Demonstrating the attractiveness of the research participation
As many researchers (Bates, 2013; Kaur, Saukko & Lumsden, 2018) suggested, I arranged individual pre-research meetings with each participant to explain the research process. What was found to be important in the research introduction is to inform participants about the benefits they can achieve by engaging in the study, in addition to emphasising the significance of the study itself. In the case of this research, the importance of employability management during the one-year taught Master’s course, a relatively intensive overseas HE programme, was discussed with the participants in order to ensure they realised the close relation between this research topic and their overseas experiences. More importantly, diary' keeping, which might prevent already busy students from participating in this research, was introduced as an invaluable opportunity' to simultaneously reflect on one’s gains and losses over studying abroad, with the completed diaries emphasised as a reference for participants’ preparation for Curriculum Vitae and employment interviews. Many participants reported in the second-round interviews that their acknowledgement to the values of recording the employability-related experiences ‘defeated their worries about conducting long-term diary' tasks’ (Participant 6, Interview 2). Further, participants felt they' were ‘self-motivated to persist in the diary keeping and treat it seriously’ (Participant 15, Interview 2). The internal motivation of diary’ research participation not only' positively' contributes to the quality' of diary data (Day & Thatcher, 2009), but also ‘enhances participants’ ability' of self-reflection’ (Participant 18, Interview 2).
When introducing a diary method study' to potential participants, incentives have often been used to attract them (Meth, 2003). This particular research provided no monetary' incentives because participants were expected to be involved in the research out of their own intrinsic motivations rather than any external profit. However, in order to reward participants’ contributions, in the pre-research meetings I promised to share employment information and employability-related events on WeChat, providing an informal consultation service about PhD course and scholarship applications, and allowed participants to have face-to-face meetings with me when they' had enquiries or needed emotional support. These nonmonetary' incentives proved to be extremely' attractive to participants who were new to the overseas education context, where ‘a senior played an important role in
[their] establishment of social support system’ (Participant 25, Interview 2). Although the degree of rapport developed with the researcher varied from participant to participant throughout the course of the research, incentives that meet participants’ needs proved to be effective both in terms of participant recruitment and retention in this longitudinal diary' study.
Participant-friendly research design
Conducting a diary study with extensive commitment demands, it is important to have a participant-friendly research design in order to achieve the balance between obtaining the desired data collection outcomes and reducing participants’ burden in terms of data provision. The most innovative design of this diary' study was to ask participants to keep employability' diaries for one week of each month throughout the academic year (November 2017 to July' 2018), which can rarely' be found in previous literature as an approach, with the only known exception being a study on stroke survivors (Alaszewski & Wilkinson, 2015). The fact of the length of time of the diary research ensured that participants’ experiences could be traced longitudinally, while the reduced frequency of diary' entries mediated respondent fatigue and lessened incidences of repeated data.
The diary workloads were further alleviated by' the event-contingent approach (Hyers, 2018). Participants were not requested to write entries every day, but rather complete a semi-structured recording form when each employability-related experience occurred. The form was in Microsoft Word format, which was more convenient than a handwritten one for participants who always worked on laptops. Also, this Word-based form allowed participants to decide on the quantity' of data they would like, or were prepared, to provide - they' needed neither to shorten the length of entries due to the limitation of reserved space, nor feel embarrassed for giving short narratives. Moreover, participants were allowed to freely choose the language (Chinese or English) of diary' writing, in case their expression was restricted by their English proficiency. To assist participants in their diary keeping, broad guidelines (see also Eidse & Turner, 2014) were provided alongside recording forms, since the concept of employability' was new to some participants. In addition, participants also received a sample entry' (see also Bartlett, 2012) which demonstrated the diary' keeping format required using the recording form. Although providing sample entries has been criticised for perceived intervention in participants’ diary' keeping (e.g. Kenten, 2010), this strategy' was suggested by' pilot participants to ensure the effective use of the recording form. Reviewing the nine-month diary' keeping in the second-round interview, the majority of participants reported that they were not overburdened by the diary tasks since ‘writing entries in the sampled weeks was manageable’ (Participant 5, Interview 2) and ‘the recording form was easy to use’ (Participant 23, Interview 2).
