, but I’d say she’s definitely checking her diary and making sure she’s got the music she needs. 

*”The PhD is never finished, it is simply abandoned at its least damaging point.” Apparently this is a famous quote. But in a moment of academic rebellion, I’m not going to reference it. If you want to know where it came from, let me Google that for you... 

Not quite out of the woods, but I have definitely seen a signpost and a footpath out. Or, if you prefer, I am very sure that the light I see at the end of the tunnel is daylight and not an oncoming train.

On Monday I went to Loughborough for a supervision meeting – first one I’ve had face-to-face for ages. And, as it transpires, probably the last one. Ever. Having never written a thesis before, I had no idea how far off from finished my draft was. I did not know whether I needed to take small steps, or breach a yawning chasm. Turns out it was small steps. So, yesterday and today I’ve made the last set of suggestions, and been brave enough to write abstract, acknowledgement and the title page. I had a few proofreaders on standby, for ‘oh, sometime in November,’ who have been kind enough to jump into action, and I’ve their amendments/ suggestions still to make. But, you know. Other than that, it’s done. I think. I expect there’ll be tweaks to make, and I dread the internal review outcome. But it is an entirely odd feeling to think that the writing, which has occupied my thinking for the last year, and the project that took up free time and thinking space for the previous four years, is very, very, nearly done.

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…

Lots of people have asked me recently ‘How’s the PhD going?’ so I thought it was probably about time I wrote up its current status, and on a good day, when I am feeling positive about it.

I am more or less on track to submit by the end of the year, barring disaster. The difficulty is in judging how long it will take me to get from where I am now, to a document that is as good as it will get and submittable. I have 75,000 words, albeit in Morecombe & Wise format (all the right words, not necessarily in the right order). I’m not – at least I don’t think I am – precious about any particular sentence or paragraph, so chopping and changing and deleting isn’t going to cause me great angst, and I’m pretty good at ruthless criticism of my own style, grammar and sentence construction. I’ve got most of every chapter written, although I’m not quite sure about my introduction. I just don’t have a sense of how hard it will be to get from ‘nearly everything’ to ‘good enough,’ and at what point the perfectionism will kick in. My analogy to explain this is like wanting to fell several trees: a chainsaw would be good, but all I have is a blunt pen-knife and all I can do is chip away at the trunk and hope I’m attacking the right tree…

The things I know I have left to do include finishing the introduction, slicing my Findings into several readable chapters instead of its current death-by-sub-sub-sub-heading format, finishing the bits I have flagged up with Notes to Self, converting the references from placeholders to actual references, compiling the ever-growing appendices, adding in all the cross-references, re-reading it again to make sure the arguments and structure flow properly.

One advantage of doing a PhD part-time is that there is always a gap between writing sessions. This has two advantages. First, I’m a bit more distant from the text than if I spent weeks on end writing, re-reading and editing, so my ability to spot errors and act like I have ‘fresh eyes’ is heightened. Second, as a corollary to that, if I have a ‘bright idea,’ leave a note for myself about it – chances are I don’t think it’s necessary after all when I come back to it! So I probably save myself unnecessary re-writing for forgetting why I wanted to change things…

I’m going to be presenting some of the ideas and conclusions at the Christian New Media conference in October. Whilst I’ve enjoyed the process of researching and writing the thesis for its intellectual challenge, I think it would be a shame not to share some of the content in a way that would assist people to think about their websites and online use differently. So I am hoping to find some practical hints and topics to share.

On a bad day, of course, I feel like embarking on the project was the most ridiculous idea I have ever had. I feel unable to sentence together string properly, that no-one will be interested, that what I have found out is obvious, that the methodology was flawed, I’ve wasted five years of life and it’ll never be good enough to submit let alone for me to stand up to the rigours of a viva next year. And asking me ‘how is the PhD going?’ will result in tears or tantrums. However, I am led to believe that these bad days are entirely normal, and it will soon pass…

I’m a few months away from submitting, so all research is done, interviews transcribed and I’m starting to look for places to share the findings with people – and hopefully finding ways of making practical use of the story I can tell.
The project set out to find out how English Christian churches use email, websites and social media to connect with their congregations and communities. Churches are still learning how these tools might help. Results show that only 55% of Church of England churches had a website – a proportion that had risen from 40% in 2009. It’s a little better for other denominations, with the Baptist church leading the way. If churches do have websites, their content can be patchy, and often out of date. You might be able to find out the service times, and maybe have a map, but a wider sense of a vibrant community is harder to portray. Pages designed for newcomers are still full of church-talk.
 Interviews with clergy across main denominations (Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and C of E) suggest that relying on volunteers to have time to update sites and keep the design modern can be tricky; everyone is pushed for time. Also, a great website needs planning and evaluation, and to be considered as a key part of the church’s outreach. Evidence suggests that this may not be happening in many churches where either the size of the congregation, or the perception that older congregations aren’t interested, limits the effort put in.

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…

Too tired to think of a witty title. Another Bank Holiday spent doing various bits and pieces. Yesterday I started rearranging the way I had the paper copies of articles filed; physically moving them into piles and creating index cards (not by hand). I need to be able to see what I have and to be able to look at things and put things together that go together, I am too old to do that by some kind of online mechanism. I shall atone for the use of paper in later life.

I’ve been working on the literature review and discussion more or less simultaneously. Write a bit of the literature review – either amending existing text so it reads less like it was written by a ten year old, or add a new paper; then write the corresponding bit of the discussion where I link my findings to the rest of the world’s research. This seems to work, but of course there are some bits that I am needing new resources for (there’s a whole section in my discussion about older people and internet things, for example). I added about 2,00o words overall today – slow going, but I think I am getting there. I’ve more articles that I haven’t used than I thought, too; and some that looked like they were relevant 18 months ago aren’t.

As usual I gave myself a massive list of things to do, and managed about two of them. And I spent part of the beginning of the day having a minor wibble about whether I will ever be able to bring the various bits I have written together into a coherent thesis. Before October.

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 took a couple of days off last week to tackle the organisation of my interview findings. Crikey, that was a tough job!

I’ve got things more or less organised, and I’ve a scheme in my head of how the findings relate to the content analysis of the websites. I’ve got a huge amount of work to do on it, though, and I’ll admit that this hasn’t been the easiest of weekends. The solitariness has been tough. The fear of forgetting it all has been tricky. I keep coming across ideas that I have had that I have absolutely no recollection of whatsover. I did start to seriously doubt my sanity in undertaking this project; I’ve wondered about it before but this time I looked at what I need to do, looked at the time I have to do it in, and for want of a better word, wibbled.

Next time off is at Christmas and at that point I will be going back to my literature review and revising it with the newer work that has come out. I’ve not read my own review for several months, so that is going to be interesting.

All this is building up to my 4th year review, and the research symposium I will be part of, on 19 January.