ARTICLE 86: Research Method for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Preparing for Data Collection

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

How long do you think will it take you to complete a thesis or dissertation?

You probably know the old saying that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

That is also true for academic research.

I guess the average student will need one or two years for a thesis towards a master’s degree and two to ten years for a dissertation towards a Ph. D.

This is not a lot of time.

Believe me, you will need every second that you can spare to complete the work in the available time.

And you will need to plan your research project as accurately as you possibly can.

I discuss how to plan and organise data collection for research in this article.

Organising data collection. Once you have decided on the research approach and data collection instruments you will use you should be able to draw up a draft schedule for your research. This will relate the time you have available in which to carry out the research – a given number of hours, days, weeks or perhaps years – to your other responsibilities and commitments. You can then slot in the various research activities you will need to engage in at times when you expect to be both free and, in the mood, to work on your research.

Many universities require of students to report on their progress at specific stages. This is not in line with the principles of adult learning, although it is often necessary. Even if such due dates are not set by a study leader, it is still a good idea to draft a schedule for your research work. You know that you will probably have only limited time in which to do the work, so sketch out what you will be doing, month by month or week by week, in order to achieve your objectives. Remember to leave yourself some flexibility and some ‘spare time’, for when things do not go exactly as planned. This means that you need to do some contingency planning as well.

Just because you have drawn up a schedule, however, does not mean that you will go to jail if you do not keep strictly to it. It is difficult, even with experience, to precisely estimate the time that different research activities will take. Some will take longer than expected, whereas others may need less time. Some will be abandoned, whereas other unanticipated activities will demand attention. It is a good idea to allow for some spare time and flexibility in your scheduling. You should also revisit your schedule from time to time, and make revisions, to allow for such changes and to keep yourself on track.

One thing you must avoid is to put off work until the last minute. If you drag your feet you will not be able to submit on the due date. Rather try to work ahead of your schedule so that you will have some spare time, should you need it because of unforeseen eventualities.

There are several ways of scheduling your research time. Project management software offer sophisticated ways in which to illustrate your research project diagrammatically or graphically. 

Such charts suggest a simplified, rational view of research. They are useful in conveying the overlap of concurrences between the tasks to be carried out and can serve as a guide to monitor your progress. In practice there will be numerous minor changes to your plans as set out, and perhaps some major ones as well.

Piloting instruments for the collection of data. It is advisable to pilot your data collection instruments before you use them on your actual target group. In this manner you can save lots of time and money, because it would be a catastrophe if, for example, you were to send out 10 000 questionnaires of which you receive 2 000 back only to find that you cannot use any because of some simple technical error.

Rather carry out a couple of interviews with friends or colleagues in advance or have them fill out some questionnaires or observe some organisational activities – or whatever else you plan on using to gather data with. You will learn a great deal from the activity, for example the amount of time that collecting data can take. You will also know if your instruments work or not. You need to pilot your instruments early enough so that you will still have time to change them or even your data collecting strategy if necessary.

Do not underestimate the value of pilot research. Things never work out quite the way you expected them to, even if you have done them many times before, and they have a nasty habit of turning out differently from how you expected them to. If you do not pilot your data collection instruments and procedure first, you will probably find that your initial period of data collection turns into a pilot study in any case. 

And yes, the surprise that you get will be a pleasant one if you planned and conducted your data collection well.


You can use the following steps to plan and organise your data collection:

  1. Decide which research approach and method or methods you will use.
  2. Choose the data collection methods and instruments that you will use.
  3. Decide how much time you will need to conduct your research I you did not decide already.
  4. Fit your research activities into the time that you have available for research.
  5. Draft a schedule for your research work.
  6. Do contingency planning if you did not do so already.
  7. Allow for some spare time in your schedule.
  8. Allow for time to meet with your study leader.
  9. Pilot the data collection instruments that you will use.


Do not put off any research work until the last minute.

Pilot the data collection instruments early enough so that you will have time to correct and improve them.

Keep your study leader informed about your progress.

Enjoy your studies.

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