Claire Epstein (C’ 23) needed money.
She’d applied to several on–campus jobs before arriving at Penn, but never heard anything back from employers. A low–income student with a work-study grant as part of her financial aid package, Claire began to worry that she wouldn’t be able to support herself.
“I was trying to find any way on campus to make money,” she says.
Last November, she noticed a flyer in the bathroom advertising a medical study for depression treatments. The paper promised compensation for participation in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Intrigued and looking to make money, Claire pulled off a tag with the contact information. Two months later, she sat in the waiting room of a Penn Medicine office for an initial interview. The next day, she came back for her first scan.
Claire is one of many Penn students who turn to behavioral, psychological, or medical research studies as a form of additional income. One motivation for participation in these studies is the compensation, which reaches a level as great as $500 for full participation in trials like the one Claire joined. But for the studies that provide payment at a lower rate, like the Wharton Behavioral Laboratory (WBL), some students participate in part for the entertainment of the experiments or the feeling of contributing to institutional research.
With the much-needed income from these studies, though, comes pressure to participate in experiments that push students outside their comfort zone, or even cause adverse effects. Also, the high volumes of student data can skew how representative study results are for the general population, the prevalence of student participation risks introducing bias to research. This is especially true in behavioral or psychological studies, where the barriers for entry into a study tend to be lower.
The New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives website lists the WBL on the Earning Money Resources page as an income option for new students. Popular among students for its reputation as a quick and easy source of money, WBL studies pay a rate of ten dollars per hour of participation—a higher hourly rate than is offered by some of Penn’s on-campus jobs. The in–person studies also offer immediate compensation in cash and occasionally have opportunities for bonus prize money.
Before signing up for the medical study, Claire participated in WBL experiments, and she still does today.
“I wanted some source of income,” she says. “So I started doing as many Wharton Behavioral Labs as humanly possible.”
Sara Chopra (C ‘22) started going to the WBL as part of a marketing class assignment for her minor in consumer psychology. But even after the class ended, Sara continued participating in the studies.
“I realized it was a really easy, non–intrusive way to make money and to learn about marketing research,” she says.
But WBL Faculty Director Maurice Schweitzer doesn’t think students could fully support themselves on this form of income alone. Even though the pay rate is higher for the WBL than it may be for some of the jobs available to students, Schweitzer points out that the turnover for new study opportunities isn’t enough for students to spend a full 15 to 20 hours per week making money at the lab.
“The Wharton Behavioral Labs aren’t a substitute for a real job,” he says. “They’re simply not designed for that.”
Students like Phuong Vu (E ‘21) know that the WBL only offers a limited income. When she stayed on campus during the summer following her sophomore year, Phuong continued to participate in the WBL as she had during the school year. But with more time on her hands and a desire to make more money on the side, she also started looking into clinical trial participation, knowing medical studies tend to offer greater compensation.
She started filling out applications for studies that needed healthy volunteers, as well as ones that required their participants to have depression or anxiety. Since Phuong has been diagnosed with both, she says the treatment aspect of the studies for participants with depression was part of the appeal for her.
“To me, it was a win-win situation,” she says. “I liked the potential of getting treatment with the added financial benefit.”
Though Phuong admits she does her own background reading about clinical trials before choosing to sign up for them, she also says that most of the ones she’s seen offered by Penn aren’t serious enough to keep her from participating. Students like Max Grove (W ‘20), on the other hand, are more hesitant to participate in studies that are too invasive.
Max, who takes part in both behavioral studies and clinical trials, says that he was accepted to be a participant in a trial that required him to undergo an MRI scan. But after going through the scan, he decided studies like that weren’t for him.
“I didn’t like the way the tube made me feel claustrophobic, and I’ve never really understood the risks of MRIs either,” he says. Though most patients undergoing MRI scans incur little risk, those with metal implants or other attachments have to be careful of the strong magnetic field created during scans.
Unlike Phuong, Max says that he applies to clinical trials and other studies for both the research impact of those studies and the financial compensation from them. Once selected to participate in a clinical trial for a HIV medication, Max decided not to move forward in participation when he realized the trial was only testing for the drug’s safety instead of its treatment efficacy. Often, only early stage or preliminary clinical trials will test for safety, while more advanced stages test for whether or not a given treatment actually works and can soon be used by the public.
“There comes a point for me when the participation isn’t worth the risk,” he says. “I didn’t want to feel like a lab rat.”
Although students have both monetary and personal considerations, research studies on campus continue to attract a large volume of participants. Launched in 2005, the founders of the WBL initially predicted that the studies would yield approximately 5,000 to 14,000 participant hours of research data annually. But the lab’s 2016 annual report showed that the research volume reached over 24,000 participant hours, with an additional 280,000 surveys or experiments completed online.
