7 Tips when you don't have enough participants for your dissertation survey (2023)

Let me guess: you spent sleepless nights compiling an ideal questionnaire that would make your picky lecturers proud. You phrased every question for your bachelor dissertation survey very precisely. Then you finally published it online and hoped for the best - after all, you didn't have much time left for the collection and analysis of the data. You shared the survey with your classmates, close friends, and family members - in high hopes to receive responses quickly.

But what a disaster: only a small fraction of them responded. You nagged them to death - and still nothing. They were very reluctant to take part in your dissertation study - too busy, or so they said. Or they had dropped out halfway through the survey and simply ghosted you. Now you are stuck, desperately in need of 50 more participants...

It’s a horror story. But don’t worry, fellow bachelor student: there is still hope for you and your study. Trust me - I’ve been there before. Now, I want to share 7 of the most common dissertation survey errors I committed back then. Fortunately, there is a quick fix to all of them, which will get you back on track again in no time!

7 Tips when you don't have enough participants for your dissertation survey (1)

Error 1: The title of your dissertation survey is uninviting

I know, most surveys are not fun, to begin with. But if you think about it, your survey is still a product that you share for others' value of time.

Not sure yet? Well, which survey would you be most likely to complete:

- Study of Genre via Linguistic Paradigm in ILA

- How exposed are you to manipulation strategies in social media?

Title a) sounds cryptic and uninviting: “Linguistic Paradigm …’ - what now? It only works if you aim for an audience that understands this technical lingo, in this case, linguistic students. But if you are searching for a general audience, chances are potential participants who come across it would not feel qualified (let alone curious) enough to answer it.

Title b) however seems very interesting. It asks a question and addresses the participant directly, luring him or her in. While participating in the survey, respondents might even get a chance to learn a bit about themselves. And we know there is nothing more appealing than that!

Again, the two tiles alternatives can touch on the same subject - but their appeal to potential participants vary massively. It’s good to know the power of a good title (even if it’s the only interesting thing about your survey!)

Quick Fix:Look again at the title of your online survey. Even if you know it’s the most boring questionnaire ever, your respondents do not know that yet. Lure them in with a good, direct and personalized title!

Error 2: The language of your dissertation survey is too scientific

Now, look again at the examples a) and b) above.

It’s important to know the target group of your online survey - and to use a suitable language style. Just because you know what ‘Genre’, ‘Linguistic Paradigm’ and ‘ILA’ does not always mean that your participants do too. Assume they don’t.

You can and should simply phrase your questions and content. In fact, that proves that you have a broad understanding of the topic you picked for your dissertation study. Again, when I see a dissertation survey with a very complicated title, I feel discouraged to even open it. And even if I decided to, I would quickly drop out. Students don’t want to spend their precious free time googling complicated terminology to understand what you mean. And neither do your friends.

Quick fix: Go through the main body of your survey again. If you see a word that belongs to scientific terminology, replace it with an easier alternative. In case you are required to use a specific term, be sure to include a definition of it as well. Make sure that the survey only gets more complicated toward the end, so your participants resist dropping out early on!

Error 3: Your dissertation survey is too long

As an inexperienced researcher, you may believe that no survey is too long. Because the more questions you ask, the more data you will collect for your dissertation, right?

Although your lecturers and other researchers might applaud you for this effort, your survey participants won’t be too happy. As a student yourself, you know that every moment of time is important. We are busy writing essays, preparing for exams and attending lectures. No one will bother answering 1001 questions of your online survey. Yes, even if they are all brilliant questions.

Your dissertation study might need a very long and detailed questionnaire. But make sure to inform participants about it beforehand (in a short introduction). Also make sure that if your dissertation survey is longer than 15 minutes, it better be worth it for the participant. For example, you can provide a chance to win a gift certificate for every participant who takes part. Or donate a small amount of money for every answer to a good cause organization!

