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Participants & Data Gathering

Finding Participants

Finding Research Participants


Are you looking to recruit participants in a geographic location or a certain demographic, or people who practice certain behaviors or hold certain opinions? Finding your participants is a key part of your dissertation research. There are more opportunities than ever to locate and recruit members of a population you wish to study. 


Ethics of Subject Recruitment


  • Recruit only willing participants.

  • Recruit ethically under IRB guidelines.

  • Recruit responsibly under IRB guidelines. 

  • Cause no risks or harms.

  • Contact no protected groups.

  • Protect privacy. Protect online privacy.

  • Be truthful and honest as a researcher.

  • No creeping or lurking to find participants. No asking participants directly to participate.

  • Obtained informed consent always.

  • Obtain complete IRB approval of your application before you collect data. 


Steps of Subject Recruitment


  • Target an accessible sampling frame subset of your population. 

  • Screen them for inclusion and exclusion criteria.

  • Invite participants to participate. Be clear, engaging, and personable.

  • Incentivize participants if appropriate. 

  • Obtain consent.

  • Collect data.

  • Debrief participants and thank them.


Passive Recruitment


Passive recruitment includes broadcasting information about your study, then waiting for participants to respond. For example, distributing an informational email to a company, posting flyers in a break room, posting a blog or forum message, or posting on Craigslist or a general Facebook site.


Examples of Passive Recruitment


  • Put up signs in a school, workplace, or public location seeking participants.

  • Advertise your study on a company or school website.

  • Advertise your study on a support group or interest group website.

  • Set up a booth or table at a conference or show.

  • Draw a circle on a map and visit locations that fit your criteria seeking permission to access workers, students, or customers. All daycares for example. 


Active Recruitment


Active recruitment includes approaching a specific targeted group or location and asking them to participate.


Examples of Active Recruitment


  • Ask skin cancer members of a cancer survivor group to participate in your study via a directed email to the skin cancer survivor’s mailing list.

  • Use a paid online participant platform to target online interactive video game players over 40 years of age.


Passive and Active Recruitment via Professional Associations


Many professional associations rent their mailing lists to students for one-time access at a discounted fee. They may allow you to place an ad in their publication or website, or set up a table in the lobby of an event. Approach hat-in-hand as a student doing research. Be prepared to submit supporting documentation, such as an approved research proposal. Be prepared to share the results of your study with the organization and its members. An excellent way to network as a new researcher in your dissertation topic area. 


Below are some examples of association researcher policies:


Online Recruitment


Online subject recruitment is tempting. The data can be easier to collect, be high quality, and you can find obscure populations. There are weaknesses as well. You rely on respondents to be honest about their eligibility, especially if incentives are attractive. You can’t control multi-tasking by the respondent, language/cultural misunderstandings, or distracting environments.


Online subject recruitment also carries the risk of attracting bots or sham humans who are speeding through questions without reading them. Both of these will render your data useless. Add creative bot traps and attention checks. Check data for surveys filled out too fast or slow, and examine the data for response patterns that are not realistic.

Begin by reading this excellent article about ethical issues surrounding using social media to conduct research.

Gelinas, L., Pierce, R., Winkler, S., Cohen, I. G., Lynch, H. F., & Bierer, B. E. (2017). Using Social Media as a Research Recruitment Tool: Ethical Issues and Recommendations. The American journal of bioethics: AJOB, 17(3), 3–14.


(Open Article Here)


Online Recruitment: Paid Survey Takers in Structured Platforms


  • Mturk: Amazon Mechanical Turk. The amazon-based company providing a crowdsourcing marketplace. Researchers upload surveys or survey-related tasks and workers complete them for a small fee. Good access to a large and diverse sample population. A virtual community of workers who will participate in open or closed-ended surveys. Can access participants for qualitative phone interviews. (Visit Mturk.)

  • Prolific: Platform to access participants for online research. Mission to provide trustworthy data and treat researchers and participants with respect. Transparent access. Easy screening. Clear and easy-to-use price estimator. Integrates with Qualtrics, SurveyMonkey, and other software. A good library of support articles. Good community forum. Can prescreen with a short survey, then re-invite to the larger study. Supports video and phone interviews for qualitative studies. (Visit Prolific.)

  • Respondent: Recruitment facilitator site for online and in-person interviews and focus groups. Has a business/professional focus. Can be pricy depending on what you need and what you’re willing to pay a participant. (Visit Respondent.)


