I have been collecting data for my dissertation for over a year now, and I still do not have enough participants. I have tried everything I can think of from sending the study out on every list serve I am on to Facebook to flyers. Do you have any suggestions as to how to recruit people for an online study?

--Data Collection Rejection

Dear Data Collection Rejection,

The method of data collection for a dissertation is highly dependent upon the type of study being conducted and the population of interest. For instance, if your study’s population of interest is young adults, you may not need to look any further than your own university for participants.

If you are not lucky enough to have such an available sample of participants, websites are often great untapped resources for data collection. However, if you plan to use online sources for data collection, such as Facebook, Craigslist, or Mechanical Turk, it is important to take several precautions to ensure that your data is high quality.

First, it is recommended that you have several questions in the survey regarding participant demographics (e.g., age, location, educational background, ethnicity) to ensure that the participants you use in your data analyses do indeed belong to your population of interest. If you do not include questions such as these, especially on websites like Craigslist and MTurk, you risk having a sample consisting of males in their thirties living in the Bermuda Triangle, when your population of interest was adolescent females from Germany.

Second, once your data is collected, you must ensure that participants answered your survey to the best of their ability. For instance, you will want to determine whether participants completed the survey in a reasonable amount of time and whether they answered questions consistently. For instance, a participant who answered 1(Strongly Disagree) to all questions in the survey, including opposing items, should be excluded from analyses. It is also helpful to have one or two questions at the end of the survey to ask participants whether they answered the survey to the best of their ability and whether they were thoughtful and honest in their answers. You might be surprised at how honest participants are, especially if they are being paid regardless of their answers!

Financial incentive is another important issue to consider. Offering individuals a small incentive to participate can greatly increase participation. Dissertation studies are often subsidized with small grants that will allow students to spend money on instruments, measures, and other media they may need for conducting their study. When possible, some of this funding should be applied to offering an incentive to participants. Of course, with large scale studies, it is often not possible to pay every participant a reasonable sum for their participation. In these cases, offering participants the opportunity to enter a raffle for one large sum may be quite effective. Just be careful with this in regards to protecting participants’ anonymity.

The last tool you can use to find more participants for your study is your imagination. It is imperative that you learn to think like your population of interest. For instance, if your population is female dieters, consider approaching coordinators of Weight Watchers meetings, instructors of dance and gymnastics classes in the university or community, or editors of online and print health publications. Consider the types of media your population of interest exposes themselves to and contact those sources to advertise your study. Good luck!

--René Paulson, PhD

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