Background Pilot studies can play an important role in qualitative studies. Methodological and practical issues can be shaped and refined by undertaking pilots. Personal development and researchers' competence are enhanced and lessons learned can inform the development and quality of the main study. However, pilot studies are rarely published, despite their potential to improve knowledge and understanding of the research. Aim To present the main lessons learned from undertaking a pilot in a qualitative PhD study. Discussion This paper draws together lessons learned when undertaking a pilot as part of a qualitative research project. Important methodological and practical issues identified during the pilot study are discussed including access, recruitment, data collection and the personal development of the researcher. The resulting changes to the final study are also highlighted. Conclusion Sharing experiences of and lessons learned in a pilot study enhances personal development, improves researchers' confidence and competence, and contributes to the understanding of research. Implications for practice Pilots can be used effectively in qualitative studies to refine the final design, and provide the researcher with practical experience to enhance confidence and competence.