To Pilot, or Not to Pilot; THAT is the question + 52 Answers

As I am preparing to begin my search for participants for my doctoral thesis research, I received a suggestion last week to consider a pilot. Not sure why I had not thought about this before, but that is what having active supervisors and a supportive community of doctoral colleagues is for–help point out things when we miss them ourselves. Seemed like a good idea, though I wanted to get some feedback as to the processes.

Let me be clear, it was suggested (and I agreed) to pilot my semi-structured interview questions, not my research purpose and research questions (I have research evidence from the past 2 years and some literature that suggests this is a real issue that we do not know much about). If I pilot my questions, it can help me determine if they are the right questions (they will give me answers to my research questions and link to my problem and purpose). Nothing like having the opportunity to ask the interview questions and then discuss / debrief them with some people. I think I wrote interview questions that will get me what I want to know, though piloting the interview questions may just be the best way to find out.

Yes, I do follow the suggestions and recommendations of my supervisors, but how about the larger community of doctoral learners (some of whom may even ultimately participate in my study!!) who may have some suggestions for piloting these questions? With this in mind I asked my online doctoral community, #phdchat:

I then received a number of responses, and followed up with one more direct request for thoughts and suggestions and help and support:

The result is there is general consensus that piloting my semi-structured interview questions is useful, though that is not the only thing I learned in this process. I learned that there is power in community, as my two initial posts, along with my individual responses to what others suggested, resulted in 52 responses to me from a number of my doctoral colleagues. They shared their stories, what worked, what did not, what they learned, who to read for more information, and so on. Overall, I am amazed at how generous this network of fellow doctoral colleagues, most of whom I have never met face-to-face though with whom I have established various levels of relationship with, is when there is a need and sharing with one another is just the support that is needed. Can this indeed be a component of a community of practice?

Yes, my supervisors are wonderful, though my fellow colleagues cannot be underestimated!

17 thoughts on “To Pilot, or Not to Pilot; THAT is the question + 52 Answers

  1. I have been through a similar experience recently. My supervisor requested that I pilot my semi-structured interview questions. At first I was hesitant to accept the idea and thought, “great, this will add few more months to my dissertation journey.” After some reflection, I am appreciative of my supervisor’s request. I feel a pilot study will be very useful for testing the appropriateness and clarity of my interview questions. I plan to pilot with 3 participants. I will start the pilot the study as soon as I receive IRB approval, which will hopefully happen soon. Yes, I agree that having an active and responsive supervisor is invaluable.

    Jeffrey, is it possible to share some tips regarding the pilot study based on the feedback you received from your fellow doctoral colleagues?


  2. Ahmad-

    Hope yours is also moving along smoothly!

    Suggestions I got include how valuable it is, how it helps to rephrase the interview questions, how it is something that will be raised in the Viva anyway, how this can be useful to test skills and equipment, how debriefing it with the interviewees afterward can be useful, etc. I looked for this in the literature as well, though could not find much. Has your supervisor directed you to anything specific about this?

    I am starting to work on a new blog post about this experience, so stay tuned!

    BTW, what is your area and where are you studying?


    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      Thanks for sharing the suggestions you got. I will eagerly wait for your blog post about this experience.

      My area is business (Doctor of Business Administration) and I am studying Walden University. The title of my dissertation is: A Middle Management Perspective on Strategy Implementation.


        1. Sorry, I missed this question.

          The problem in practice I am researching is the struggle most companies have with strategy implementation. Studies show around two thirds of companies fail to implement intended strategies. This is an area that has received little research.

    2. I too could not find much in the literature. My supervisor has not directed me to anything specific. It all started with a discussion with my supervisor about my interview questions. I had been reflecting (and I still do) on the suitability of my interview questions. She then suggested that I do a pilot study. I am now thankful for that suggestion.

      1. Yes; nothing like trying out some of our questions to make sure we are discussing things that will get us the information we want. In some ways, the questions seem so simple and straight-forward, though it seems natural in that we are steeped in our topic and have not often spoken with others to confirm our good ideas!


  3. By the way, Jeffrey, are you studying at a distance (since you live in NY and your school is in the UK)?


    1. Yes, though studying from a distance is very common in the UK where dissertations (called a doctoral thesis everywhere outside the US) are negotiated and engaged in individually. I am in a cohort group, similar to classes in the US, though still with the distance component much more common outside North America.

      What brought you to your university and program?


  4. What motivated me to pursue a doctoral degree was the sweet taste of knowledge. Some people find that hard to believe. I had just finished my MBA (May 2009 – University of Wales) and I just could not stop. Being a corporate director for many years, I was interested in a practice-based doctorate, rather than a PhD. I wanted a program that would help me develop my professional and research skills. The D.B.A. was a natural choice. Although I would love to teach when I retire. The D.B.A. is a professional-based doctorate where the proposed research topic must clearly tackle a business problem. After months of evaluating many options (the search started way before I completed my MBA), I found Walden to be a highly respected and well established university. I particularly liked the program structure and that it has compulsory residencies. I am glad I made that decision.

    Have you started your pilot project?


    1. Ahmad-

      Quite focused in your path; very fortunate. I find the more I learn, the more directions for new knowledge I seem to have. Alas, it allows for little to ever end!

      Yes, I started my pilot and am lining up my second interview for next week. I do think I need to speak about this a little. Thanks for asking.


  5. Thanks, Jeffrey. Don’t worry; it will all come together one day.

    Good luck with your pilot study.


  6. Well, it is this exact question that got me interested in the topic. The answer to your question is, “we don’t know.” The research in this area (strategy implementation) is still in its infancy, and there is even less research on the “barriers to strategy implementation.” One possible explanation is that organizations are extremely social complex entities–at least this is how I perceive them. Therefore, organizational actors, systems, processes, policies, structures, and cultures are interrelated and interdependent. It seems many business leaders do not recognize this complex and systemic nature of their organizations. Companies invest huge amount of resources in developing strategies, but they don’t seem to spend enough time thinking about “what could make these strategies fail.”

    By the way, thanks for introducing the phrase “advocatus diaboli” to my vocabulary 🙂

  7. Had I seen this earlier, I’d have recommended Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology… it’s a highly structured set of questions that work to avoid imposing researcher nouns on participants. It’s fairly powerful. If you are interested, I can dig her web page.

    Good luck and congrats on the progress.

    1. Thank you for the feedback, Khalil. I have heard of this, though have not seen enough of it to understand it enough to try to use. Anything you can offer will be appreciated.

      I am about to begin my data collection itself, so this is the absolute perfect time!!

      Thanks again.


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