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.

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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.

So You’ve Decided To Work For Yourself

As I have said before, graduate school is both expensive and time-consuming. You will most likely need at least one job, and you will definitely need flexibility. I have worked many jobs as a graduate student, and by far my favorite has involved working for myself as a nanny/housekeeper/pet sitter.

During my first year of graduate school, I created a profile on Care.com, a web site where families can post their care needs, and caregivers can apply for jobs. There are several other web sites that offer similar services, but I have enjoyed the services of Care.com. Over the years I have branded my profile to showcase my strengths as a caregiver and developed a sizable caseload of families who rely on me. As a caregiver, I am free to update my availability based on the demands of my program and any other things in my life. For example, one family asked me to work this Sunday afternoon, and I had the freedom to refuse because I had other plans. No “regular” job would let me do that, and it is much easier to take care of myself when I have this flexibility. Also, once you build up enough of a following, you do not have to worry that giving up a few shifts will leave you short on rent money at the end of the month.

Of course, this line of work is not without its drawbacks. Any time I meet someone through the web site, I take safety precautions. When possible I bring a buddy to the interview, or at least have several people who know the address and time of the meeting. You never know who you will meet online, but when working for yourself you do have the added freedom of turning down any jobs you do not find desirable without worrying about backlash from an employer. I once interviewed for a position as a housekeeper where the home owner told me that he was a nudist and wanted a “like-minded” housekeeper (AKA wanted me to clean while naked). I left.

I also have the right to set my own rates for the various jobs that I do, but the responsibility of advocating for myself, since there is no one to do it for me. I have had to let more than one position go because a family refused to compensate me at the agreed-upon rate. I had a parent “round down” and pay me for three hours when I had been there for three hours and forty-five minutes. This same parent could not understand why I was unwilling to skip class to pick the children up from school. My personal favorite was when a parent of a special needs child offered me half of what I normally charge, even though I clearly post my rates on my profile. The parents told me that other “qualified sitters” had agreed to the lower rate. I simply asked them, “How many of those sitters have a masters in psychology and extensive experience with children with similar needs to your child?” The answer was none. Sometimes it pays to be over-qualified.

I have been lucky enough to find a few very nice families within walking distance of my apartment. After working these gigs for a few years, I have gotten skilled at identifying which families are going to appreciate my work and respect me as a person. The flexibility is perfect for a grad student, and the income certainly helps with unanticipated expenses. A nannying job with a special needs teenager paid for the repairs on my car after I was involved in an accident two years ago. Walking dogs paid for my internship applications. In today’s job market, and with the inflexibility of many employers, this is a fantastic way to fund your graduate education without sacrificing your schoolwork.

Once again, if there are any topics my followers would like to read about, please let me know in the comments.

So You’ve Decided To Get A Job

It took about 30 seconds after I got accepted into my graduate program for my excitement to turn into panicked thoughts of “How the **** am I going to pay for this?” Obviously I did not think this through as well as I could have – see my post “So You’ve Decided To Take Out Student Loans.” I realized almost immediately that, even with taking out the maximum I was allowed in loans, I had about a $7,000 gap between my budget and my expenses. Higher education is a luxury in the United States, and luxuries require an income. So I decided to get a job. I have had many jobs as a graduate student, and so today I will focus on the employment I used to survive my first year.

Whenever possible, if you are taking time away from the 10,000 things you are supposed to be doing as a graduate student, you want that time to be worthwhile. In a perfect world, you will receive an outpouring of highly paid, flexible clinical jobs that work around your class schedule and make nice lines on your CV. If you pulled off this feat, please contact me so that you can write a guest post, because you clearly are better at this grad school thing than I am.

Back to my reality. Shortly after receiving my acceptance and deposit, my program was kind enough to send me a packet that was over 30 pages of clinical positions in the Hartford area. I spent two weeks calling and emailing every clinic, hospital, and research facility they had sent me. Approximately 75% of the sites never got back to me. The other 25% were either confused as to why I thought they were hiring, not interested in someone who had no Masters degree and no prior field-related work experience, or gave me the age-old brush off of “We’ll keep your CV on file and get back to you if something opens up.” I prepared for my move with no idea if I would be able to afford more than the first semester.

About two weeks after the semester started, I gave up my search for a clinical job. The only lead that would take me seriously was a volunteer position that actually required me to pay them for the training involved. It would have been great for my resume but horrible for my checking account. (If you can afford to volunteer in your field in order to build up enough experience for a paid position, be my guest, but like graduate school, volunteer work is a luxury.) As an undergraduate, I spent two years working as an usher for my school’s theater department to help curb expenses, so I contacted a local theater and was hired almost immediately. It wasn’t a psychology job, but my rent checks cleared. I loved my co-workers, and the benefits were pretty fantastic for a part-time job (free theater tickets plus admission to donor galas with free food and an open bar), and I got to meet Kate Mulgrew, but we were often short-staffed, so I kept being scheduled almost double what I had committed to. I also had to pay for parking in the garage every time I had a shift, and about once per week I was given a short shift where most of my income went into the gas to getting there and the parking, so I came home with almost nothing. Meanwhile, the over-scheduling was making it difficult to complete my school work. I had been assigned a group project, and I could not find time to meet with my classmates. That is the Catch-22 of higher education: Unless you are independently wealthy, you have to work so much to pay for everything that you do not have time to fulfill your student responsibilities.

