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I didn’t have much of a choice about becoming a guinea pig for medical research, but maybe that was the intention of my employer? The research institute I worked at created a ready supply of healthy volunteers for its ongoing clinical trials and studies by paying us trainees less than the living wage in one of the more expensive counties in the US. Where they constantly bombarded us with opportunities to make a little cash on the side.
How I Got Started
My industrious peers realized early on in our fellowship that it made a lot of financial sense to take some time out of our flexible workday to participate in these studies to supplement our base pay. I had some trepidation about participating in the trials, so at first I only signed up to receive emails about the opportunities after talking to several previous participants and a peer who was conducting a study.
I then started volunteering infrequently and arriving early or staying late at work, and eventually I was able to fit in enough hours over a few months to actually earn $1,000. Believe it or not, there are even people whose primary income comes from participating in clinical studies!
How Much I Made
I had one rule regarding the kinds of studies I would participate in: I didn’t put anything in my body (no drugs). If you want to do that sort of thing you can get paid big bucks but that was a level of invasiveness I wasn’t comfortable with.
I therefore mostly participated in psychology studies for about $40/hour, which was fine by me because they were pretty entertaining! I did several computer-based ones that were basically just looking at images or words and clicking responses. I always liked to try to guess at the researcher’s hypothesis based on what they were asking me.
The best money I earned was doing fMRI studies, which involved lying in an MRI for 1.5-2 hours and responding to questions or images by moving my thumb over a pair of buttons (I actually found the MRI machines soothing and even soporific, not claustrophobic!). As a woman of childbearing age, I was also paid to take pregnancy tests before each session. I made $120 for 2-2.5 hours of my time for each fMRI I did.
There was one study that my coworker participated in but that I was excluded from: You lived on campus for a week (no problem for us as we were free to work during the day), received free food, and were paid $1,000 – all for the slight inconvenience of having your bowel movements monitored.
When I moved from my fellowship at that research institute to graduate school, I was excited to continue participating in clinical studies. I still see many opportunities advertised, but the enormous population of undergraduates on campus holds the going rate for non-invasive studies to about $10/hour. I am much more selective about the studies I participate in now; I am no longer motivated by the money I receive but rather the health information I garner.
Benefits and Drawbacks
My biggest benefit came two years ago when I participated in a study on genetic literacy. I had several SNPs examined and found out that I have a high genetic predisposition for a common disease for which I have little to no family history. Based on that information, I made several lifestyle changes that should reduce my chance of developing the disease.
That information, while perhaps not invaluable, was given to me at a time when I could not afford genetic testing based on my income and the price of the technology.
- You get paid well to do non-taxing activities.
- You may find out useful medical information, as a direct or indirect result of participating.
- It can be entertaining, interesting, fun, or educational.
- You generally can’t complete studies on your own time or at home, so you need to be at the institution for your appointment during or near normal work hours.
- There is a fairly direct relationship between pay rate and invasive-ness/inconvenience of the study; therefore, if you are unwilling to be administered drugs or poked and prodded, your hourly rate may not make it worthwhile.
- Being a guinea pig doesn’t exactly build your resume!
- You won’t be eligible for every study so your pool may be quite small. Not all studies need healthy volunteers, and some specify age ranges, sex, or certain medical histories.
Where can you find studies and trials?
Participating in the studies will be most convenient if 1) you live or work near an institution that conducts clinical research (universities, hospitals) and 2) you have a nontraditional or flexible work schedule that will enable you to be at the institute for an hour or two during the workday.
Most anyone can sign up as a “healthy volunteer,” but if you have some kind of condition you may find studies on that condition that you can participate in as well – and the therapy may even work!
Most institutes looking for volunteers for their studies will run a website with a database of ongoing trials – just Google the name of the institution and “healthy volunteer” or “clinical trials.” It’s possible that different departments or groups will keep their own email lists of people interested in becoming healthy volunteers too, so you may need to submit your email address to start getting notifications of opportunities.
You may also see paper advertisements for studies posted around your institution of interest. Like with any other networking endeavor, every time you talk with someone who has been a participant, ask her how she found out about the study. And when you participate in a study, ask the researcher how you can get involved with more.
Here are two websites to get you started on your search for clinical trials:
Best of luck making some money with these studies! I recommend that you define your personal boundaries from the outset so you won’t do something you’ll regret when offered a fat wad of cash.
Guest post by Emily – a 27-year old married PhD student in engineering in North Carolina. Her blog, Evolving Personal Finance, is about thriving on a low income and maintaining financial sanity through life transitions.
(Photo of Sir Tomas by kitkatherine / Blinged out by J$)