Planning and Executing an Experience Sampling Dissertation: Tips and Lessons Learned

Dr. Paula C. Lowe
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How can we work together if we don’t understand how we think? That’s the question I asked my committee chair when I proposed researching mind wandering for my dissertation on leadership and change. After all, leaders might expect that people who gather for a work purpose in a workspace are thinking about work. Yet mind wandering, thinking that is not about what an individual is doing, is a common thought process. My questions were how common, in what context, and for what purpose? Experience sampling was the means to explore answers to those questions. Expiwell provided a convenient process for an affordable price with an easy-to-use app.

Using Expiwell’s ESM app, my participants reported nearly 7,947 episodes. By examining the mind-wandering frequencies and episode characteristics reported by participants within two conditions, parent status and gender, I established features of mind-wandering episodes for working adults. And I realized I was holding the lived moment stories of people across the United States reported at the end of the third year of Covid.  Thank you, Expiwell, for making this study possible!

After successfully completing my dissertation, here are some tips and  lessons learned:

1.      Understand the experience sampling method. Christiansen et al. (2003) provide a comprehensive process guide. Consider the effect of probes on task performance (Wiemers & Redick, 2019), complexities of daily life situations (Linz et al., 2021), and logistical issues specific to the participants in your study.  

2.      Pilot your experience sampling study. Gather input on question wording, item order, time frame, and other aspects that are fixable before you go live. I participated in my own pilot at least five times. Doing this made me appreciate what I was asking of working adult participants in daily life.

3.      Recruit participants. You’ll need more than enough recruits as not all will submit enough to meet your minimums. There are many reasons that participants drop out that may have nothing to do with your study. Life happens. If you don’t have access to a sample and you can’t afford to pay a participant broker company, consider social media. I placed weekly ads on Facebook and Instagram across four months at $5-10 per week. I reached thousands of potential participants in my desired demographic and sent them to my study website.

4.      Create a study website. This adds professionalism and a means to communicate with your participants anonymously. You can set up a study website on a weekend. Squarespace ( provided me with website analytics, i.e., visitor locations and time spent on pages. Using a contact page, participants asked questions and got answers quickly. Here is the homepage for my website as an example.

5.      Use website as your study hub. Participants do not attend a shared orientation. They come to the website whenever they choose. A plain-speak page of directions is easier than a training video. My website analytics showed that visitors visited How to Participate for roughly three minutes before onboarding.

6.      Improve your website communication as you go along. You can’t know everything at the start. Listen to your participants. You can tell if they are confused by their completion rates. If they are having problems onboarding or getting notifications, use the website to make sure they know to give the Expiwell app notifications permissions and to keep smartphones close by while in the study.

7.      Put energy into completes. Each researcher decides the number of responses she or he needs for a study. This may depend on whether you are doing episode-level or participant-level data analyses. Because I was analyzing episodes within subgroups, I included a range of response rates. I set 20 out of 30 as the minimum level for receiving an incentive gift card of $10. I verified the completion rate for each participant to determine payment eligibility.

To read more about or download Dr. Paula C. Lowe’s dissertation , go to Mind Wandering in Daily Life: A National Experience Sampling Study of Intentional and Unintentional Mind Wandering Episodes Reported by Working Adults Ages 25-50.


Christensen, T. C., Barrett, L. F., Bliss-Moreau, E., Lebo,K., & Kaschub, C. (2003). A practical guide to experience-sampling procedures. Journal of Happiness Studies, 4(1), 53–78.

Linz, R., Pauly, R., Smallwood, J., & Engert, V.(2021,). Mind-wandering content differentially translates from lab to daily life and relates to subjective stress experience. Psychological Research,85, 649–659.

Wiemers, E. A., & Redick, T. S. (2019). The influence of thought probes on performance: Does the mind wander more if you ask it? Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 26(1), 367–373.


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