Many PhD students require participants to enable them to conduct their research; myself included. This can throw up a whole host of hurdles, barriers and stressful days. Without participants, your entire project is at risk, this rarely happens, but recruiting participants more slowly than expected can mean your project doesn’t fit your planned timeline – that is much more common. My PhD project is split into 4 sections, and the 2 most substantial parts meant I was recruiting participants for one-to-one qualitative interviews, and user-testing. For me, the recruitment process was relatively straight forward, but I know for many PhD student that is not the case. Read on for some tips and tricks that I used to ensure that poor participant recruitment didn’t break my study.
Potential pitfall: Rushing your ethics application because you want to start the approvals process as quickly as possible, meaning that you don’t spend as much time or effort filling out the recruitment section as you really should, leading to amendments further down the line.
Solution: I will repeat this to every PhD student that’s recruiting participants that I ever meet – DO LOADS OF PLANNING, DON’T RUSH IT, GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME (yes, I am shouting, this is important). The ethics application is often something that people view as a hoop they need to go through before they can start their research; it’s really not just that. It’s a key part of the project, and it’s a brilliant way for you to focus your thoughts on what you’re going to be doing, and more importantly, how.
Spend time filling out the recruitment section – think about where you might find your participants, whether you’ll need to use social media, cold calling, or an email list, think about how you’ll access information, and who and how will then approach these potential participants. Talk to colleagues who have previously done studies in similar populations. Think of a back up. Think of a back up to your back up. Build in some level of flexibility that will allow you to have a Plan B (and potentially C and D) when recruitment inevitably doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped. Building in flexibility will prevent you from having to go back to ethics with an amendment later on; taking the extra time to think about your recruitment strategy will save time if that means you don’t need to submit amendment(s) later on.
Potential pitfall: You send out invites to your study, your inbox goes crazy and in the end you are left with very few people who are eligible to take part, meaning you’ve wasted time and resources, and you’re still struggling to recruit.
Solution: This solution fits nicely into my earlier point of: DO LOADS OF PLANNING, DON’T RUSH IT, GET IT RIGHT FIRST TIME (spoiler alert, planning can save a tonne of stress, reduce your caffeine intake, and make you a much nicer person to be around). So, you’ve started recruitment and you’ve sent out what feels like 4 squillion emails/leaflets etc. You get lots of responses, relatively quickly, and you’re suddenly feeling pretty smug. Then you start reading the responses and you begin to realise that hardly any of these people are eligible for your study.
This happens when you haven’t made your inclusion/exclusion criteria clear, and/or you haven’t targeted your recruitment strategy well enough. This is a hard balance to strike, but an important one.
- Ensure that your information sheets/leaflets are giving the right information in a clear and effective way, by running them by a representative from your target participant group before you send them out. You want to make sure that what you’re saying makes sense to the reader; often we are too close to our own research, and it takes someone else to point out when something isn’t clear.
- Put some effort into tailoring your recruitment strategies for this specific study – if you’re recruiting GPs into an interview study, it’s probably not a good idea to be standing in the middle of your local Tesco with a banner; it’d be much more efficient to approach your local Primary Care Research Network and ask them for help. Similarly, if you’re looking for members of the public who smoke, it might be a good idea to go with the banner idea. It all depends on your target population; the more homework you do on where there people can be found, the less time you’ll waste.
Potential pitfall: You need to recruit an additional 5 participants, you’re convinced it won’t take long, so you’ll just get this other work finished first. 3 months later every potentially eligible participant appears to have gone into hibernation and no one is answering your calls.
Solution: You guessed it, planning can save this one too. Always, always, build in more time for recruitment than you think you’ll need. You only need 10 participants, that should take a month, right? NOPE. Give yourself 2 months, 3 if you can.
Once you have all of your approvals in place, begin booking in appointments as quickly as you can – that way you have an idea of how things are going, how much time you have, and when you might need to start looking at Plan B (…and C and D). If you know of people that you are going to contact about taking part in your study, get their contact details put together in a list so that the minute your approvals are through, you can start. Do not leave recruitment to chance/hope/praying to whichever deity you believe in.
When I was first recruiting for my semi-structured interview study, I had a 3 month window that I planned to use for doing the interviews. That was just 3 months of work; it required a significant amount of work before that 3 month window began, for me to get times, dates and locations arranged with people from South Africa, Holland, Italy, the UK, Canada.. Lots of these interviews were done via Skype or over the telephone, which helped, but that still meant I needed to ensure I had private rooms booked for me to do the interviews in, and that the telephones in those rooms were enabled for international calling (lots of ‘phones at universities won’t do this by default and you’ll need to arrange it ahead of time). Those 3 months of interviews went pretty seamlessly in the end, I had a few no shows, but that’s to be expected – I managed to interview 23 participants in that 3-month period. Planning makes all the difference, and for me that meant getting to grips with various time zones, ensuring that I could do a series of face-to-face interviews over the course of one or two days, and always carrying a spare audio recorder (batteries will run out, your charger will break or get lost, and you cannot record audio using an app on your ‘phone because the ethics panel would have something to say about that).
Recruiting participants for your studies is no easy task; with PhD projects in particular, we often cannot offer incentives, and we are relying on altruism and interest in your work. Do your best to plan in advance, and make sure to build in flexibility for when things inevitably don’t go according to plan. For my study I used existing contacts, Twitter and LinkedIn; each strategy did help me to connect with participants, but the process was work-intensive and required much more time than I thought initially.