Choosing Your Sample – BE CAREFUL and BE SMART!

While in the beginning stages of figuring out a topic and determining a method, please keep in mind that, except for those using census information or the like, you will eventually need to be able to reach out to real real people to collect the data.  A few words about methods:

  • Use an existing tool to gather your data if at all possible.

Most schools these days are not allowing folks to create their own surveys anymore, a practice I applaud because there are validity and reliability issues with regard to creating your own survey that can add time AND introduce unnecessary questions about the results.  The process of creating your own survey will teach you a great deal, but the results will suffer, and you will be eating up loan dollars needlessly.

There are so many great tools out there, and it doesn’t take much to find them.  You’ve been combing the literature, so take a look at what others have used in similar studies.  Once you find it, you will likely need to either pay to use the tool, or you will need to gain approval from the tool’s author(s) to use it.  Paying to use a tool can be expensive, so you will need to weigh the cost against the likely benefits.  Gaining approval from the author(s) usually means sending an email – it’s really that easy most of the time.  Obviously, save the emails to be able to prove you have received the correct approvals, which will likely need to be added as an appendix.

  • Understand the difficulties associated with reaching your sample.

Do yourself a favor at the very beginning, and decide NOT to conduct your research using a protected group.  It is very, very difficult as a graduate student in the dissertation phase to gain access to prisoners, HIV positive patients, children (0 to 18 years old), and it’s even often difficult to gain access to a group of college students.  The permissions needed, and the number of review board approvals necessary to reach protected groups is insane.  It is also very likely that in the end you will not be able to gain access to your sample.

In my own case, I didn’t take my own advice.  I created my own survey and then needed to validate the questions, which took a great deal of time.  I also didn’t think it was going to be difficult to reach graduate students; I needed access to dental school students.  I approached dental schools to ask them if I could get a list of emails of current students, and of course that request was denied.  I THOUGHT I knew enough professors at different dental schools that if I asked for their help to distribute my survey’s URL, they would gladly distribute the information for me, and I ran into all kinds of nightmares – and probably ruined some good relationships I’d been building – by not understanding that they would need to check in with their schools before they did anything to help me.  I approached dental student membership organizations to ask them to help me reach people, and while they allowed me to post on message boards, they were less than helpful.  Finally, I hit on social media, and word of mouth messaging as a last result.  I had built relationships with some dental students at one small dental school, and some of these wonderful human beings actually helped me by posting my appeal to participate with the survey URL on their blogs and other social media sites.  In the end, I received fewer than 75 complete surveys.  It was what it was and my results were what they were.  I was forced to write up the results and then talk about the miserable response rate.

Today, however, things are different!  If you are at all technologically savvy, you are using many social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, You Tube, and Reddit.  If I was conducting my survey today, I would use these social media sites to reach more possible respondents.  I took a look on Reddit, for example, just to see what came up when I searched “dissertation,” and one person had reached out there with a link to his survey.  He obtained over 2100 responses!!!  Incredible!!

Who you decide to study, what tool you decide to use, and how you are going to be able to reach your sample are important aspects that need to be carefully thought out as you put together your proposal.  I hope this brief discussion has provided you with some points to ponder as you work through the details.  I just love sharing all my foibles!  Not really, but if others can learn from my mistakes – it’s worth the embarrassment!

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