What Is a Pilot Study in Research?

Definition and Examples

Researchers review the results of a pilot study, which is an important step to assessing the feasibility of a larger research project.
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A pilot study is a preliminary small-scale study that researchers conduct in order to help them decide how best to conduct a large-scale research project. Using a pilot study, a researcher can identify or refine a research question, figure out what methods are best for pursuing it, and estimate how much time and resources will be necessary to complete the larger version, among other things.

Key Takeaways: Pilot Studies

  • Before running a larger study, researchers can conduct a pilot study: a small-scale study that helps them refine their research topic and study methods.
  • Pilot studies can be useful for determining the best research methods to use, troubleshooting unforeseen issues in the project, and determining whether a research project is feasible.
  • Pilot studies can be used in both quantitative and qualitative social science research.

Overview

Large-scale research projects tend to be complex, take a lot of time to design and execute, and typically require quite a bit of funding. Conducting a pilot study beforehand allows a researcher to design and execute a large-scale project in as methodologically rigorous a way as possible, and can save time and costs by reducing the risk of errors or problems. For these reasons, pilot studies are used by both quantitative and qualitative researchers in the social sciences.

Advantages of Conducting a Pilot Study

Pilot studies are useful for a number of reasons, including:

  • Identifying or refining a research question or set of questions
  • Identifying or refining a hypothesis or set of hypotheses
  • Identifying and evaluating a sample population, research field site, or data set
  • Testing research instruments like survey questionnaires, interview or discussion guides, or statistical formulas
  • Evaluating and deciding upon research methods
  • Identifying and resolving as many potential problems or issues as possible
  • Estimating the time and costs required for the project
  • Gauging whether the research goals and design are realistic
  • Producing preliminary results that can help secure funding and other forms of institutional investment

After conducting a pilot study and taking the steps listed above, a researcher will know what to do in order to proceed in a way that will make the study a success. 

Example: Quantitative Survey Research

Say you want to conduct a large-scale quantitative research project using survey data to study the relationship between race and political party affiliation. To best design and execute this research, you would first want to select a data set to use, such as the General Social Survey, for example, download one of their data sets, and then use a statistical analysis program to examine this relationship. In the process of analyzing the relationship, you are likely to realize the importance of other variables that may have an impact on political party affiliation. For example, place of residence, age, education level, socioeconomic status, and gender may impact party affiliation (either on their own or in interaction with race). You might also realize that the data set you chose does not offer you all the information that you need to best answer this question, so you might choose to use another data set, or combine another with the original that you selected. Going through this pilot study process will allow you to work out the kinks in your research design and then execute high quality research.

Example: Qualitative Interview Studies

Pilot studies can also be useful for qualitative research studies, such as interview-based studies. For example, imagine that a researcher is interested in studying the relationship that Apple consumers have to the company's brand and products. The researcher might choose to first do a pilot study consisting of a couple of focus groups in order to identify questions and thematic areas that would be useful to pursue with in-depth, one-on-one interviews. A focus group can be useful to this kind of study because while a researcher will have a notion of what questions to ask and topics to raise, she may find that other topics and questions arise when members of the target group talk among themselves. After a focus group pilot study, the researcher will have a better idea of how to craft an effective interview guide for a larger research project.

Further Reading

If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of pilot studies, take a look at an essay titled "The Importance of Pilot Studies," by Drs. Edwin R. van Teijlingen and Vanora Hundley, published in Social Research Update by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, England.