Confessions of a PhD Student (4): “I did my pilot study…

…‘without knowing what I was doing’.”


One of the most difficult things when doing a PhD is defining the research questions. When I started my program, I had a good general idea of what I wanted to study. Narrowing that down to something researchable that can provide a significant contribution to the academic community has been a challenge.

I read and read and read. I identified gaps mentioned in the literature, and I continuously questioned myself: Are those gaps worth of a PhD research? I have lots of questions and few answers.

Eventually, one my supervisors suggested: Stop reading, go to the field, get your hands dirty and do your pilot study. And I did. I had read a lot, so I knew the main authors, the main theories (or so I thought).

I will be honest with you: I was not really sure of what I was doing. I just did it.

I was like a little bird, pushed by mamma bird out of the nest, hoping to fly and not to fall hard to the ground and die.

Fortunately, I was ready to fly.

Well, I had a couple of issues. I started with one idea. I had a plan for that idea. As I was going along, I had to reformulate my idea and my plan. Half-way during my data collection, I discovered a framework I liked, one that I consider worth of putting to test. To incorporate it, I modified my instruments. I was using surveys and interviews. It was too late to change the first, but I could include a couple of relevant questions in the latter.

It was not too bad… Ok, it would have been better if I had had a clear theoretical stance before I started the study. But honestly, it turned out quite well. I finished it already. I prepared a report of results for the participating organization. I found some valuable information, and I improved the research questions of my main study.

I did my pilot study without knowing what I was doing, but I ended up doing it well.

Sometimes, when you are unsure of your steps, you just have to keep going forward, jump out of the nest, do your pilot study and hope to fly. If birds can do it, we can do it too.

– Brenda Padilla

Leave a comment


  1. I think this process sounds very common. We never really know what we are doing when we enter a field. We start by trying and seeing what works.

    Research process, like much of life, is a cyclical and reflexive process. We do something, we analyse, we do something else in reaction and we analyse that.

    What annoys me is that ethical boards expect you to know EXACTLY what you are doing before you do it!


  1. Confessions of a PhD Student (6): ˝I hate summarizing months of hard work to a 15-minute presentation˝ « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog

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