Having prioritised what information the PhD student needs to know in order to make progress towards answering the research question, the next step is to consider where new data can be found. An initial role of the supervisor is to direct the student towards existing data, then to discuss what sort of data might be required to build upon this prior knowledge in order to give new insights. This might not be quite so simple as it at first appears. In an idealised view of research, the problem is articulated, the types of information needed to answer the problem are identified, and then the researcher goes out and collects that data to be analysed. In the real world, there are several problems to be addressed. Firstly, the data that the researcher needs might be hidden, unavailable, or simply difficult to get. Secondly, even if it is accessible, the data needs to be collected in a way that is impartial, systematic, and allows subsequent analysis. Thirdly, there may be problems with the design of the data collection methods, such as obtaining ethical approval, or enabling cross-comparison with previous data, which need to be resolved before the primary research activities can proceed.
The role of a good supervisor is to help smooth the path of the research student without actually doing the data collection work for them. This certainly entails casting a critical eye over the research design and giving friendly feedback. It may require the supervisor to provide a covering letter of introduction for the student, to open doors and archives and to confirm that the student is a serious researcher worth giving some time to. In some situations it may be that the student is directed to existing data sets, either online or in archives, which can be used to provide preliminary analyses. Perhaps the supervisor has already done some research on the subject already, so there are practical tasks which s/he can advise on – the selection of data-gathering methods, the construction of questionnaires or interview schedules, and of course ensuring that any ethical issues relating to the proposed research are adequately covered.
In considering what sort of data are needed to answer the research question, and where this data might be found, the research student and the supervisor have a common interest to ensure that sufficient thought goes into the pre-planning process. Thinking carefully in advance about the possible obstacles involved in collecting robust new data to explore the research topic, is time well-spent. Knowing what to ask will be critical for the study, but knowing who to ask could be more important still. Depending on the subject discipline, and the nature of the study, the identification of key contacts, or an appropriate population of study participants, could make the difference between a perspective which gives a blinding flash of the obvious versus an exciting and innovatory research discovery. It will not be possible to foresee every possible angle of the research process, but having a clear idea of where data can be found, or with whom, is a big step in the research project design.