Dr. Desmond Oathes, an assistant professor of psychiatry in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, is the principal investigator of a lab that conducts clinical studies involving MRI scans and TMS. Oathes says that he sees a lot of Penn students apply for studies that ask for healthy participants, which are often preliminary trials.
“We always have a very eager waitlist of Penn students for our healthy control groups,” says Oathes.
Oathes says he does his best to limit the amount of Penn students he allows to participate in his clinical studies because he doesn’t want to skew the results towards a certain population. Especially for his lab’s healthy control studies, Oathes says he and his fellow researchers try to establish a cutoff percentage for students.
“We might choose to limit the amount of Penn students as participants to about 30 percent for a healthy study,” he says. “We want to prioritize people from the community beyond Penn that are more diverse...We often try to think about how the patients in our studies might be different from the typical patient.”
According to Dr. Oathes, because participants self–select themselves for clinical studies by applying to them, they might already be seeking help for depression, for example. The conclusions drawn from these studies cannot necessarily be applied to the general population, as the sample was comprised of people actively seeking treatment through a clinical trial.
Preventing and addressing selection bias is important to Oathes’ lab, but similar measures aren’t taken at the WBL, where an overwhelming percentage of the participant pool is Penn students. This is a common critique of behavioral research, especially research conducted on college campuses: the results are only reflective of a population that is typically Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, referred to by the acronym W.E.I.R.D.
Even though WBL studies that take place on campus attract Penn students more than Penn staff, faculty, or local community members, Schweitzer says that the lab collects research from broader populations through their online surveys. Using these results allows the researchers behind WBL to consider how Penn undergrads compare to the United States population at large, at least in terms of their decision-making patterns.
Schweitzer says there are obvious discrepancies in how quickly Penn students can complete a complicated math puzzle or comprehend long instructions for a writing task, as most would expect a college–educated participant to perform better on these experiments than a non–college–educated one.
“But when it comes to a lot of common decision–making patterns, the greater population and Penn students both seem to operate in the same way,” he says. “There are some very classic features of our memory and perception systems that have let us see a cooperation between data from Penn students, general samples, and even robots.”
While the overall data collected by the WBL and similar university-operated behavioral research centers might fall into the category of W.E.I.R.D., some researchers argue that low–income populations might be more motivated to participate in studies with a monetary reward, especially for high–paying clinical studies. The WBL doesn’t collect income data from their participants, and Schweitzer also acknowledges that how students may choose to spend or save their compensation afterwards is almost impossible to track.
Though he notices slight upticks in the self–reported participant satisfaction rates with the receipt of bonus prize money, Schweitzer feels that compensation isn’t the only reason the WBL is so popular on campus. He notes that researchers frequently notice high levels of participant engagement with the studies.
“For open responses, we see long answers,” he says. “We see people engaging in complicated strategies that reflect careful thinking. We see people getting math problems right that are very hard.”
Sarah Le (N ‘22) says her motivations for doing studies went beyond getting a paycheck. Although the WBL and other psychological studies were once her main form of income, she also signed up so frequently because she found them entertaining.
“I did want to help researchers with my participation,” she says. “And sometimes the studies can be really funny.”
Max considers his contributions to research as a motivation to participate. Currently engaged in an HIV clinical study operated by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Max chose to move forward with this study over his former HIV one because his participation now focused more on public awareness of HIV testing resources as opposed to testing the safety of a new medication.
“Knowing that my participation can have an impact in research that I care about is fun,” he says.
Sara also says that contributing to research is part of the reason she still participates in WBL studies, even though she’s no longer in a marketing class that requires it.
“If you care at all about consumer psychology or market research, it’s fun to answer questions about why different types of advertisements are attractive to you,” she says. “I think that’s really exciting.”
Oathes says he often gets participants in his clinical trials that seem to share this motivation and interest in contributing to research. Even though money might be the primary driver for some participants, Oathes thinks that a lot of people are simply curious about science.
“We’ve definitely had people who tell us, ‘You don’t need to pay me, I just like contributing to science,’” he says, chuckling. “Of course, we’re actually not allowed to not pay people.”
But while some students might participate in studies out of scientific curiosity, money remains the primary motivation for others.
“I definitely wouldn’t participate if I weren’t being compensated, especially for studies involving MRI scans or TMS,” says Claire.
While Phuong and Claire are more interested in pursuing a wide range of studies offering payment than students like Max or Sara might be, they both still stress the importance of students needing to personally evaluate whether or not a given study is right for them.
“I’m very open to new experiences and studies,” says Phuong. “But that doesn’t mean everyone will be.”