So You’re Volunteering For A Medical Study

I moved for my internship almost three months before my placement started, and initially I had planned to secure a summer job. The market in small-town Arkansas had other plans. I have been getting involved in the community and volunteering, which is incredibly rewarding on a personal level, but unfortunately my landlady doesn’t accept a sense of personal fulfillment as payment for rent. So when I saw a commercial offering $300 for participants in a medical trial, I signed on and got an appointment for a qualifying physical.

The thing no one tells you about that physical is that they plan on only half of the physicals showing up, so they end up with more people than they will accomodate. Fortunately I overestimated my tendency to get lost any time I go anywhere, and I arrived an hour early. Chatting with the people in line ahead of me (because apparently an hour early was still cutting it close), I learned this is pretty typical, especially with studies that pay several thousand dollars.

I also learned that we had to sit outside in the sun on sharp rocks until they were ready to take us. This organization does nothing other than conduct these studies, and their method is to encourage people to show up hours before the scheduled time, and yet they don’t allow participants inside until the scheduled time. I would think they would at least set up something to provide shade (especially since sunburn was an automatic rule-out for this particular study), and possibly some chairs. But they know we need the money badly enough to keep coming back no matter how we are treated, so they don’t seem in a hurry to change their system.

Anyway, I passed the physical and was accepted into the actual study. I was told to arrive between four and five AM for the actual study, because germs never sleep so apparently neither do I. I arrived at exactly 4:00 just in case there was another line. A group of us stood outside for forty-five minutes waiting to be let in. As it turns out, we could be disqualified and kicked out of the study without pay if we were late, but the people in charge aren’t held to the same standards. There were employees inside during the entire time we were waiting, people who saw us but avoided eye contact, who answered the phone when we finally called to ask what was going on, pretended to have a bad connection, and hung up. All the while we stood outside with the mosquitos (the trial involved the use of ointment, so we weren’t allowed to use bug spray). When we were finally let in, we were told “There’s been a scheduling issue.” No further explanation, no apology.

Then we were each assigned a number and told to answer to that number for the duration of the study (I asked and was told that we are easier to keep track of that way). We then proceeded to eat, sleep, and be medicated on a rotating schedule that didn’t allow for anything more than a series of 2 hour naps. We could have had longer stretches to sleep, but the study “required” that we be fed on a different schedule than the application of ointment, as well as the monitoring of our response after the cream had been removed, so we had to keep waking up. I asked why the schedule wasn’t more logical, and an employee said that the people running the study frankly don’t see the participants as human beings with biological needs but as blips of data on a computer screen. I had been awake for about twenty hours on three hours of sleep, so I responded that we’re all just blips of data on that great cosmic computer screen we call life.


As the study went on, I bonded with my fellow participants. We laughed together and over-shared personal stories. At some point we managed to get some sleep. For some reason we spent almost a solid 24 hours watching a Law & Order: SVU marathon. It was a nice excuse to mess around on my laptop for almost 2 full days and still feel productive – I was being paid for my time, after all.

Overall, if you can get past the dehumanization and can function with continuous interruptions to your sleep, it is an easy way to make money. The recliners they made us sleep in, all lined up with no privacy, were surprisingly comfortable. I think I will stick to studies lasting 2 days or less for the sake of my mental health. I did make some notes for next time, which I will share in case you are considering a similar venue for easy money. And it is seriously easy money, Including my first-time bonus, I made more than a month’s rent, and all I had to do was put ointment on my arms and watch TV for two days.

  1. Bring a pillow and blanket. They ran out of blankets, and some people were left without. Besides, the few they did have were gross.
  2. Bring socks. You do not want to walk around barefoot, and wearing sandals all the time gets uncomfortable.
  3. Get lots of sleep the night before. You never know what conditions you will be trying to sleep in, so assume you’ll be awake for most of the study.
  4. Make friends. The other participants are just as uncomfortable as you are, and being uncomfortable in solidarity is kind of fun.
  5. Wear sweatpants and a comfortable t-shirt. Seriously, this isn’t a pick-up scene. Comfort is your only priority.
  6. Shower as often as you can. For this particular study we weren’t allowed to bathe, and in these close quarters everyone around you will thank you to minimize your BO.
  7. Bring a power strip. I guarantee there will be more iPhones, laptops, and tablets than there are outlets. Everyone will thank you.
  8. Bring ear plugs and a sleep mask. Trust me.

I do think the pharmaceutical testing industry needs to seriously reconsider how it treats its participants. Without us, you wouldn’t be able to push medications through the FDA for general use. We would appreciate some consideration.