BACKGROUND: Choosing how to answer a research question requires an understanding of philosophical and theoretical assumptions and how these inform a study's methodology and methods. This can be a challenge for all researchers, but for novice researchers, such as doctoral candidates, this can feel like an overwhelming task. Ensuring there is clear alignment between philosophy, theory, methodology and methods is an essential part of the research process, that enables research to be undertaken with clarity and integrity. This alignment must be a good fit for the research aim, and to ensure the researcher's intrinsic values and beliefs do not affect the analysis undertaken. AIM: To describe the alignment between qualitative description and naturalistic inquiry and how it was applied to a doctoral candidate's exploration of the meaning of safety for people with experience of admission to an acute mental health unit. DISCUSSION: Understanding the alignment between qualitative descriptive methodology and naturalistic inquiry provided a clear pathway for the doctoral candidate. CONCLUSION: The assumptions that underpin a methodological approach need to be unpacked to understand how to answer a research question effectively. IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: Qualitative description, informed by naturalistic inquiry, offers a practical way to explore and answer research questions.