To achieve the participant-friendly research design, in addition to referencing the strategies used by other researchers, an approach worthy' of note is that I participated in the pilot study' to test the diary' method. I kept an employability' diary' for five successive weeks. This experience, which enabled me to inspect the research process from the standpoint of the actual participants, significantly contributed to the improvement of the research design. The feasibility and effectiveness of this approach was due to the shared experience of the researcher and participants in the HE context, but it might not be a valid approach for use in other research areas, for example a healthcare study whose participants are patients while the researchers are not.
During the one year of data collection, I kept in touch with my participants by playing different roles. As a researcher, I sent recording forms to each participant separately by email on the Sunday prior to each sampled diary week, and informed them of the same on WeChat in case of a problem with the email or the internet. Participants were asked to return the completed diaries on the Sunday of every' diary' week. The regular diary' collection positively' contributed to participant retention since it gave participants a ‘rhythm’ of diary' tasks rather than leaving them a long time without any formal contact with the researcher. Moreover, I gave feedback to participants based on their entries. Some feedback was closely related to the data providing (see also Boz & Okumus, 2017; Travers, 2011) regarding their use of the recording form (especially in the first diary' week), while in other cases it was more conversational, for instance when they' mentioned experiences that particularly interested me. These research-specific contacts are important for informing participants that their contributions have been acknowledged and by' encouraging their continued involvement in the study (Monrouxe, 2009).
In addition to the research-related contacts, I had many' personal connections with my' participants. As a researcher, but also a senior student, participants regarded me as an information provider about issues relating to daily' life (e.g. where to buy' Chinese ingredients) and an adviser for study (e.g. module selection, PhD applications). I responded to their inquiries in as timely a manner as possible, not only' because they' were my participants but also because I understood their situations as newcomers to an overseas education context. Moreover, as promised in the pre-research meetings, I proactively shared employment information and interesting events with my' participants on WeChat to make them feel more included in the research.
Meanwhile, many participants asked for emotional support from me, especially in the early' stages of data collection, which was also the initial period of their overseas lives. Since all of my participants had no or very' limited previous overseas experience, connecting with me gave them a sense of security' in an unfamiliar environment. Although the number of participants who frequently contacted me for emotional support declined as time passed, possibly because their social support system in the UK became better-established, which reduced their dependence on me, I became good friends with some participants.
The research-participant rapport can trigger ethical issues, especially when participants rely on the researcher’s emotional support with mental health. It is risky for both participants and the researcher since the researcher is not a psychological consultant or psychotherapist. Responding to this, I, on the one hand, lent these participants a sympathetic ear and provided support where possible; on the other hand, I reminded them to keep a watchful eye on their mental health and suggested they seek professional help if they felt they were at risk.
The researcher’s efforts with regard to providing support in and out of the research were acknowledged by participants when they reviewed their research participation in the follow-up interviews. Similar to the participants in Eidse and Turner’s research, who felt ‘obliged’ to complete the data providing due to the researcher-participant rapport (Eidse & Turner, 2014), many participants in this research reported that they never thought about dropping out of this research. They had a sense of responsibility to help me complete my research because I was a friend, a listener, an adviser, and an emotional supporter during their very difficult time in the UK. Furthermore, participants, as researchers of their own studies, deeply understood the researcher’s dedication to participant retention and much of the other work involved in such a longitudinal study. As such, they self-motivated to be the participants responsible for their data providing. This obviously reflects an advantage of conducting diary research (and other participant-effort-demanded research) in the HE area, where participants share empathy with the researcher with regard to the hardship of conducting academic research.