Side Hustle Series: I’m a Human Guinea Pig

(Guest Post by Emily as part of our Side Hustle Series)

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.


  1. You get paid well to do non-taxing activities.
  2. You may find out useful medical information, as a direct or indirect result of participating.
  3. It can be entertaining, interesting, fun, or educational.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Being a guinea pig doesn’t exactly build your resume!
  4. 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.

PS: Here’s a similar post we ran years ago about getting paid for bodily fluids too ;)
PPS: Wanna share your OWN side hustle with us? Give me a shout!

(Photo of Sir Tomas by kitkatherine / Blinged out by J$)

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  1. Pauline May 16, 2013 at 5:26 AM

    I did a couple of studies while I was a student, don’t remember the rate but it was pretty good, just to come in a few times, I never stayed overnight. Also tried cosmetics, at the allergic reaction testing stage, it was fun and less risky than the medical stuff.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 7:29 AM

      Applying something topically does feel less risky than ingesting something, especially if they monitor you for a while after.

  2. My Financial Independence Journey May 16, 2013 at 5:53 AM

    You don’t have to live near a university or hospital to do studies either. There are plenty of privately run clinical trial units (basically companies that run clinical trials) out there that you can look for.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 7:29 AM

      Thanks for the additional info!

  3. Greg@ClubThrifty May 16, 2013 at 7:47 AM

    “Being a guinea pig doesn’t exactly build your resume.” Ha! Thanks for sharing your story Emily. I never did any research studies for money. However, I almost sold my plasma once. I even made it in the door to the facility…and promptly walked right out:)

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 8:01 AM

      What made you turn around? For some reason I feel it’s less sketchy to participate in studies than to sell plasma – BUT you are using your body or brain to help people medically (directly or less directly) for money so they are of a kind. I like giving blood but I don’t think I would sell plasma unless things were really dire.

      1. J. Money May 20, 2013 at 10:43 PM

        yeah? Why’d you walk out brotha? We want deets! :)

  4. Paul May 16, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    My son is participating in a study from UCLA. My wife is a Type I diabetic and the folks at UCLA are monitoring our son to see if he will develop diabetes. The study started shortly after he was born, and now they come to our house in New York to draw blood once a year around his birthday, and he gets $50. He is eight now, and no signs of diabetes so far.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 8:53 AM

      That’s a great deal! Money, extra (useful) medical attention, and helping other people. Is much known about the genetics of that autoimmune disease? I’m sure his contribution will further our understanding of the basic science underlying that condition and others (though I certainly hope he doesn’t develop it).

  5. John S @ Frugal Rules May 16, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Thanks for sharing your story Emily. My wife and both participated in a few studies when we were engaged and living in San Diego. There always seemed to be quite a few available and we had a friend who was a PhD student there who let us know about them. I also sold plasma for a month of two while getting my Bachelor’s, though I think I’ll leave that in the past. ;)

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 10:09 AM

      Good to know that San Diego has a lot of opportunities so that if we’re ever interested after we move there we can participate! Did you learn anything interesting or was the only upside the cash?

  6. Jacob Erickson May 16, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    Neat idea. I participated in a few studies while in college, but they only earned me about $20 a pop for about a half an hour of time. I never really thought of doing it on a more regular basis. For someone who is flexible during the day and likes to learn about new stuff then it seems like a great idea to make a little bit more cash.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 10:12 AM

      $20 for 30 minutes sounds good to me! I’m surprised that the pay rate was so high at your university – that definitely has not been my experience. What kinds of studies were they?

  7. Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce May 16, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    Are there any health risks for participating in more fMRIs than the average person?

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 10:18 AM

      Not that I was cautioned about and I doubt it – it’s not like X-rays. The only thing was that they didn’t know how magnetism would affect fetuses (there wasn’t any particular reason for thinking there would be a problem, just no data) so that’s why they tested for pregnancy every time.

  8. Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries May 16, 2013 at 12:22 PM

    Cool! I would have been perfectly ok with a little more invasive studies back when I was going to college, the extra money would have been wonderful! However, now that I’m older and a little more financially stable I don’t think I’d be as willing to participate in those either.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 1:02 PM

      It wasn’t for me then and it’s not for me now! After have a non-university-based job I probably won’t participate in any more studies because it’s won’t be as convenient – unless the pay is reeeeeeeeally high.

  9. Shafi May 16, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    Thanks for sharing your story, Emily. I’ll think about applying for that kind of research myself.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 3:25 PM

      Do you work at a university/research institute or do you have a flexible work schedule?

