For most research projects the data collection phase feels like the most important part. However, you should avoid jumping straight into this phase until you have adequately defined your research problem and the extent and limitations of your research. If you are too hasty you risk collecting data that you will not be able to use.
A pilot study involves preliminary data collection, using your planned methods, but with a very small sample. It aims to test out your approach and identify any details that need to be addressed before the main data collection goes ahead. For example, you could get a small group to fill in your questionnaire, perform a single experiment, or analyze a single novel or document.
Spend time reflecting on the implications that your pilot study might have for your research project, and make the necessary adjustment to your plan. Even if you do not have the time or opportunity to run a formal pilot study, you should try and reflect on your methods after you have started to generate some data.
Once you start to generate data you may find that the research project is not developing as you had hoped. Do not be upset that you have encountered a problem. Research is, by its nature, unpredictable. Analyze the situation. Think about what the problem is and how it arose. Is it possible that going back a few steps may resolve it? Or is it something more fundamental? If so, estimate how significant the problem is to answering your research question, and try to calculate what it will take to resolve the situation. Changing the title is not normally the answer, although modification of some kind may be useful.
If a problem is intractable you should arrange to meet your supervisor as soon as possible. Give him or her a detailed analysis of the problem, and always value their recommendations. The chances are they have been through a similar experience and can give you valuable advice. Never try to ignore a problem, or hope that it will go away. Also don’t think that by seeking help you are failing as a researcher.
Finally, it is worth remembering that every problem you encounter, and successfully solve, is potentially useful information in writing up your research. So don’t be tempted to skirt around any problems you encountered when you come to write-up. Rather, flag up these problems and show your examiners how you overcame them.
As you conduct research, you are likely to realize that the topic that you have focused on is more complex than you realized when you first defined your research question. The research is still valid even though you are now aware of the greater size and complexity of the problem. A crucial skill of the researcher is to define clearly the boundaries of their research and to stick to them. You may need to refer to wider concerns; to a related field of literature; or to alternative methodology; but you must not be diverted into spending too much time investigating relevant, related, but distinctly separate fields.
Starting to write up your research can be intimidating, but it is essential that you ensure that you have enough time not only to write up your research but also to review it critically, then spend time editing and improving it. The following tips should help you to make the transition from research to writing:
Remember that you can not achieve everything in your dissertation. A section where you discuss ‘Further Work’ at the end of your dissertation will show that you are thinking about the implications your work has for the academic community.