Online Recruitment: Paid or Unpaid Survey Takers in Semi-structured Platforms


  • r/SampleSize/: No-cost subreddit with 161K members willing to take surveys to help you get responses. Can post your survey link, describe the survey and explain your inclusion and exclusion criteria. Respondents can comment on your survey and leave feedback. Surveys posted as they arrive. Can repost once per day until you get enough responses.

(Visit r/SampleSize/.) ​

  • Student Survey Exchange: Facebook group by and for students to help each other collect data for a thesis or dissertation. Currently 14.7K members. Active group.

(Visit Student Survey Exchange.)

  • Pollpool / Dissertation Survey ExchangeWeb page and Facebook group exchange platform made for students. Designed to collect thesis and dissertation data. Earn PollCoins by taking surveys or referring users. Spend PollCoins when posting your own survey. Can purchase PollCoins if you need more. Free to use. Active Facebook group.

(Visit Pollpool / Dissertation Survey Exchange.)


Online Recruitment: Unstructured Platforms

& Social Media


  • Facebook: With 1.4 billion people around the world using Facebook, the potential for finding participants from your target population is excellent. Know your target and follow ethical guidelines closely. Begin by reading this excellent article about ethical issues using social media to conduct research. (Visit Facebook.)

Snowball sampling on Facebook. Friends ask friends who ask their friends to participate. Facebook Friends by definition are often strangers connected only by Facebook. If the study is interesting and engaging to a group, this can be an effective way to recruit participants. Read up and understand the traditional limitations of snowball sampling.

Moderator approved survey recruitment posts in population-specific Facebook groups. A good way to access geographically scattered online communities that share a common interest. For example, there is a Facebook group for ABD (all but dissertation) support ( Search for larger groups with frequent postings and write to the moderator. Be prepared to back up your request with documentation of your legitimacy as a dissertation researcher. Offer to post the results of your study back to the group. 

Targeted advertising on Facebook. Can advertise based on the demographic and location variables Facebook collects about its users. Can be pricey, but also cost-effective compared to other forms of advertising for subject recruitment.

Influential blogger or podcaster: A blogger can post a link to your survey on their blog. A podcaster can send listeners to your survey. Always get consent from the moderator/owner/blogger. Be ready to show IRB application approval, and comply with any website policies and terms of use. 


Basic Sample Size Calculators


One of the first statistical challenges you face is to estimate a sample size for your study. Collecting too much data is expensive and counter-productive; not collecting enough data will thwart your ability to explore detailed differences between sub-groups. It’s very tempting to plug numbers in a calculator and go with the results but take your time. Study and understand the components behind sample size determination. Make the best decision for your study. Data collection is a one-time opportunity while published dissertations last a lifetime.



Intermediate and Advanced Sample Size Calculators:


Data Collection Software


Once you find your participants, you need to collect your data. The days of pencil and paper questionnaires are waning. While you might use printed questionnaires in certain circumstances, look for form builders and survey tool sites at all price ranges. Below are a few:


  • SurveyMonkey: Unlimited questions, 1000 responses per month, custom designs, and data export to CSV, PDF, PPT, and XLS. The standard monthly plan costs $99 a month. Can also purchase access to their targeted audiences at a quoted price per respondent.

(Visit SurveyMonkey.)

  • Qualtrics: Well-known robust online survey tool company. You can build, distribute, collect and analyze all things data at Qualtrics. Easy to learn. The free account offers one survey, 100 responses, 15 questions. Upgrades are subscription-based. No student pricing. Can be expensive. (Visit Qualtrics.)

  • Alchemer: (used to be SurveyGizmo)Free version offers three surveys with unlimited questions and 100 responses. Can upgrade to $49 a month for unlimited surveys, questions, and responses. Export your data to CSV, PDF, PPT, XLS. (Visit Alchemer.)

  • Qpoint: Wide range of tools to develop your questionnaires. Includes themes and pictures if needed. Export to Excel table or PDF. Affordable pricing at $20 per month. (Visit Qpoint.)

  • Google Forms: Unlimited questions, unlimited responses. data export. Create your survey using Google Forms. Send a link to the published form to your participants. Their answers will automatically feed back into a spreadsheet you’ve created in Google Docs. Download to Excel. Both Google Forms and Google Docs are free to use. (Visit Google Forms.)

Online Recruitment
Sample Size Calculators
Data Collection Software
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