My Flexible Student Side Hustle: 4 Things To Keep In Mind Before Participating In Research Studies

In my hometown of Toronto, summers are short. That means that all of our fun summertime, outdoor events get squished together into about three months before we all need to search the back of our closets for our winter coats.

Since all the cool food festivals, summer barbecues, picnics, and pool parties — not to mention weddings — happen in such a short period, my social calendar is much busier now than other times of the year…and my wallet feels it. Every year, I try to save up for all the fun summer activities I want to do, but I always inevitably go over budget. Not by a lot, but enough to know my budget wasn’t being followed for those three warm months of the year.

I decided I needed to make just a bit more money. But as any science graduate student will tell you, a graduate program is a full-time job and then some. And since my experiments often are unpredictable, requiring evening and weekend work, I haven’t felt like I could realistically hold a traditional part-time job where I’d need to have consistent availability.

Finding a flexible side hustle

So, when a friend of mine told me that he sometimes made a small bit of extra money participating as a research subject, it seemed like it would perfectly fit what I was looking for. You may have already been a research subject yourself if you took an intro psych course at college. It’s common for those courses to offer extra credit if you volunteer as a subject for some of the psych studies. What I didn’t realize at the time is there are lots of these studies that offer cash instead of credit. Of course, you must be located near an institution that runs research, and it’s not going to make you rich. But it’s a decent option if, like me, you have an unpredictable schedule and are looking to add about 1-2 extra outings a month.

I have found it to be a positive experience so far. The most I’ve made is $80 in a month, which admittedly isn’t much, but it’s still $80 I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I give myself 75% of what I make to add to my discretionary food/entertainment budget (hello, poutine fest!) and save the other 25%.  I also make sure to only pick studies that are interesting to me, so it hasn’t really felt like work, just a short break from my otherwise busy schedule. I’ve gotten to test my lung function, see my heart beat on an ultrasound, and even track my emotions throughout the day, which had a nice side-benefit of being helpful for my mindfulness practice.

While I’ve had a positive experience with it, I’ve definitely benefited from having worked in this field myself. There are some things you’ll want to keep in mind if you are interested in making a little extra cash this way.

1. Know what you are signing up for and what you are willing to do.

This is the most important thing to keep in mind if you want to be a research subject. Research studies can take many different forms. Most studies I do are psychology surveys that take 30-60 minutes, but there can be huge variation in what participants are asked to do. Typically, the more invasive or demanding the study, the more they will pay, but you have to balance that incentive with what you are comfortable doing. For example, as a young woman who hasn’t quite made up my mind about kids, I’m not willing to do any imaging that involves radiation like CT scans or X-rays, especially around my abdomen. However, I did decide I was comfortable with other imaging techniques, like ultrasound or MRI.

Other studies have involved me showing parts of my body like my stomach to attach equipment, which I was fine with, but others may not be. My point here is: know before you go. I always reach out by email first and ask to be sent a copy of the consent form. This way, I can take my time reading it over and know exactly what is expected of me. This prevents me from having only a few minutes to read a five-page document and make my decision. Instead, I show up already knowing what’s in that document and use that time to ask any questions I have.

2. Know your rights as a participant.

Ideally, everything will go great during the study, and everything will be above board. But always be on the lookout for bad practices. You should never feel pressured to sign up for a study or asked to do any part of it before you have signed the consent form. You also have the right to leave at any time. If you don’t feel things are done properly, you can and should report it. There should be information about the ethics board that approved the study on the consent form, which you must be given a copy of if you ask for it. Know your rights and stand up for yourself if you need to.

3. This isn’t a job and doesn’t follow regular job rules.

This can be a good and bad thing. Usually, you are paid in what is known as an honorarium, which is considered a thank-you gift rather than payment. This means that the amount you get can vary, sometimes to below the minimum wage. At my university, I’ve found most studies offer about $10/hour for a survey-based study, but medical-based ones often offer more. Some others will offer gift cards to places like Amazon or Starbucks. There can also be side benefits of learning more about either your health or just learning about a topic you find interesting. It will be up to you to decide what you are wanting to get from them and filter accordingly.

Since these studies aren’t jobs, they also can be a bit hard to find organically. I usually go through the biggest campus buildings and check for new fliers every few weeks, but you can also search department websites and see if they have a place where they post studies that need volunteers.

4. Don’t lie to fit the criteria.

As a researcher myself, I cannot stress enough how important this is. Research criteria is chosen for a reason, and I admit it does suck that I can’t do many well-paying studies just because I’m left-handed (real reason). But don’t lie to participate. These studies you are participating in can be used to inform medical policy and have long-reaching impacts. Take it seriously, and be honest both at recruitment and on any surveys you are asked to do. You don’t know how important it could end up being.

Lin Woo is a grad student based in Toronto. She loves dogs, cooking and over-planning her trips.

Image via Unsplash

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