How To Side Hustle as a Lab Rat for Science

And make some sweet, sweet cash.


NASA once paid $18,000 to people who agreed to do nothing but lie in bed for 70 days. It sounds like a dream job, until you start to contemplate the bleak reality of not being able to move for months on end.

But the fact remains that scientific progress depends in great part on the willingness of humans to volunteer their time and their bodies to be experimented upon. The most compelling aspect? You can get paid for it, too.

People suffering from a certain disease might be eager to participate in research related to that condition, either to help themselves or contribute to research that might help others. But there’s lots of research that requires healthy volunteers, too.

Anyone can do it, but matching with the right study is easier said than done.

The Dabbler

If the idea of volunteering for science piques your curiosity, or you just want to learn more about it, you might start with ResearchMatch. “Our vision is to be a successful education and research platform that matches people interested in research with investigators,” program manager Loretta Byrne tells Inverse. “ResearchMatch is a place where people can voluntarily come on and basically raise their hand and say, ‘I’m interested in hearing more.’”

The service focuses on research in health and medicine, but the types of studies offered range from simple online surveys to intensive clinical trials. All you have to do is fill out a simple profile, then wait for researchers to come to you. Only researchers with affiliated non-profit institutions can use the service, and their studies must have been approved by an ethics review board. If they’re interested in you, you’ll get an email from ResearchMatch with information about the study. If you’re interested back, you’ll be connected with the researcher.

Just as the study types vary, so will the compensation. You’ll typically get that information in that first email. There’s no obligation to take part in any study, and you can back out at any time.

The Armchair Lab Rat

If completing surveys is something you enjoy, it’s possible to make a little side cash filling them out while you contribute to science. Lots of psychology and social science research depends on people filling out forms, and the bulk of that work can now be done from the comfort of your home, thanks to the wonders of the internet.

Not all research surveys pay, though. Some offer only gratitude; others offer some sort of prize draw. Freshmen psychology students often earn extra credit by volunteering themselves for these sorts of low-risk studies.

It is possible to make money, though. One option to consider is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an increasingly popular tool among social science researchers. One advantage of using this platform over others is the guarantee each survey will come with payment, though typically it is quite low (as low as a penny, and rarely more than a few dollars). You might think that a system designed to get people to quickly perform tasks in order to make money would make for pretty sketchy data, but preliminary efforts have shown that MTurk users give generally equivalent results to participants found using other recruitment tools. You might make $5 an hour as a dedicated turker, though if you’re only interested in certain kinds of surveys or studies, this might amount to less.

There are lots of other options for participating in online research studies. Many are affiliated with individual universities or departments. Unfortunately, there’s no single clearinghouse that works to connect people who want to get paid to be online research subjects with people who need them, so you might just have to Google around until you find something that works for you.

The Local Hero

Leveling up your research subject game is going to require actually leaving the house. If you live near a research university or medical school, that’s where you want to start. Some clever Googling can get you connected with a psychology department or medical research institute, which often have websites showing studies that are recruiting volunteers. Also check the classifieds in the local newspaper or alt weekly, as well as whatever online classified website is most popular in your area. Search terms like “research study,” “volunteer,” and “recruiting.”

As always, pay will vary quite a bit with time and effort put in. Most studies where you physically have to show up will offer at least a prize draw, but often maybe $5-10 an hour for your time. More involved studies will pay better. The more times you have to come in, the more you will be compensated. Any invasive medical procedures will up the ante, too.

If your local research hospital has a sleep lab, you might be in luck. Sleep studies pay well — often $300 or more per night. You have to be prepared to give up normal life for days or weeks, and often some sort of induced sleep deprivation is involved. But if you don’t mind giving up the comfort of your own bed for 24/7 scrutiny, you could do worse than getting paid to sleep.

The Professional Volunteer

It is very much possible to be a career lab rat. Those who get serious about it tend to gravitate towards Phase 1 clinical trials — the first experiments with a new drug in humans. These studies require healthy people so that dosages can be worked out and side effects can be evaluated. Because the volunteers don’t suffer from the thing the drug is supposed to treat, they have little to gain health-wise from participation. And because the effects of these drugs must be closely monitored, Phase 1 trials typically require volunteers to live inside clinics for days or weeks.

At minimum, these sorts of studies require you to be okay with having blood taken, and often. Some studies require even more invasive and uncomfortable procedures, like for example a spinal tap or a bronchoscopy.

But you’ll be paid for your trouble — typically about $200-$250 per overnight stay in the clinic. Paul Clough is a professional clinical trial volunteer who runs a website for others like him called Just Another Lab Rat. He contends that, if you’re really on your game, you can make $18,000 to $28,000 a year doing trials.

Most don’t come close to that, says Jill Fisher, a researcher with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied clinical trial participants for a decade. “Even if they think they can, or want to, it’s pretty rare for them to actually do that,” she tells Inverse. She recently wrapped up data collection on a study that followed about 200 healthy clinical trial volunteers for three years.

“Generally speaking, they are people who do need extra money for whatever reason, and they have decided that clinical trials are a good way to do that,” says Fisher. But they get other benefits, too. Many say that volunteering keeps them healthy — because you have to meet certain health criteria to qualify for these studies, participants have an incentive to watch their weight, eat well, avoid smoking, and so on.

Some also enjoy the freedom of not being tied to a desk job, of having free time and money to spend when it’s over. And some enjoy the nature of the work itself. “They’ll sometimes talk about being in studies as kind of a vacation,” says Fisher. “They don’t have to do anything, they don’t have to cook or clean, take care of the kids. They can just catch up on a TV show or what have you.”

Any clinical trial carries risks, though serious adverse effects are fortunately rare, Fisher says. Just Another Lab Rat offers a wealth of information for people interested in clinical trials, including evaluations of different clinics from the participants’ perspective — and some have better reputations than others. The site also lists clinical trials currently recruiting, and has a message board for sharing information and even for arranging carpools.

There is no clinical research get-rich-quick scheme. But there are innumerable ways to offer yourself as a volunteer for the advancement of science while pulling in a bit of side cash. Your contribution just might one day save someone’s life.

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