I Paid the Bills by Participating in Medical Studies

Last year was my first full year attempting to be a freelance music journalist. At the end of the year, a local writer friend asked me to come to an undergraduate class she was teaching on “freelance journalism” to talk to the students about my first year in the game. I was honest with them about my dismal year. Most of them looked sad and defeated. I told them about how, in order to survive, I turned to medical research studies to make money on the side.

They laughed.

I said, “No, seriously guys, don’t laugh.” I told them I had the number to the research center saved in my cell phone, and that if any of them wanted it, I was happy to share my contact. After class, one young, aspiring freelance journalist approached me for the number. If he decides to pursue this ridiculous career, he’s definitely going to need it.

There are some lucky bastards who discover a way to make freelance writing work, but my first year was a financial nightmare. It was certainly the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life. Even worse than that one time I started a doctoral program in continental philosophy, and worse than that other time I busted a three-point-turn in my 1982 Toyota Corolla at a police roadblock in an attempt to outrun the cops (I was a troubled youth).

By the end of last year, I made closer to $15,000 than $20,000. I reviewed an album for one music website (that shall go unnamed), and many months later an envelope arrived containing a check for $3. After taxes, I brought home about $2.03 for that one. Score! Another music blog paid me $50 to write five posts each week. Major score! The majority of the things I wrote elsewhere paid somewhere between $15 and $50. I wrote a lot, and I didn’t see much of a reward. I spent many nights lying awake in bed – a bed that took up about ½ of the space in my air condition-less studio/office – sweating, panicking and scheming about how I was going to earn my next $2.03.

It was awful, but I survived. Not by selling words, though. I had to pick up other jobs. I was paid $50 (plus drinks!) to be a bouncer at a neighborhood bar during their Thursday bluegrass nights, and I landed a $10-an-hour part-time gig as a computer lab monitor at a nearby school. But the best supplemental “job” I found – because it paid the most and required the least – was doing medical research studies.

I’d done one before, the summer before I went to grad school, when I was paid $400 by a tobacco research company in Richmond, Virginia (the home of Phillip Morris) to sit in a lab for 8 hours Monday through Friday and, deprived of nicotine, take tests every 30 minutes to determine how badly I craved smoke. Not so badly, really. Truth is, it’s easy not to smoke, especially when you’re getting paid for it. But I never quit, which turned out to be a good thing, because I made almost $2,000 last year doing tobacco-related studies at a university in Philadelphia.

Many of them required me to simply smoke a few cigarettes and watch some short anti-smoking PSAs. Then they’d administer questionnaires to determine which parts of the PSAs were most effective. I’d walk out with $100 in my pocket, which was more than any editors were willing to pay me for my words. But the weirdest test I did required me to take a low-dose of an Alzheimer’s medication every day for one month so they could study how my memory and attention-level was impacted. Luckily, there were no strange side-effects, and I pulled in about $700 cash. Jackpot!

You can do the same in just about any town or city that has a research university. On Craigslist, under the “jobs” section, go to the “medical / health” or “ETC” categories, and there should be several opportunities. Some recent gigs I’ve seen: In New York, they’re looking for women with decreased sexual desire. In Baltimore, you can earn up to $600 for participating in a study investigating trust. UCLA’s looking for people who don’t smoke, and they’re offering $177 plus an Amazon gift card! And, as always, Philadelphia’s on the hunt for cigarette smokers.

Here’s a pro-tip for those pursuing tobacco research money: If, like me, you roll your own cigarettes, don’t tell them this during the screening process. They want people who smoke name brand cigarettes, so I always said I smoked Marlboros. Also, they normally want people who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day, so even if you only smoke five (or if you don’t normally smoke any!), pick a number, any number, greater than 10, and go for it! (Yes, I realize fibbing a little could throw off the findings, but when the belly growls—hopefully the scientists are looking at their data and accounting for outliers.)


Elliott Sharp is a writer living in West Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @elliottsharp. Photo: Shutterstock/Bork


18 Comments / Post A Comment

I overheard a really awkward phone conversation one of my roommates had with his mom when he was out of work about doing medical trials. The bit about how he was disqualified for the main/highest paying one for not being healthy enough makes it tough for me to ask for the three month’s back-utilities he owes me…

Focus groups! When I was a freelance film professional (the brokest years of my life by far), my major side hustle was doing focus groups. This may be a thing that only happens in New York and L.A. I signed up with a couple of agencies and would get called to participate every month or two. It was more like $150-$200 than $700, but it only takes an hour, which is great when you’re desperate. Technically, I think, the companies want people who have never done a focus group before, but many of the ones I went to were populated by the same people. One of the agencies I signed up with would even flat-out lie about your qualifications (age, income level) to make sure you qualified. Them: “Can I say you’re a 25-year-old Latina cat-owner?” Me: “Sure!” And I will freely admit that, unlike science, I never felt bad about scamming companies who were trying to figure out how best to sell people shit.

