This is a guest post by Stephanie Hedge, a PhD Candidate at Ball State University in Rhetoric and Composition. You can follow her on twitter @slhedge 
The semester started off so well. As a newly minted Ph.D candidate, I couldn’t wait to start my dissertation research. I enthusiastically wrote an email and survey soliciting study participants, triumphantly clicked send, and sat back and waited for the volunteers to roll in.
Fast forward four weeks to find me increasingly desperate in my search for research participants, discovering to my dismay (and rising blood pressure) that persuading students to be my guinea pigs for a semester is only slightly less challenging than persuading my cat to ride a bicycle.
Throughout the process of begging, pleading, crying, and working within the constraints of Institutional Review Board (IRB) regulations, I have discovered a list of things I wish I knew about recruiting research participants:
Be a Human
The first step in convincing students to work with me was letting them see me as a person. I was asking students to give up their valuable time and privacy to a stranger, and shouldn’t have been surprised that only one student volunteered from solicitation emails alone. I decided to visit the classes my participant pool was selected from, and with instructor permission gave a short, awkward speech about me, my research interests, and the study in general.
Depending on your research and IRB regulations, you may have less flexibility in meeting students or soliciting face-to-face. But there may be workarounds: instead of conducting the entire survey online, hang out in the student center and do some old fashioned face-to-face surveying. If the participants can’t see/know the researcher, ask a colleague to solicit or give out surveys on your behalf. Try sending an email with a blurb about you and your research, so the students can get to see the person behind the request.
Letting students see me as a human, with real smiles and a stupid haircut, went a long way towards making them feel comfortable enough to volunteer. People are harder to ignore than faceless emails.
Keep It Simple
The initial solicitation emails that I sent out, per IRB regulations, were dense, intimidating walls of text. They are impersonal, dry, and long. Small wonder, then, that few students bothered to click through to the survey itself, particularly given that the link is buried down at the bottom. During my classroom visits, I directed students to the survey instead of to me, adding an extra step to the process. My directions were too complicated, and mired in dense IRB language. However, once I began handing around a sheet for students to put their names and email addresses, students signed up in droves. Nothing fancy, just a simple sign up sheet.
Keeping things as simple as possible makes it easier for students to agree to work with you. Find intuitive, user-focused software for surveys. Don’t ask students to go through more than 2 steps to sign up. If you are doing interviews/observations/meetings, set up a list of times that students can select from, instead of asking for their schedules. Keep surveys short and to the point. Find a way to make survey links visible in long solicitation emails. Make it easy for students to see the inclusion/exclusion criteria. In short, make it as easy as possible for students to find you and the information they need.
My recruitment campaign got a huge shot in the arm when I was able to team up with instructors who were enthusiastic and willing to help. They helped me to tie my request for participants to the course materials, and encouraged their students to sign up.
Working with instructors or departments who can advocate for you on behalf of students can boost your recruitment levels. Encourage students to practice good “research karma” for future projects. Ask instructors for their help publicizing and sharing the details of your project. There are lots of ways to work within your specific IRB rules and regulations to find support.
Incentives don’t aren’t just “participate for a chance to win a $5 iTunes card!”, although they can be. But there are lots of ways to encourage student participation beyond spending money. Tailor discussions of projected benefits to specific classrooms or situations. See if there is a way for students in psychology classes to get extra credit for participating. Ask what students can learn about/for themselves when they participate. Look for opportunities where participating in your project can benefit students as much as possible.
Patience and Persistence
Students need a lot of time to think about participating. They need to adjust to the idea, figure our their schedules, test whether they trust you, and find out what their friends think. Students may decide to sign up days or even weeks after first solicited, once they have gotten used to the idea. Start recruiting for your project as early as you possibly can, to give yourself and your participants time to think through the project.
Students are also forgetful, and quick to delete emails that look like they aren’t important. Although you don’t want to spam or harass anyone, try sending your solicitation email out on a regular schedule—once a week, for example. Send reminder emails about meetings, particularly if they are scheduled more than a week in advance. Be prompt in emailing students back, and send follow-up emails if you don’t hear from them.
Although I was only looking for 10 participants out of a potential pool of 650, it took me four weeks to recruit the number I needed. Many students are willing and excited to help, but researchers need to make it as streamlined as possible for students to participate.
[Image by Flickr user roboppy  and used under Creative Commons license]