Quick fix: Try shortening your survey by removing irrelevant or duplicate questions. If your questionnaire covers more than one topic, you should consider splitting it into multiple short surveys. It is also a good idea to give students an estimated time it takes to complete your survey. You can also include a progress bar on every page to let them know how much of the survey they have left.


Error 4: Questions are irrelevant & vague

This one definitely hits too close to home. Oh, to mention all the nonsensical survey questions I have read so far! Worst of all the ones I created myself, naively thinking that my participants would somehow guess what I mean! It can be only compared to shouting into a void: you yell some nonsense into thin air, hoping you will somehow get a sophisticated response.

Again, some questions are not necessarily bad - they just either do not add much to your study or are phrased in a way that is not clear. But again, some questions are straight-up trash.

Let’s look at this question:

‘How much time on average do you spend driving to work?’

Sounds fairly innocent, but you can see that it assumes two things: First, that the respondent owns a car, and secondly, that they have a job. But for university students, often neither of these is the case.

If you include too many questions without specifying them to your target group, you risk that the participants will get annoyed and straight-up lie or simply drop out from your online survey altogether.

Quick fix: Ask a second person to thoroughly check your dissertation survey for ambiguous or illogical questions (for example your academic tutor or an eloquent friend). Ask them if they understand all the questions clearly and what their response would be. Also, make sure that your questions are positioned logically within a survey. For instance, board questions specified by the follow-up question!


Error 5: Questions that are too invasive

If you are studying political, medical or religious studies, you surely know how delicate some topics are.

Finding participants for such a dissertation study is often more difficult - but the worst you can do is not to notify participants about the nature of the questions beforehand. I guarantee you that most of them will feel either overwhelmed or offended if you don’t once they read your questions.

Similarly, if you ask your participants to share personal information. Those include their private address, email or telephone number. People are mindful about their personal data in online surveys and may abstain from taking part entirely.

Quick fix: If your survey touches upon sensitive topics, put disclaimers in bold script on the front page. Similarly, if you need any personal information from users, explain your reason for that. Be also sure to give your contact information to enable them to reach out to you.


Error 6: You shared your survey in the wrong place

I remember the panic I felt about getting the required amount of participants for my student project. If you won’t, it seems like the entire university staff is breathing on your neck. And when fear blinds you, you turn to unusual methods…

Sharing your survey on social media is pretty usual nowadays. This works out just fine - especially if your target group are students. But say you want to interview young parents. Sharing such a dissertation survey within a student group chat, or any university group chat in that matter, would be a miss.

Another common problem is, you shared your survey in a gigantic group/group chat with minimal participation. People will simply overlook it, or won’t feel motivated enough to answer it.

Quick fix: If you need a general audience, try platforms such as PollPool - simply share your online survey to the wide pool of participants for free (really!). This way, you will quickly get sufficient respondents which you can filter by age, gender, and nationality. Is your dissertation study for a more niche target group? Find the right respondents in dedicated Facebook Groups, for example in the leading the English and German speaking survey exchange groups. But make sure those groups are active and allow survey sharing (because some don’t!).

7 Tips when you don't have enough participants for your dissertation survey (2)


Error 7: It simply does not work

I wish we were all equally talented when it comes to using technology - but most of us struggle. And I say this as a student. Millions of times I created a document only to discover that the formatting went bust after closing it. The same can happen to your survey: Questions and answers can end up on a different page, links and add-ons can crash and pictures or graphs can disappear altogether.

If the formatting of your dissertation survey is off, it will discourage participants to complete it. After all, they don't want to take part in someone's failed experiment!

Quick fix: Access your survey from a different device and see if it still works and looks well. You may want to test our PollPool survey making-tool online. PollPool surveys automatically create important format features like the introduction and data privacy page for you!

That’s the very end of our manual. Hopefully, you are applying all the quick fixes right now. Do they really work? See it yourself! Good luck with your later analysis :)

In case you have any questions, feedback, or need help with your survey, please feel free to reach out to me directly at olga.mazurek@poll-pool.com . Also have a look at www.pollpool.com - we not only provide participants to student research but also our own survey software - super simple and completely free of charge!

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