@mirror_father_mirror I have totally done this in NYC! I did a whole bunch of smartphone ones where I just showed up, told them which of the approximately 50 styles of phones I would like to buy, and also in which color, and then I got $50-$75! It is the best.

emilies (#956)

@mirror_father_mirror uh, can you give us the names of those agencies??

emilies (#956)

@emilies I forgot a ‘please’ in there. apologies.

@emilies In New York, I mostly used Advanced Focus: http://www.advancedfocus.com/html/register.htm. But probably if you google “focus groups” and your city, you might get something!

OhMarie (#299)

@mirror_father_mirror I’m on the other side of this for a living and you can do focus groups anywhere, though the demand varies. It’s pretty typical for companies to want one east coast, one central, and one western city, and to put a smaller city in the mix there somewhere–so, a typical trip might be Phoenix, St. Louis, and Philadelphia or Chicago, LA, and Baltimore.

Ads also show up on Craigslist sometimes, particularly for weird little subgroups. Be careful with the lying, though–I specialize in healthcare stuff and we can basically always tell and then you don’t get paid. Probably a lot easier if it’s chips or whatever.

@OhMarie Yeah, the focus groups I did were always for cell phones, or fashion magazines, or chewing gum packaging. And the lying would be to fit me in some demographic slot I guess the agency couldn’t find…usually fudging my age by a year or two, or my household income (by a lot, probably), or by describing me as someone who was much more consumerist-oriented than I was. I would feel weirder lying about something that I thought might actually someday affect someone.

katherinesuomi (#5,355)

I found out about the Kwitko clinic by using Google`s “focus groups” feature, I added my city and here it was, the clinic I searched for a long time. The tips about how to get to the tobacco research company studies are interesting, my non-smoker friend got busted when he applied for this, he smoked his first cigarette at the test.

As someone who works full time on two research studies, I beg you: do not lie to make yourself eligible!! Sure, we can screen your data out if it is an outlier, but that’s beside the point (and cuts into our statistical power). There is a reason we are doing these research studies, and that reason is NOT to give everyone easy money. If you are eligible, go for it, but please do not lie to us! You’re wasting our time and (very finite) resources.

phenylalanine (#717)

@Anne Smith@twitter Ahhh, same here! Look, honestly, one liar won’t fuck up an entire study (statistically speaking, although how on earth would you know if you were an outlier or not?? and if you’re not, we may never know you were a liar), but if every third person in a study is a liar than we’re all in big trouble. Please don’t encourage people to screw up science!

Also easy $$: being an extra on a movie set. $150 for a day’s work! Down here in NOLA these jobs are EVERYWHERE…

Megano! (#124)

@Anne Smith@twitter I want to do this, but does it require a lot of standing? Cuz I can’t do that.

I made $2500 one summer by volunteering for an asthma drug study. I was just out of college and desperate for grocery money.

The worst part was the day they had to induce an asthma attack to find out how much of the drug to administer. It sucked to be sitting in a dark room, struggling to breathe, and thinking “I can’t drop out now or else I won’t be able to pay my rent this month.”

Three years on, I still have scars on my arms from the 25 blood draws that the trial required. But I’m now awesome at taking pregnancy tests, so there’s that.

ThatJenn (#916)

I enjoyed being a part of the HPV vaccine study (a long one, over four or five years), and have done a lot of one-day studies. If you go to a local university and find indoor billboards you’ll probably find a few slips to tear off, especially in the medical or psychology buildings.

UF here in Gainesville actually started a big website to help people find clinical trials, which is pretty neat. Those are usually pretty intense, but occasionally there’s something where they’re looking for healthy volunteers.

The best medical study I ever did only paid like $40 total for four two-hour sessions, but on each of those visits I had a 50/50 chance of getting delicious pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines. It may not have paid much, but that study sure made my apartment cleaner than it’s ever been.

Don’t become a music journalist. That’s what I took away from this piece.

I’m a former music journalist. I wouldn’t recommend it, and not just for financial reasons.

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