Shortly after midterms, an opportunity fell into my lap. My school has an on-campus help center for students who are struggling with college, whether academically or personally. An email went around to my classmates indicating that they were looking for graduate students to work part-time as tutors to help students who were failing classes. At first my plan was to tutor on top of my theater job because, by definition, doctoral students do not know how to stop taking on commitments when they become overwhelmed. But after the interview, the head of the center called me with an amazing offer: They did not want me to be a tutor. They wanted me to run their tutoring program. My job was to sort through referrals from professors about students who were struggling, meet with those students individually, and set them up with tutors as appropriate. The pay was higher than my current job, I was allowed to make my own hours, and I could walk to work from my classes or park for free. Although not technically a clinical job, I have had a training director at an internship site tell me that this experience is invaluable to some of my clinical interests.

The point I am trying to make is, when you’re looking for work in graduate school, be flexible and willing to take a job outside of your field. When you have zero work experience you are not given the benefit of being picky. At the same time, though, do not settle for a job that inhibits your success. Persistence pays off – keep applying, and eventually something field-related will pop up and make your life immeasurably easier! I do miss the galas, though, and Ms. Mulgrew is delightful.

So You’ve Decided To Take Out Student Loans

Financing higher education is a realistic possibility in the United States, provided that you are willing to spend the rest of your life pinching pennies to make minimum payments on your debt for the rest of your life. I wish someone had sat me down and explained that I would end up taking out more loans than a lot of people take out on their first homes, and exactly what that meant for my future post-graduation. At the start of this school year, I received an email from the federal loan program that contained both my full balance and the daily interest accrual (yes daily, not monthly or yearly – I am in enough debt to be accruing significant DAILY interest) of my student loans. I did not ask them to send me this information. They just sent it to me, unsolicited, because they are not allowed to bill me until I graduate and they were hoping to guilt me into opting to pay early. I had to resist the urge to reply and tell them that, if I had any money to pay back my loans, I would not have taken them out in the first place.

It is unbelievably stressful to think about. I am having anxiety typing this post. My partner is banned from asking me about my loans, even though it has been established that we will be working to pay down the debt together. My family describes me as financially responsible because I have paid my credit card bill in full ever month since I was 18, but how responsible can I be when my student loans might prevent me from ever owning a home?

So, just like the federal government presented me with unsolicited information about my debt balance, I present you with my unsolicited advice for financing your graduate education. It is too late for me – I found out that, if I only make minimum payments on my debt, I will not even pay the interest, and I will end up owing more and more until I default on an amount larger than what I borrowed in the first place.

So you’ve been accepted into graduate school. Maybe you have even been accepted into more than one program. Maybe one of those programs is funded and this does not apply to you. If so congratulations! If not, read on.

Before making any final decisions, take some time to examine your school’s estimated cost of attendance. Keep in mind that they are probably lying about your living expenses. (My undergrad published statistics stating that you only needed $75-$100 per month on spending money!) Research the area and get a realistic idea of what it will cost you to attend. Find out what your programs offer in financial aid. Sadly, PsyD programs tend to offer little to no assistance. Grad school expenses also not only include tuition and books, but rent, groceries, and transportation – it is difficult to work a full time job while attending school, and so your loans will probably have to cover at least part of your living expenses. So how much will graduate school actually cost you? Once you have that information, look into how much you can realistically work as a student. For my program, there was more availability for side jobs during the first year than the second and third, and so it was possible to save a little bit then.

Once you have all of this information, you can determine how much debt you will have to accrue. (Don’t forget to account for interest!) Please do not make my mistake and think that your journey ends here – look into how you can pay down that debt. It is a lot of work, but it is the only way to make an educated decision about whether or not a graduate program is the right financial decision for you right now.

I know, I know, it is maddening – all of this to go into a career dedicated to helping people! Despite the financial burden, I would not change my decision to get my doctorate. I do sometimes think about whether I should have more carefully considered funded programs. If you find something you love doing, something you are truly passionate about, you will find a way to pay for it. I have heard the expression “Do what you love, and the money will come,” and I have to disagree, unless you happen to love the stock market or inventing Facebook.

When it comes to my career path, my belief is, “Do what you love, and you will find a way to pay for it.” Maybe I will not have the means to buy a new car every few years, and maybe I will have to get creative about my repayment options. For now, I resist the urge to online shop and eat a lot of Ramen. I hope it will be worth it.