Background: Pilot studies are more commonly associated with quantitative research, and their use is under-reported in qualitative approaches. This paper discusses the value of undertaking a pilot study in a doctoral research project to examine nursing students’ understanding of recovery in mental health by adopting what is called a phenomenographic approach, which in research is concerned with the variation in how particular phenomena are experienced. Aim: To explore the usefulness of three different methods of collecting data – interviewing, completed exam papers and a written response to a scenario – and the Dahlgren and Fallsberg (1991) framework for phenomenographic data analysis. Discussion: Methodological issues experienced during the collection and analysis of data in the project are discussed. Conclusion: The pilot study provided an opportunity for valuable insights to be gained into the methodological issues related to phenomenography and to revise the research plan for the larger study. Implications for practice: While it may not be generalised to other qualitative studies, this paper may help others undertaking studies that adopt this approach and points to the general value of pilot studies in qualitative research.