  10. Debt Blag May 16, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    Yes, I did a couple. Totally made sense while I was a student as I’d be on campus anyway.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 3:25 PM

      Did you have a good time doing the studies or was it drudgery?

  11. Retire By 40 May 16, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    free food, and were paid $1,000!!! That’s pretty awesome.
    I wouldn’t mind participating if I have more time. The kid probably won’t sit still while I’m in the MRI machine though.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 9:32 PM

      Yeah I don’t think the researchers would appreciate having to babysit for 2 hours! And there’s not much you could do to intervene in his behavior.

  12. kathleen May 16, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    I love it — I’ve done something similar (and far more controversial!) in the past. Now I only do things like taste tests.

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 16, 2013 at 9:33 PM

      Do tell! And how do you land a taste testing gig?

  13. Charlie May 17, 2013 at 3:51 PM

    Did this in grad school to pay for a flight at Christmas to a convention I wanted to attend. Not bad, but they once jabbed a nerve in my calf, and I can still feel it sometimes… twitch, twitch!!

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 17, 2013 at 8:47 PM

      Woah, are you serious? What was the jabbing for? I hope it doesn’t bother you much!

    2. J. Money May 20, 2013 at 10:44 PM

      freakly!!! haha….

  14. Charlie May 17, 2013 at 3:51 PM

    Oh, and I should add that this was 25 years ago!

  15. Leslie May 17, 2013 at 4:48 PM

    I work in a research lab, and do studies whenever I can (non-invasive). I would love to be paid $25 an hour for psychology studies! I don’t know where he lives, but here the going rate is $10/hour for most. The lab I’m in is slightly more involved and we do $16, but are by far the highest of everyone outside of medical trials. I use the money to pay for my lunches at work. :)

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 17, 2013 at 8:50 PM

      I think the difference is that the high pay rate was at a research institute that had a very small population of employees/trainees willing to participate in this sort of thing whereas a university has thousands of ready and willing undergrads and grad students. For $16/hour I would only participate if the study was fun! That’s great that you use the money to pay for lunches. :)

  16. thepotatohead May 17, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    In college my roommate used sell his body to science by donating his plasma. He did this for awhile until he was too run down and got pneumonia…eeek! I never wanted to do anything like that but participating in computer based studies sounds a lot more appealing!

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 18, 2013 at 9:35 AM

      Yikes! I’ve never donated plasma and I’m not interested in selling bits of my body – it is difficult to know all the down-the-line consequences. But yeah, clicking buttons on a laptop is pretty safe. :)

  17. J. Money May 20, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    Thanks again for guest posting for us, Emily :) And for all the responses back to people too!

  18. becbeq May 23, 2013 at 4:17 PM

    Interesting. I’m being screened for a medical study tomorrow that I hope I qualify for. No pay, reimbursement for travel, but what I’m reading shows a good chance of long term alleviation of depression symptoms. For that chance, I’m willing to part with 3 hours a day, 5x week for 4 weeks!

    1. Emily @ evolvingPF May 23, 2013 at 4:32 PM

      Wow, that is a big commitment! It makes sense though that you aren’t being compensated because you are (I hope) going to benefit from the experimental treatment. Best of luck to you in this endeavor!

  19. Deanna August 1, 2013 at 4:32 PM

    I’ve participated in a few studies. One was for weight loss, the other was a sleep study.

    The weight loss one had me on a liquid diet for 3 months. I had to report in once a week & buy the shakes they had me use. I couldn’t go the whole 3 months – I only made it for 2 months, because I was dying to chew on some real food. I did lose 30 lbs, though. A few months later, they sent me a check which basically reimbursed me for all the shakes I bought.

    The sleep study had me stay overnight 4 times for one night each, every two weeks. Each overnight stay I was hooked up with wires all over my scalp, face, and legs that connected to a monitor. I was also being observed via a camera while sleeping. I had to take some medication which was either a sleeping pill or a placebo, and was required to let them draw blood each morning. I was paid about $1200 for that. There were other people in the study center that were getting paid $2000 for their participation in a different study, but they were taking some kind of injections, which I wouldn’t do. My study was aimed at people with insomnia and sleep apnea.

  20. J. Money August 2, 2013 at 3:07 PM

    Nice! Why didn’t they pay you more for the weight loss one?? Cuz you lost weight and that was payment? (If so – LAME)

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